With Rochelle Swanson in Washington, DC, for Cap-to-Cap, the four other candidates met on Wednesday night at the Davis Community Chamber for a League of Women Voters Sponsored Candidate’s forum.
Nichole Arnold read the following statement from Ms. Swanson:
I am sorry that I am unable to attend in person today to answer your questions regarding my re-election to City Council. I would love to have been there, but I made commitments as a City Council member to go to Washington DC to advocate on behalf of Davis over a year ago. I have said before that my duties as a Council member come before my duties as a candidate. I am thrilled to see that our community is as engaged as ever. I am in good company here in DC with colleagues from other communities in the middle of re-election campaigns wishing we could be in two places at once.
As a part of Capital to Capital, a trip organized by the Sacramento Metro Chamber, I have the opportunity to pursue our community’s interests on “The Hill” and in the Whitehouse. As an example, earlier today I met with Congressman John Garamendi. We specifically discussed the concerns of Davis and other communities over the safety of crude oil transport via rail through our community.
I think that the discussion that is about to take place in this room, as well as the discussions I’ve been having this last week, are both vital discussions for our community. This is especially true given the magnitude of the problems we face. As evidenced by the much needed reprieve we may get from legislation currently being deliberated in Sacramento, we must continue to work with our regional and national partners. These efforts directly influence our ability to secure a financially sustainable future for Davis without sacrificing the things we’ve all come to love about our town.
Question 1: Why would you like to hold this office?
Daniel Parrella, cited two reasons. First, he came to the realization that he may never been able to afford the house that he grew up in, “I want Davis to be a place where young people like me can start families, find high paying jobs, and afford to live here.” He added that the decisions being right now “will decide whether Davis becomes a town of college students with parents rich enough for them to afford to live here and boomers with the money to live here. I don’t think we want to live in that town.”
Second, “I think I represent a portion of Davis that hasn’t been represented by the council in some time. I think I have more in common with the average Davisite than anyone up here and I’m looking forward to representing them on the city council.”
John Munn said, “I’m running for city council to work for fiscal sustainability so we can afford to continue to live in Davis. The city needs to get its financial house in order before taking on new projects and expenses.” To do this, he said, we need to solve problems rather than just talk about them.
He said that the city admits to a $5 million deficit “without fully accounting for the needed costs for street repairs, employee pensions and health care.” He argues these will add millions to future city costs and yet the “city can still find $1 million to study a city owned electric utility.”
He said, the city while not keeping its own house in order is asking more from the rest of the residents. He noted the doubling of water rates, arguing we need to vote yes on Measure P. “These cost increases are not sustainable, they will hit hardest on middle class families and fixed income residents,” he stated.
Sheila Allen noted her nine years on the school board “and during that time I learned a lot.” She remembered back when she first ran, she thought she knew a lot, “one of the things I learned when I first ran, is when you are choosing someone for your elected official, perhaps you should not think about one particular issue, but think about the long run.”
She said that she works hard, she’s open minded, “I listen to all the different parts of the community.” She stressed the importance of elected officials to not simply support the staff recommendation, but rather go out and do their own research. “I’m also interested listening to the people who are actually on the ground doing the work, our own employees and very importantly I listen to you, the people because I am your representative.”
Robb Davis noted it’s a question that for him has evolved over the course of his campaign. “I think we’re facing a period of strained decision making. I think there are a lot of reasons for that: some of it is imposed from the outside, some of it is the reality of the decisions we made before.”
He said one of the features of that is “we face conflict.” He stated that we face multiple forms of conflict due to our constrained decision-making. He said, “We also know that most of our decisions are complex… To deal with constrained decision-making, my experience over the years has been that we need to deal with the constraints collaboratively – through collaborative problem solving.”
“Dealing with conflicts does not mean avoiding conflicts, dealing with conflicts does not mean moving away from the challenges rather embracing them to learn. I understand conflict. I understand how to deal with it productively. I understand how to embrace it so we can gain and move forward as a people to make decisions that are in the best interests of all of us,” he said.
