Boiling the Frog

frog-boiling-waterby Michael Bisch

“People don’t pay attention until cities talk about bankruptcy, but by then the frog has already been boiled to death.”

— David Crane, lecturer in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University *

According to David Crane, reduction of building, street and vehicle maintenance; elimination of arts and cultural programs; cuts in park maintenance; and closures are all indications of the social and cultural bankruptcy that comes long before financial bankruptcy.

All the while, the politicians aren’t setting aside sufficient funds to pay for the promises they’ve made to the public employees. Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m not here to argue that the city of Davis is destined for municipal bankruptcy, but it certainly isn’t taking sufficient action to avert it. It’s not even clear whether effectively meeting the fiscal emergency is the city’ top priority given everything else our leaders are pursuing.

Whether the city can walk, chew gum and balance a checkbook all at the same time remains to be seen.

There are two aspects to the city’s handling of the fiscal emergency that leave a lot to be desired:

  • Defining the full scope of the problem along with a full range of viable solutions.
  • Engaging in effective and sustained community outreach and input to ensure a robust and productive community discussion leading to an informed electorate.

The city is currently projecting an approximately $5 million structural deficit every year for as far as the eye can see. As shocking as this may be, the city is significantly understating the severity of the fiscal crisis.

The $5 million deficit projection is entirely arbitrary, virtually pulled out of thin air. The deficit projection reflects only $2.5 million per year to address the road and bicycle path maintenance backlog when the annual amount required to reduce the backlog is far, far greater.

Why the city has budgeted only $2.5 million in annual maintenance expenditure is a mystery. That figure results in worse roads and bike paths, not better, and a far greater backlog over time.

The voters deserve the right to vote on whether we have fully maintained roads and bike paths or ever-deteriorating roads and bike paths. Instead, the city is allowing us only the right to vote on the rate of decline. I, for one, would like to vote on a plan that actually fixes the problem.

Furthermore, the $5 million structural deficit does not account for the maintenance backlog for city-owned infrastructure apart from roads and bike paths. What’s the backlog for parks and recreational infrastructure, buildings, lights, street lights, parking lots, etc.? Nobody knows.

How can the voters cast informed votes if they don’t know the extent of the problem? It appears we are destined to vote on a never-ending series of Band-Aid tax measures amounting to a tax version of Chinese water torture.

Even if the city were being fully transparent regarding the extent of the fiscal emergency, and a full range of solutions to deal with it, how would the voters even know about the emergency? Expecting the voters to follow City Council deliberations or media reports does not cut it.

The city knows full well that many voters do not follow regularly follow these matters, i.e., they have “checked out.” Bemoaning the fact that many voters have checked out is not productive. What is productive is to engage in a cutting-edge community outreach and input effort suited to our age, intended to engage the voters. An extraordinary fiscal emergency requires an extraordinary community engagement effort.

Our community deserves to be fully informed, be allowed to weigh a full range of solutions, and to cast informed votes. None of this is currently the case. The voters are not children to be “guided” or “steered” by the city and the politicians in their desired direction. An immediate course correction is in order.

— Michael Bisch is a Davis resident and a commercial property broker.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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20 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    Michael

    I believe that you make some very strong points. I agree with each of the major points I have quoted below. What I do not have is any idea of how to implement these ideas. I have some questions on how you would achieve the recommendations that you have made.

    Let’s suppose that tomorrow, you are in charge of the city council and all of the staff. You have the same city income and expenditures that these folks have inherited with all of the same obligations that they have inherited.

    Given this situation how would you handle each of the following? Please be specific.

    “Defining the full scope of the problem along with a full range of viable solutions.”

    1. Which city staff do you assign to this task ? How how much time do you allot for them to achieve a full accounting ? Which of their current duties do you direct them to defer in order to meet your direction ?

    2. Given the current level of distrust of the city government’s ability to manage our financial problems, do you hire an outside firm to do the accounting ? How much money are you willing to spend to get this accounting whether done in internally or hired out ?

    “An extraordinary fiscal emergency requires an extraordinary community engagement effort.”

    1. Who would you assign to developing this outreach effort ? What duties do they defer or pass on to others in order to build this new outreach model ? How much money would you budget for this outreach? How do you address the inevitable claims that the city is wasting money on what is essentially PR while not addressing the city’s urgent financial needs ?

    2. If you would contract this function out, what kind of firm would you employ and how much would you consider paying them over what amount of time ?

    “I, for one, would like to vote on a plan that actually fixes the problem.”

