In 2010, when Choices for Healthy Aging, a group created by the Covell Village developers to lobby for senior housing, sponsored the first candidate’s forum, Jon Li, a candidate that year, called them out. As he said the next night, “Last night we had a forum that was supposed to be about seniors but it was run by Covell Village. So the answer to every question was Covell Village.”
The candidates’ forum on Wednesday, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee, kind of felt the same way. The moderator and Chamber Executive Director Kemble Pope repeatedly asked leading questions, interjected the Chamber’s views both in asking the questions and in responding to answers, and when he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he would ask leading follow-up questions.
The only difference between 2010 and now is that, while there was no Jon Li to push back on the audacity, candidates did hold their ground and at times correct the misinformation.
Early candidate forums offer an early look at the candidates. Incumbents have a tremendous advantage of knowing the issues and intricacies of council policy, while new challengers face a huge learning curve. This was at play as well during the nearly two-hour discussion of many key issues facing the community.
There were some notable missteps. For instance, Daniel Parrella, in responding to a question about his view of CBFR, answered, “That’s really my issue with CBFR is that CBFR takes usage from May to October and that dictates how much you pay for the entire year.” But one of his fixes, the need for “an appeal process where if you prove you use less than previous occupants, you can get a lower fixed rate” is actually something that is already in place to protect against the very problem he identified, the high turnover of renters in Davis.
John Munn was asked what specific items from the “current 2014-15 city budget do you believe should be adjusted to create more sound economic environment in our community?” Given that the 2014-15 budget has not been presented in detail yet, that might be a difficult question.
Nevertheless, Mr. Munn still has few in the way of specifics responding, “The problem with that question is asking before there’s a thorough budget analysis to identify what’s going to get cut and that is not the way I would approach the problem.” He stated that he would approach the problem by taking a hard look at where the revenues are coming from and where the spending is going. Revenues are not all the same and can’t be used for the same things. By doing so, we then would assemble a picture of where the monies are going to. “Once that picture is there, then we can talk about spending,” he said.
The problem is that while John Munn may not have examined the budget in this way, the city has been doing this for a number of years and has presented exactly the analysis he calls for in public documents.
When pressed by Mr. Pope to provide specific items, Mr. Munn cited pension and health care costs.
But as Robb Davis pointed out in his rebuttal, “It’s a difficult question to answer because we just recently completed negotiations with all the employee groups in the city. We know the major drivers of the fiscal imbalance have to do with pensions, they have to do with other post-employment benefits, they have to do with health care. We will not be opening those contracts up for another couple of years.”
Given the large percentage of costs associated with employee compensation, really the only way for the city to cut spending at this point in time is through layoffs and outsourcing. During a later round, John Munn was the only candidate willing to put that option clearly on the table, though later still, the candidates were more equivocal.
Almost every candidate was willing to jump in on the lead provided by Robb Davis, that “we cannot demonize our staff and make them the enemy.” Daniel Parrella, Rochelle Swanson and Sheila Allen all used their 30-second cards to argue for the non-demonization of employees.
Here the moderator never followed the lead to follow up on exactly what it meant to demonize employees or examples of such a practice. What is the difference between demonizing employees, and criticizing employee groups that have failed to take concessions and ultimately cost the city millions in additional costs that now will have to come from taxpayer money?
Unspoken, as well, were the actions by firefighters to fight city reform efforts at every turn, including cases where the union official was shown to be dishonest or where public reports were buried that showed favoritism and a hostile work environment. But none of this was discussed and we ended up with a situation where all of the candidates spoke out against demonization of the employees in the general sense.
Sheila Allen expressed concerns about the expenditure on roads. She said, “I have concern about the road plan… I’m concerned that there’s a very large apple that we’re trying to swallow the whole thing for roads. I would like us to look carefully and prioritize and to space those over more time because there’s just not enough in a single year’s budget in order to address that particular topic.”
While she is not wrong on this, the problem that was never pointed out is that delaying road work increases costs exponentially. First of all, pavement increases in costs at a rate nearly three times that of inflation. Worse yet is that, as the condition of roads worsen, the costs to repair those roads increases from a somewhat manageable $9 per yard to over $60 per yard if work is delayed. That means that, by waiting, we increase costs from over $100 million to over $600 million.
In a rebuttal, Robb Davis stated, “If indeed we consider the roads and other means backlogs as unfunded liabilities which I assume we do, then the picture is dire city staff reports say that we can spend $200 million over the next 20 years over that, have the same pavement condition index that we have today and have a greater backlog. “
While Mr. Davis is correct here, the city has generally used the term unmet needs or deferred maintenance to refer to road repairs; the unfunded liabilities are the promises to retired employees in terms of pensions and health care that are not currently funded.
Sheila Allen was asked about her position on the fire service reforms.
First, she stated, “For the three versus four, I’ve talked a lot in the community on this. I’m concerned that it was implemented as a cost-savings without thinking about the long-term implication of it. It increases the response time for firefighters to go into a home. I understand that we don’t have very many fires, but if it’s your house and you that’s in there, you want those firefighters to be in as soon as possible. So I’m very concerned about that.”
Again there was no follow up. Ms. Allen clearly expressed one view in the community that going from four on an engine to three will result in longer response times. However, she never clarified that firefighters can enter a home immediately if they have evidence – time of the day, cars, other – that there are inside inhabitants.