Question 2: What do you think are the three most important problems facing the city over the next four years?
John Munn cited four: balancing the city budget, funding street maintenance and repair, funding employee pensions and health care and getting city service costs under control including water rates.
“These are all interrelated financial issues that must be dealt with together so that the city can continue to provide services and activities that we rely on to make Davis a great place to live,” Mr. Munn stated noting that one of the most important tasks that the new council faces is hiring a new city manager.
“Honestly balancing a budget requires identifying revenue and what it can be used for and matching spending to available resources,” he said. “Then we can have a conversation about how to fill those holes. Absent of this there can be no public trust regarding cuts or spending needs.”
He added that the city needs to determine unfunded needs and argued “this should not be hidden in the city budget.” He added equally important “are street repair needs that we must start taking care of to keep our local roads from crumbling.”
He warned, “Things are going to cost more, services are going to go down. All of this adds to the cost of living in Davis. When middle class families and people on fixed incomes can no longer afford to call Davis, this city becomes a different place.”
Sheila Allen cited budget and finance, infrastructure and housing needs, and then program needs. The first task is getting the right city manager hired. She argued with regards to budget and finance, “it’s very important to have a balanced approach to the finance issue.”
She mentioned that there are two sides the coin. With regards to the expenditures, “the city council has worked very hard over the last few years to make some of the very difficult program cuts, over $11 million in cuts have been made.” The other side of the coin are the revenues, she came out in favor of Measure O as the other side of the balanced approach along with economic development, which she says we are doing better at.
“I’m interested in an Innovation Park as a way to bring in additional finances to the city,” she added.
With regards to infrastructure and housing needs, she mentioned, “It’s very important to have appropriate housing for all stages of life.” She cited the groundbreaking of Cannery from last week.
Robb Davis said “the fiscal issues are so overwhelming that I guess we could come up with six in the fiscal.” “We have total compensation costs that are running so far ahead of revenue that even if we pass Measure O, which I support, it can only be a short term solution,” he stated adding that there are road and other maintenance issues that remain undefined and unaddressed.
“In a sense, we don’t even know the magnitude of the problem,” he said, “so the biggest problem is defining the problem.” “Fiscal could dominate our conversation and the economic health of our city is critical,” he continued. “We need to remove constraints to expanding our revenue base whether it’s in our downtown, through removing constraints to redevelopment, or whether it’s in the peripheral innovation parks where we need to drive hard bargains to make sure we get what we want as a city but also generate streams of revenue that are going to last over a period of time.”
We are going to work on this full time over the next, three, five, and ten years, he said. But he added, “We’re not just an economic city, we’re not just homo-economicus, we have other needs and we need to identify them.” He cited the vulnerable populations who are subjected to the rising costs.
“We cannot leave behind our commitment to being an environmentally healthy city either, we need to redouble our efforts to diversify our transit and transportation options,” he said. “I’m going to stay focused on the fiscal, but I want to be clear that the challenges that we need to be addressed to be socially and environmentally healthy cannot take a back seat and wait until we get those things in order.”
Daniel Parrella said, “In my mind the biggest problem facing the city is public trust. As I’ve been walking precincts no one trusts the government. No one expects them to spend their tax dollars wisely. No one expects them to maintain the roads. No one expects us to fix the greenbelts. Everyone expects the city to continue to grow more expensive.”
He said his two big issues were transparency and the roads. He noted while other areas are less defined, we have mapped out what we owe with regards to roads. We need to spend about $8 million a year on roads to get it back up to 70 PCI, and we’re only spending about $2.3 million at this time.
That means we need to find more money to go to road repair, “and that will not happen if the citizens of Davis do not trust the government,” he stated. “I think the sales tax will pass. I do. I think it will be close, but right now most of the money for the roads will come from the parcel tax in November and I’m absolutely convinced if the election were to happen today, it would fail a significant margin.”
He concluded, “I believe that the day that the citizens of Davis can drive down Olive Drive and not have to swerve – it’s not even a road at this point, it’s gravel – the day that they can go down a freshly paved road will be the day the citizens of Davis trust the government.”
