The city of Davis suffers from two related problems. One is the problem of stats and one is the problem of paralysis. They are related to be sure, but the challenge for the mayor, and in fact the entirety of city staff and the mayor’s colleagues on council, is how to get past the problem of stats and implement a workable plan of action.
The problem of stats is one that is well understood but only in certain segments of the community. That represents a challenge in and of itself. The Vanguard readership is well aware of these problems. On the fiscal side, there are hundreds of millions, both in infrastructure shortfalls and unfunded liabilities. On the housing side, we have a shortage of student housing and workforce housing.
While the engaged public is well aware of these growing crises, the average citizen appears to be largely oblivious.
Our political leaderships suffers from a Catch-22 here. Assuming political agreement on these problems – which is itself questionable, without public awareness of the depths of the challenges, there can be no action.
Mayor Robb Davis can lay out these problems until he’s blue in the face tomorrow, but somehow he needs to get past articulating the problems and into the solutions. But the public is not going to be engaged on the solutions until they understand the problem.
In our view, the mayor has already made a powerful case for describing these problems.
On the unfunded liability front, as the mayor told the Vanguard in December, “The most updated analysis by the City-contracted actuary indicates that even if employee salaries do not grow at all over the next five years, our required pension contributions across all employee groups (police, fire and miscellaneous) will grow by over $4.8 million per year compared to today.”
He later added, “In fact, it is not clear to me at this point how we are going to cover everything over the next five years, given that we are not even covering critical infrastructure backlogs now.”
He concluded, “I believe we must discuss cost containment—broadly writ—and put a revenue measure before the population in the next two years.”
But to do that he has to convince his colleagues and the public that there is a crisis.
The council signed their name in an LRDP response letter to the university articulating the need for housing. The city wrote that it must “continue to pursue consideration of all infill and apartment housing proposals within the City (with emphasis on student oriented housing proposals within 2 miles of campus in order to facilitate ease of access).”
But if we simply stop with the articulation of problems, we cannot get to action. That becomes the tricky part, because even with an acceptance of the problem, there is no guarantee we will agree, let alone achieve a solution.
Here are some things that the city can do to address these problems:
- Cost Containment Strategy – the problem is going to keep getting worse unless the city figures out a way to contain increased costs. For the sake of simplicity we can talk in terms of three costs: (1) the cost of continuing to provide services, which is mostly a cost of labor and compensation for city employees; (2) the cost of providing current obligations for retirement benefits – pensions and retiree health care; (3) the cost of maintaining current levels of infrastructure.
- Revenue enhancement measures – these could include (1) increased fees for services; (2) hotels; (3) economic development; (4) increased retail supply; (5) revenue enhancement measures.
- Housing – (1) collaboration with the university to better provide student housing both on campus and on infill sites in the city; (2) redevelopment of existing sites with the prospect for increased numbers of units per acre – i.e. densification; (3) exploration of peripheral sites potentially suitable for housing.
The problem that we face is that all of these potential solutions include trade-offs. The city has attempted to contain costs in the past. This has led to pushback from employee groups, complaints about morale issues, and, last year, a council vote to slightly increase compensation for five employee groups.
The reality that we face is that, while we have dropped nearly one-quarter of our employees in the city, the costs over the last decade have continued to climb even as wages have largely been frozen.
We have attempted various revenue measures. The council has now approved two hotels, and is considering a third in January. However, one of the hotels – a hotel conference center counted on to generate additional demand – was locked into litigation and may not occur. A third hotel is the subject of pushback and opposition from its neighbors.
The city’s plan for innovation parks has stalled. The city council was able to pass a sales tax measure in June 2014, but has failed to put a revenue on the ballot in the fall of 2014, as well as either election in 2016.
Finally, while the city has pushed for more housing on campus, Nishi was narrowly rejected by the voters, and neighbors are strongly in opposition to other proposed housing projects.
Overall, the city suffers from paralysis, as we continue to see litigation measures used to stop further development.
The problems are easy enough to articulate. The action plan is what is needed.
What we need on Tuesday from the city leadership is a unified call to action. The first step is going to have to be a robust and intense educational campaign to the community. Back in 2014, as Steve Pinkerton was leaving the city, he engaged civic groups on the issue of the budget.
What we need is a sustained media campaign where the council articulates the current level of challenges to the public. The leadership needs to reach out to PTAs, service groups, non-profits, and even faith-based organizations to reach a far broader audience than the normal engaged members of the community.
The message should be simple, it should be fact-based, and it should be framed in terms of choices rather than ultimatums. Does the public really understand the depths of the problems? We need to articulate them.
More importantly, we need to do so in a series of choices. On the revenue front, it means that we have three basic choices – we can cut services, we can pass additional taxes, or we can grow our revenue base through economic development. Or we can do all three. While we have choices in the type of taxes, the services we cut, or the way we do the economic development – at the end of the day, each choice has strengths and painful decisions.
The key here is that we need a call to action and but, in order to act, we must inform and that is the biggest challenge ahead for our community.
—David M. Greenwald reporting