    1. What would you put on the ballot that would actually fix the problem ?

    2. Given that different plans might “fix the problem” for different time frames, what time frame would you choose ? A plan that “fixes the problem” in five years ? ten ? 50 ? as each is likely to look very different. How do you build into your problem fixing plan enough reserve to deal with the inevitable changes in the broader financial picture of the state and country in the case of another major economic downturn ?

    1. DT Businessman

      Please be specific? Isn’t that the CM’s job, Tia? I’ll tell you what, I’m struggling with a nasty cold right now, but will try to rally later today. I can share this with you right now because it doesn’t require much thought. For EACH of the items you called out, I would start with stop digging the hole deeper.

      -Michael Bisch

      1. Tia Will

        DT

        First and foremost, please take care of yourself if you are not feeling well.
        I anticipate that a well thought out response would certainly not be forth coming today, but might take you considerably longer.

        I agree with your point about this being the job of the CM or his or her designee. So far, the individual that I think has made the most strides towards laying this out, at least in a manner, that the laywoman, ob/gyn is capable of understanding is Rob White. However, as you may have noticed, we no longer have a permanent CM. Therefore, since this was your article, I thought that you were the logical one to address my question to.

        1. Matt Williams

          Tia, after a long day of canvassing I will take a stab at your questions to Michael. Regarding which city staff, I don’t think this effort is a narrow undertaking that applies to specific/individual staff members. It really is a cultural change … and that cultural change isn’t limited to staff alone. It is a cultural change for us as citizens. It is a cultural change for our elected representatives. And it is a cultural change for the entirety of city staff.

          We have belabored here on the Vanguard the deferred maintenance and the extent of the deficit and the actions of past Councils and past City Managers, but looking backward isn’t going to affect the change. Establishing accountability at all levels is going to affect the change. Today at the very bottom of Rodin Place I was challenged by the very wise/engaged gentleman who answered my knock on the door. He wanted to know what I (as the proxy for my candidate) saw as the problem, what could be done about it. My answer was that we need to start from the bottom up and 1) understand both the cost and the value of what we (as the members of our community) have promised ourselves, and 2) determine whether our City is staffed in an optimal way to deliver those “core services” to our citizens and visitors.

          In the Davis Downtown candidates forum, Robb Davis called for a commitment to “zero-based budgeting.” If we undertake (by our community, our electeds and our City employees) the hard work that starting from the ground up will entail, we as a community will have a much better understanding of:

          — What we have promised ourselves,

          — What the value is to us of those promises,

          — What the cost is for delivering those promises to ourselves, and perhaps most importantly,

          — We will have a city staff that understands what is expected from them and how they are accountable for delivering on those expectations.

          Our current system/culture in Davis is heavilly top-down, and as a result many City employees wait for Zeus to thow lightning bolts from on high. They don’t “own” their deparments/services. They simply deliver those services based on the orders that come from above. We need to change that … and that change won’t come from staff alone. It has to come from the participation andbuy-in of the whole community.

          1. Tia Will

            Matt

            I can’t believe that after a day of canvassing, you still have the energy for
            a response. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Mr. Toad

    I thought they addressed the streetlight issue with a contract that pays for itself through conservation over the next few years.

    As for fixing the roads I expect you will have the chance to vote the funds to do that in November.

  3. Mark West

    A college friend of mine sent me this note after reading Michael’s post in the Enterprise yesterday. I couldn’t have said it any better so I will just reprint the comment.

    “I hadn’t seen a boiling frog reference in forever. It’s one of my favorite stories in business. So I read the article. This is a really well written piece about not just the problem in Davis, but, the problem in politics and business everywhere. How much needs to be set aside for maintenance (or infrastructure or services) and eventual upgrades is very often the very first thing that gets cut. As a result, quality slowly declines. In the case of a city, quality of life. There is no political gain to be the one who says “I’m going to hold the line at XX dollars so the decline continues. Mr. Bisch has a fiscal awareness and community engagement view that is truly unique. Get him to run for office. He would be awesome.”

  4. Frankly

    Very well done Michael! This should be required reading for every Davis voter.

    I think we might need to affix a shock collar to every Davis voter that develops a stronger jolt related to the size of the REAL budget deficit… not the one held aloft by fairies and lies… or ignored by those with a pollyannish view, or lacking understanding, of finance.

    I think we might need to change our state’s name from California to “Denial”.

  5. Tia Will

    Frankly and Mark West

    Given that you agree with him and that Michael is not feeling well today, how about each of you taking a crack at my questions ?

    1. Mark West

      On the whole I think your questions are unnecessary (I originally used a different descriptive term, but decided to moderate my response). Michael already answered the basic question when he stated that it is the responsibility of the City Manager. The rest are just examples of the micromanagement that is so common in this town.