Question 3: What Experience do you have in handling large budgets? What actions should the City Council take if Measure o is approved? If Measure P is approved?
Sheila Allen responded, noted that she had a lot of experience with big budgets having spent a number of very long school board meetings dealing with school budget’s.
She then addressed Daniel Parrella, “The statement that no one trusts the government is a bit broad for me. I think citizens have valid concerns and that there are issues with the city budget and that people need to better understand what the city budget.”
“But for elected officials to state no one trusts the government, I don’t think that’s a helpful statement,” she added.
The school district she noted is an $85 million budget.
On Measure O, “I am in support of Measure O, that’s the half-cent or half-percent sales tax.” She said, “It’s critical and part of the balanced approach to being able to close our budget deficit. When that passes, we’ll still have $1 million that we’ll have to identify cuts, just like we did with school board we’ll have to work with the community in a very transparent way to go through the city budget to see where those cuts happen.”
She noted that when you cut staff, you are cutting programs. She noted that the school board has the Parcel Tax Oversight Committee to report back the community to show where the money has been spent. “That is how you build the community trust and show them what they get for their money,” she said.
She added, we need to have the discussion as to what are the core functions of city government, which she identified as police and fire, and infrastructure.
“I don’t support Measure P at this point,” she said. “That is because we have ungone a long going discussion about the water project.” She said it is important to have the water project in place, “but I absolutely hear the community concern about the current model.”
She concluded that she wants to have the conversation about how to simplify the rates, but not under Measure P.
Robb Davis mentioned his career in the non-profit sector, where he dealt with budgets in the tens of millions, “nothing the size of Davis, but I understand basic budgeting and a more simplified way to understand our very complex budget.”
“If Measure O passes,” he said, “that’s only a temporary fix. The bottom line is that the rates of growth of our costs are outstripping the rates of growth of our revenue.” He said that’s where we are and why our reserves have gone to zero.
“So if you fill that hole with a tax and don’t deal with the underlying problem of rates of growth, you know where you end up in a couple of years,” he stated. “I support Measure O only because I believe if I’m on council, I’d like a little bit of time to begin to attack the rates of growth issues with my colleagues on council.”
He also talked about the need to have a discussion about what the city’s core services are. He said, if Measure O doesn’t pass, he will ask each department to engage in a zero-based budgeting exercise. “No more incremental budgeting, go back to the drawing board,” he said. “We cannot keep chipping away, which has been happening.”
Measure P, he said, “I get it that people are concerned about fairness. What is fairness?” He said, “I want a real dialogue… This is not a rhetorical device to put the Measure P people in a corner, but I think it is a reasonable thing to say, what does fair look like? If you say same (price per) gallon for everyone, that’s not real.”
It is not real because every system has a fixed cost component. “It has to for the fiscal stability of the model,” he said. “I am ready to engage in dialogue about what fair means.” He said we need to have that conversation now.
Daniel Parrella backed off his previous answer, but stated, “I will say that having walked all of the precincts in the city, that a majority of people do not trust the public government right now. Maybe not all of them.”
In terms of experience in running a large budget, “I realize I don’t have a breadth of experience in the matter, I don’t have millions of dollars under my belt understanding massive budgets, but I’m willing to learn.”
He thinks Measure O will be approved and if it is there has has to be transparency. He said long term zero-based budgeting is a great idea, but doesn’t think we have the resources right now.
His first step would be “getting a handle on all of our costs.”
Measure P, he said, “I think we should assume that Measure P is going to pass.” He said, if he gets elected and Measure P passes, it will be too late to figure out what to do given the narrow 45-90 day window for the council to act.
“We’re going to have to come up with a rate structure to implement the project or we’re going to have to start to implement the termination clauses in the contract,” he said. He said that if we can come up with a rate structure that makes the Measure P people happy, “That’s far and away what we should be striving for.”
John Munn noted his service as a member of the Davis school board from 1997 to 2001. “We overcame an inherited budget deficit and balanced a budget that at that time was in the neighborhood of $40 million a year. I think I can say I have real world experience with large agency budgets.”
