by Robb Davis
Clarifying the Magnitude of the Challenges and Building Accountability
I attended the February 11 meeting of the Davis City Council at which the decision was made to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the June ballot. In the days since then I have had the opportunity to speak with a broad cross-section of our community and those conversations have confirmed several concerns I had going into the February 11 meeting, and coming out of it.
In addition to actually deciding if and what to place on upcoming ballots, I believe there were two critical “ends” that the City Council needed to achieve in that Tuesday night discussion. I would argue that they did not adequately achieve either.
Achieving Clarity on the Magnitude of our Fiscal Challenge
First, the Council needed to lay out, unambiguously, the scale of the fiscal challenges facing our city. Not only the facts about the projected fiscal imbalance in the general fund, but also the estimated needs to deal with all city infrastructure backlogs. I attempted to focus attention on the latter in my comments to the Council:
I understand that legal requirements related to when items must be submitted for ballot inclusion mandate an immediate focus on solutions, but I am concerned that we are considering those solutions without having a full accounting of the fiscal problems they appear to be only partially addressing. For example, I have followed the discussion of the road maintenance backlog over the past year and the solutions on offer tonight do not appear to clearly and systematically deal with that maintenance backlog problem.
Staff reports indicate that it would take a total expenditure of 213 million dollars over the next 20 years to maintain a PCI that is merely “acceptable” and at the end of that period we would still have a maintenance backlog of 132 million dollars.
And roads are just one area of maintenance backlog. What I have not seen is an accounting of other maintenance needs and backlogs related to city-owned buildings (including fire stations), parks and pools.
My concern is that with your decision tonight you may be sending a potentially confusing, mixed message to the community. The combination of sales and parcel tax increases will address the immediate problems we are facing, but it is only a partial solution.
I left the meeting concerned that the “end” of laying out the full magnitude of the problem had not been effectively achieved.
Building a Sense of Accountability Concerning the Use of Tax Revenues
Second, the Council needed to take actions to build a sense of accountability and transparency about how funds from tax revenues will be used. I believe they could have done this by laying out a clear accountability framework going forward. I suggested two separate actions.
- In relation to an eventual parcel tax to deal with maintenance backlogs I suggested that the Council instruct staff to return with an analysis of all maintenance backlog needs. I further suggested that they instruct staff to put into place a routine “reserve analysis” of all infrastructure needs that could be used each year to assess upcoming needs and plan for them.
- In relation to the sales tax, I recommended, among other ideas, that the Council utilize the existing Finance and Budget Commission as a kind of fiscal “watch dog” to produce annual scorecards on the use of increased revenues and present this analysis to the community. The point is not that this is the best or only means, but rather that there needs to be some attention focused on the “end” of greater accountability to the community so that we as citizens can be more confident that the Council is using the revenue prudently, to deal with the needs of the city.
Unfortunately, the Council failed to have a conversation about the “end” of achieving accountability and transparency and focused only on creating an advisory ballot item. When it became clear that a ballot advisory approach would not be an effective way to build accountability, rather than re-center the discussion on the end of achieving accountability, the Council merely moved on to craft the revenue measure.
I left the meeting concerned that while a decision was made to place a sales tax increase on the ballot, the two critical ends of increasing our understanding of the magnitude of our fiscal challenge and building accountability about how tax revenue funds are used were not achieved. I believe this was a missed opportunity and I would ask the Council to use the future regularly scheduled meeting to address them.
I greatly value the hard work of the present City Council and have been thankful for their willingness to wrestle with many critical issues over the past two years. I support the sales tax revenue measure (though I would have preferred a ¾ cent increase) even as I believe we can and should analyze further cost cutting options. I also believe we will need a second revenue initiative committed to road and other infrastructure repair. I would merely ask the Council to continue to strive to help the community understand the challenges before us and find ways to build accountability in the process.