      It really is a simple system. The City Council makes the priority, and the City Manager carries it out. Unfortunately, this City Council doesn’t know how to prioritize, and people like you apparently believe that specifying exactly how the City Manager is supposed to do his job is somehow going to help him accomplish it.

      The only question of import at his point is why hasn’t the City Council made determining the scope of this fiscal crisis their number one priority?

      1. Tia Will

        Mark West

        I think that those who are willing to criticize should be willing to state what they would suggest to replace that of which they disapprove. The answer, I don’t know is acceptable because at least it indicates that they task is maybe not as straight forward as might be implied by a piece such as this.

        The system may be simple, but the solutions clearly are not or the City Manager would simply have made it happen. Or one of you would have laid out a clear response instead of being dismissive.

        I think that the question that you pose is irrelevant. Why this did not happen is surely less important than that someone take it on and accomplish it. Or would you rather just stand around pointing fingers ?

        1. Mark West

          Tia:

          You miss the point entirely. The City Council was responsible for making this a priority. They failed. Because they are completely unable to prioritize their time and efforts, the City has squandered months and even years that could have been productively spent solving our problems. As you have already figured out, this was not a simple project (though the process should have been so). It could only be carried out if the Council had made it a priority and stopped filling the Staff’s plate with unimportant hogwash. You seem to like the hogwash, so you should take responsibility for being part of the problem.

        2. Mark West

          I remind you Tia, I was not elected to select the priorities, nor was I hired to carry them out. The specifics of how I would handle this process are completely immaterial and enumerating the steps would be a complete waste of time. Just as are your questions.

          1. Tia Will

            Mark West

            Prior to being chosen as a member of our department’s administrative team a few years ago, I noticed that when a member of our department had a complaint or criticism about how things were being done our department chair would ask “what would you recommend”. Sometimes this resulted in ideas that had already been tried and failed, sometimes it resulted in no response at all, and sometimes it resulted in a genuinely new and useful approach that had not been thought of, or implemented previously, but whose time had come.

            What I learned from this observation is that if I actually cared about the improvements I wanted in the department, I had best define the problem, articulate my desired solution, and have thought about the specific steps that I would take to achieve my goal. Only when ideas were articulated in this way did my ideas tend to get implemented.

            There was an upside and a downside to utilizing this approach. The upside :Some of my ideas were implemented. The downside: I am now a member of the administrative team.

            On the Vanguard, there tend to be two types of individuals who are particularly pointed in their judgements of our elected officials. The first group, epitomized for me by Rich Rifken, offer not only criticism, but their specific ideas for what would be a better approach. The second tend to be more inclined to criticize and point fingers, but are loath to offer specific solutions.

            I don’t see it as “missing the point” to prefer to consider specific ideas to improve performance rather that reiterations of what should have been done spoken in generalities.

      2. Matt Williams

        Mark, as you can see from my post above, I disagree with you. I believe we need much more fundamental change than what you are proposing. The reason is that there are too many potential “points of failure” in the current system/culture. We are much more likely to get our own local version of My Lai rather than the ideal outcome that you argue for.

        One thing that canvassing for Robb Davis has taught me is that our electoral process is like sausage. 7 out of 10 people I have talked to (and I’ve talked to a lot) really don’t know much about the issues that our community faces, much less where any of the five candidates stand on those issues. 7 out of 10 is probably way too generous.

        Accountability can’t only be top down. It needs to pervade the whole organization.

  6. Michelle Millet

    Our community deserves to be fully informed, be allowed to weigh a full range of solutions, and to cast informed votes.

    I agree. But no one listens to me, so I’m not sure why I’m bothering to type this….

  7. Tia Will

    Matt

    While thinking about your comments on the lack of awareness of the specifics of community problems amongst the public, an interaction at Farmer’s Market came to mind. I was talking with a group near Robb’s table when a gentleman brought up the topic of the 5th street revision which he referred to as a “boondoggle”. He stated that
    the whole street was going to be backed up and questioned how that was going to help bike safety. He clearly had no idea that studies have been done that suggest this is not the case, and from his tone, probably wouldn’t have cared. Based on a single fragment of information he had made up his mind unequivocally. As I noted on another thread, he had taken his tiny piece of information ( one lane each direction) , made it the totality of what he could see, and wove it into his pre existing idea of how incompetent city officials are.

    If one considered this as the prevailing approach of our citizens to our problems, it would be truly discouraging.
    However, we are also blessed with those who are genuinely open to considering all aspects of a problem, even if they have not previously considered the issue. And we are particularly fortunate to have candidates such as
    Robb who are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to consider the big picture before leaping to conclusions based on a fragment of information.

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