If Measure O is passed, the council “needs to insure that money coming to it is used as advertised.” He mentioned programs that he said “That’s what’s being sold as the purpose for Measure O. I don’t believe it. But I’m not going to argue it.” He noted given the 2020 sunset date, “it shouldn’t be used to fix long term problems. It should be used to fix today’s problems.”
He said that he supports Measure P and wants it to pass. He said that we are lucky to have groundwater right now because it buffers the community unlike communities that have to rely “on river water that isn’t there.” He added, “we are very lucky to be in the situation we are and we would be very dumb to abandon it.”
If Measure P passes the city would go through another Prop 218 rate setting process “that in my view should result in a more fair distribution or equitable distribution of water costs between the different user groups while raising revenue to pay for ongoing costs, of course and the cost for paying for the surface water project that is out the gate.”
“Measure P is not about stopping the water project,” John Munn stated. “We voted on that in Measure I.”
In terms of rates under Measure P, he said, “I will observe that fixed costs can be incorporated into per-gallon costs, the problem is projecting accurately what the fixed cost payment that you have to cover is going to be.”
He argued with the current rates, people with bigger water uses in the summer months and outdoor irrigation is “going to be paying more per gallon of water than other users. That simply is not fair.”
QUESTION 4: Have you ever been part of employee contract negotiations?
Robb Davis said, “no he has not been part of employee contract negotiations.” He pointed out that he would not, even if elected, as the city will hire a firm as they did in the last round “to represent the interests laid out by the city council.”
He said they will lay out parameters that include “asking city employees to make greater contributions to their pensions, perhaps take changes in their medical care, perhaps take cafeteria cash outs down even further… perhaps for some senior level staff taking compensation cuts.” We have to take our expenditures into line with our revenues, he added.
Robb Davis added the need to “place automatic re-opening dates within the contracts. This is something other cities do so that wait until all the way at the end, if there are issues arising that we need to deal with that we have the opportunity to re-open and discuss.”
Daniel Parrella, “Much to the surprise of everyone, no I don’t have extensive experience with employee contract negotiations.”
“What I will say, is I think the city needs to view each and every labor negotiation process as a learning experience,” he said referencing problems stemming for the DCEA imposition of last, best and final offer in the last round of negotiations. “We did make mistakes. We lost the lawsuit for a reason. I think it cost the city dearly in terms of the amount of savings that we were going to get over the time period. We ended up having to lay off the nine tree trimmers, which was absolutely the worst part of the cost-cutting process we’ve undertaken as a city.”
John Munn, “I can say yes. Good start, I think.” He noted that they successfully conducted contract negotiations with teachers and other school employees as a school board member. When he came aboard, “There was much employee and public distrust about the school district’s budget and it had been earned.”
“We dealt with that by opening the books to the district’s budget so everyone could see what was available and how it was spent,” he explained. “That way we got the public’s trust and the employee’s trust.”
He said you earn trust by being open and honest. He added, “I think we have to do the same thing with the city’s budget to build the public and employee’s trust that’s need to fix the city’s financial problems.”
Sheila Allen as a school board member has and noted, “Negotiations are easier when you have money. It is much more difficult when you are in difficult times.”
She said when she started on the board, it was good financial times, and “we were able to give pretty significant increases.” However in retrospect, that was right before the economy collapsed and “we had to take a careful look at that.”
“I’d also like to point out that I really really value our employees, all the way through,” she said. “So the negotiation process needs to be a collaborative one even when it’s a difficult one.” She said, “Sometimes both sides can’t be happy. As an elected official, sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes against organizations that may have endorsed you or may have not endorsed you.”
Her job she said is to make sure that the finances are in order.
That concluded the League Question portion of the forum, there were some interesting audience questions that we may post this weekend, time permitting.
Don’t miss the Vanguard Candidates Forum next Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at the Vet’s Memorial from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. The Davis City Council Candidates have all agreed to participate and for the first hour, will be asking their own questions of each other.
—David M. Greenwald reporting