This column goes against my instincts both as a former political scientist and someone who has worked a number of campaigns over the years. The council tonight is being asked to give authorization to proceed with citywide polling on a revenue measure. As much as it pains me to say this – I think they should decline to do the poll.
I want to be clear – I think the city desperately needs to do a revenue measure and I will explain that shortly. However, from what I can tell, a poll is not a good way to proceed.
Two examples of why I believe that:
Back in 2014, the city commissioned a poll. The numbers came out and showed that, while it was close, a parcel tax that required two-thirds vote would not pass. After a lengthy discussion, the council decided not to put even a reduced $50 parcel tax on the ballot in November 2014 and, as a result, the fiscal problems that revenue measure was supposed to address have only gotten worse.
The school district last year had a similar dilemma. Polling showed that a parcel tax at the $620 level would pass, but it was questionable, based on the polling that a $740 or $960 would not pass. While a clear case could be made that the district needed more than just a status-plus cost-of-living adjustment, the school board went with the risk averse approach and the measure passed with more than 70 percent support.
The problem is that now the teachers are pushing back on the district because of their relative low wages and benefits and the district, having not asked for more in the last round, will face the potential need for another parcel tax ballot measure.
In both cases it was not revenue need but the polling that drove the decisions made by the respective governing bodies for the city and school district. And, while a governing body needs to take into account the electability of a revenue measure, at some point difficult decisions are required. There are revenue needs for both bodies that were not addressed because they took the risk-averse approach, and as a result, we are now in the position where both bodies will likely need to ask for money in the near future.
The revenue needs for the city are extremely clear. The work of the Finance and Budget Commission along with consultant Bob Leland has demonstrated that the average annual shortfall in funding is about $7.8 million over the next 20 years.
While some believe that is a low number, the current reality is that, in the short term, the city needs a revenue measure combined with a strong cost containment approach from the city. In the longer term, the city should have the goal of economic development to expand its source of tax revenue from the private sector.
City Manager Dirk Brazil summarized the situation in his transmittal letter to the city council back in June: “We continue to see stability in our revenue streams, with notable growth in property
and sales tax,” he wrote. “Although revenue is currently stable, the City’s expenditure obligations continue to grow. CalPERS announced a change to its pension discount rate over the next three years, effectively increasing the city’s annual pension obligations going forward. While the city continues to fully fund Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB), also known as retiree medical, those costs will also continue to rise in coming years.”
He continued, “Outside studies show the city needs to commit up to $8.3 million annually toward transportation infrastructure to maintain a suitable pavement criteria index, compared to the $4.4 million proposed for the budget in 2017/18. Finally, the City is in various stages of negotiations with all employee bargaining units, creating some uncertainty related to the 2017/18 budget and beyond.”
Staff estimates that perhaps a $270 a year parcel tax, perhaps bumped up a notch or two, is a good starting place to address long-term revenue needs.
But what happens if the council polls the voters and finds that they are not willing to support such a parcel tax?
For example, the last time the city performed a poll of this sort was in June of 2014. The pollsters at that time asked 504 Davis residents a variety of questions to not only gauge satisfactions with city services, but gauge their level of interest in a hypothetical ballot measure.
At that time, “46.5% of the respondents said they would definitely or probably support a $149 parcel tax and 44.1% said they definitely or probably would not.”
Maintenance of bike paths, parks, roads and greenbelts were the actions that would make voters more likely to vote in favor of a measure. The activities that would make people less likely to vote in favor were construction of a new pool and developing a new sports complex.
But the polling also showed something else that was important to interpreting the results of the poll. Most people felt at the time that the city’s fiscal picture was fair or better. The polling results showed that most people did not have an appreciation for the precarious nature of the city’s budget or why it needed additional revenue.
In other words, the polling should have been a message to council that they should simply have embarked on an educational campaign to inform the citizens of the nature of the city’s finances.
In the last year and a half, the city discussion has become a lot more honest about the nature of its fiscal challenges than it was from 2014 to 2016 – when the message from city hall was that of a balanced budget with a healthy reserve, which ignored the deferred maintenance and unfunded liabilities that create the more realistic budget picture.
But here we are and it is already approaching late October, just a few months before council has to make a final decision on the budget and with the holidays coming up in between. Polling is simply going to deter the council from asking the voters for what they need.
The reality is that polling would help if it allowed the council to understand where to focus its message and how. But history has shown governing bodies are unwilling to take a chance and ask for what they need. Instead, they ask for what they believe they can get and then worry about the rest later.
As we have seen, that approach is problematic.
—David M. Greenwald reporting