While opinions vary, it is plainly incorrect to state that this was done “without thinking about the long-term implication of it.” There were multiple roundtable discussions that took place and these issues were very carefully considered.
As the city report from January stated, “The primary benefit of the staffing change was the creation of Rescue Thirty-one (31) as a stand-alone response vehicle. This allowed for the response of Rescue 31 to vehicle accidents in Station 32 and 33’s response areas, while keeping Engine 31 available to cover a simultaneous call. Additionally, it left Rescue 31 available to respond to a simultaneous call in Station 31’s first-in area along with the closest available engine. Review of the travel time data for 32 calls for service from July 8, 2013 through December 3, 2013 revealed that Rescue 31 had a quicker travel time than the outlying Engine. Rescue 31 had a faster travel time by a low of twenty-four seconds to a high of five minutes and forty seconds. On average, Rescue 31 had a faster travel time of two minutes and thirty seconds (2:30) over that of the responding closest engine. The end result is that the travel time clock was stopped sooner than if the outlying engine had been responding by itself.”
She would add, “I’m also concerned that it’s going to increase everybody – homeowners and businesses insurance rates because they look at the response times. So we need to think about the economics about that.”
The city analyzed this very problem and from the fire Audit concluded: “Over the past fifteen years, advances in the development of fire service analysis tools and changes in how insurance companies set their rates relative to residential and commercial has caused a reassessment of the significance of the ISO PPC [Insurance Services Office Public Protection Classification]. In 2001, State Farm Insurance changed from using the ISO grading schedule to set residential insurance rates to its own zip code based rating system. The Subzone Rating Factor draws on the company’s prior claim experience for many types of insured losses including fire, wind, hail, water damage, theft and liability. State Farm estimates that 70% of claims paid under the homeowner’s program are non-fire losses, so the new rating system will emphasize an all hazards approach to property loss.”
It was on the issue of the Publicly Owned Utility that Kemble Pope interjected several times with both Robb Davis and Rochelle Swanson. The question was whether this was the right time for the city to continue to invest funds into the budget. Robb Davis’ response was that he believed, given the base of expertise in the community, that the city could do it for much less than the current projections.
Finally, after Kemble Pope interjected a third time and demanded a specific monetary value, Robb Davis responded, “I’m just not going to answer that question right now. All I’m saying is we have a significant possibility of drawing in volunteers and volunteers here. Brett’s approach is to take a very careful look at what the process is going to be – I support that.”
This was a clear case where Mr. Pope did not like the answer and kept pressing. There is nothing wrong with that approach except that he was very selective in the issues in which he took it and he missed several opportunities earlier to press candidates on vague or inaccurate answers.
Kemble Pope then asked about overburdening of taxes. He said, “We have 120 fewer staff members, we have actually done a good job of cutting, cutting, a lot of that’s through attrition.” He added, “We had a budget surplus, we did not have a budget deficit six years ago. Yet the council continues to take on new projects and assign them to city staff.” He asked the candidates to explain, if elected, how they would address this imbalance.
First of all, he stated that the city had a surplus, not a budget deficit, six years ago. That is clearly not true and Rochelle Swanson would ultimately call him on it.
She stated, “Six years ago we did not have a real budget surplus. We probably at that time had a debt of $10 to $50 million if you included all of the unfunded maintenance for our parks and our roads and all of the rest of our infrastructure. So I challenge that premise.”
While Ms. Swanson was fundamentally correct here, in 2008 (six years ago), while the council majority was touting a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve, part of the fallacy was that the city moved road maintenance and other infrastructure needs into a non-line item accounting called unmet needs. There was a deficit there that we could not pay and we will have to pay that now.
The part not mentioned here was the $60 million in unfunded liabilities for retiree health and the $50 million or so in unfunded liabilities for pensions that are driving our current deficit.
Later was the exchange between Robb Davis and Kemble Pope.
Robb Davis said, “I disagree with your conclusion that the city did a good job in cutting by attrition. All that gives us is less staff.”
Kemble Pope interjected, “I didn’t say it was good, I said it happened.”
Robb Davis responded, “You said they did a good job…”
Kemble Pope had stated, “We have 120 fewer staff members, we have actually done a good job of cutting, cutting, a lot of that’s through attrition.” At the end of the exchange, Kemble Pope added, “I want to clarify that the Chamber of Commerce does agree with that position that attrition is not the best way, from a business perspective I think we all know that attrition is not the best way to cut labor costs.”
Throughout the discussion, Kemble Pope as moderator would repeatedly express the Chamber’s views. This is not just a nit-picky point.
The ChamberPAC endorses candidates and they acknowledged they were using this forum to evaluate the candidates. By interjecting their own opinion at times before the questions were asked, they actually taint their own evaluation because candidates will tend to attempt to speak to their audience.
While there were clear examples where there were follow-up questions, those examples are inconsistent. There were factual errors and vague statements that were never followed up on.
Over all, we got a good sense of the candidates and the differences in their viewpoints. It is important to bear in mind, even as we correct facts and criticize the candidates here, that there is a huge learning curve and that the first candidates’ forum is a good barometer for the community and the candidates to take stock in where they are.
However, we caution readers to not take this first exchange too far, but instead watch how the candidates learn and evolve. From our experience, that will tell you far more than this single moment snap shot provides.
—David M. Greenwald reporting