Rochelle Swanson on the Issues

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Swanson-2014-headshotEditor’s Note: We have compiled all eight of the questions by candidate and each day this week will publish that compilation in alphabetical order concluding with Rochelle Swanson today.

Question 1: How can the city of Davis balance the following needs: address the fiscal crisis while continuing to provide core services, maintain the amenities that keep Davis Davis, while keeping the community affordable to all citizens?

Rochelle Swanson: The fiscal stability of our City was the major theme in my campaign in 2010 and continues to be the foremost issue for me. I do not believe that we can cut and tax our way out of our current situation. Current staffing levels are at a 10 year low and our city employees are continuing do more with fewer resources available. The ½ percent sales tax will give us a buffer, but will not solve the problem.

Our city can only be sustainable and remain a unique and valued community with a combination of economic development and fiscal conservancy, while not losing sight of the programs, events and services that our community values. This is the number one challenge of our city council.

While I am proud of my record in these areas, I acknowledge that there is still work to be done. Davis has the ability to become the regional leader in technology, agriculture, and start-up business innovation. I have heavily invested time in fostering our enhanced partnerships with UC Davis and local and regional entities have created many opportunities.

We are making progress, but I understand the need for this process to continue. I also know that continuing the momentum that we have worked so hard to get in motion, is critical. I appreciate the time, experience, and knowledge that I have gained on Council on these important issues, and look forward to applying all of my time invested in the groundwork towards securing our City’s fiscal future.

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QUESTION 2: Davis boasts a world-class university, an excellent K-12 school system, and is centrally located in one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world.  How should those core components of Davis’ “character” inform any economic development efforts that the City undertakes?

Rochelle SwansonWe need to move beyond the mindset that Davis “hosts” the university and forge a true dynamic partnership in which UC Davis drives a regional innovation economy with the City of Davis as its center of gravity.

When focusing my efforts the last few years, I have worked to prioritize the venues where Davis is the most natural fit for success. UC Davis, our outstanding school system, and the wonderful agricultural assets surrounding the city are all major competitive advantages that will help us with this effort.  We can’t be a “leader in the region” if we do not get beyond our city limits and engage.

As Next Economy was getting off the ground, I made sure myself, key staff and community partners participated in the forums that chose the focus areas and then made sure we were included in the core conversations about the focus areas naturally attuned to our assets – namely home to the top ranked research agricultural university in the world. Trips to D.C. with UCD and local partners focus on agencies and elected leaders in agriculture and innovation.

Thanks to efforts last year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy knows Davis is striving to be the national example of public/private collaboration. We have seed research going on throughout our county right now. Two of the parcels identified in the Innovation Park Task Force recommendations can include fertile borders of prime Ag land to put the research into application.

 A robust k-12 school system is one of the essential assets to retain and recruit the entrepreneurs and companies that are necessary to pursue our fiscal sustainability strategy. I would like to see the perfect trifecta of our assets on the Davis High School campus – a three story STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art (& design) + mathematics) building funded with a public private partnership of innovative companies, host faculty from UCD and other major universities, coupled with leaders in the world of agriculture to support a new generation of farmers, foodies and activists that want to feed and inspire the world through sustainable practices.

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Question 3: Recently the Davis City Council voted on the Downtown Parking Task Force Recommendations.  The goal of the recommendations was to “help to ensure convenient spaces are easily accessible for shoppers with short-term parking needs, in the area where the greatest concentration of retail and service businesses who depend on this type of parking access exists.”

Rochelle Swanson: The revenue proposed as a part of the parking task force’s plan did not adequately address the funding required to implement, nor did it address the concerns of many of our downtown patrons, residents, and businesses. Our city cannot afford to spend $1.5 million until we identify funding sources. We need to look at solutions to our problems that work with our current budget realities.

We also need more discrete data on the parking habits of our downtown drivers so that when meters are put in place, we know that our policy is creating the greatest outcome with the least impact. We also need a more comprehensive outreach plan to measure and encourage employee business usage. Much less than half of downtown businesses have employees that use X permits.

We need a parking plan that works for our downtown patrons and businesses. I believe that we need to assess the impacts and redesign implementation based on those findings given the concerns of customers, residents, employers, and business owners. As our economy continues to recover, we cannot look to mitigate downtown parking issues merely by introducing charges to those who use the spaces. We require a more nuanced approach that not only avoids impacting downtown businesses, but increases capacity. As I mentioned the night of the vote, I believe we do need to assess options with the Amtrak lot where we could move to a permit process for locals or other measures allowed under our agreement.

There are still many aspects to the parking plan that will improve our parking issues downtown with little cost like adjusting parking enforcement shifts and increasing employee parking options.
Ultimately, the parking task force plan can’t and won’t be the last effort to improve our parking situation in Davis. I believe that we need additional innovative solutions.

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Question 4: The City of Davis faces massive, unfunded liabilities and structural, long-term budgetary challenges with respect to deferred maintenance of streets, buildings and structures, parks, storm sewers and fleet.  What would you do to address these unfunded liability and deferred maintenance balances?

Rochelle Swanson: The first step in addressing these challenges is to incorporate them in to the working budget. This process has been underway the last few years in a move to get away from excluding unfunded liabilities and thereby declaring a “balanced” budget. I am proud to be part of a team of council members who have been pushing to include these expenses and working toward an annual budget that honestly and clearly reflects all of the city’s expenditures and liabilities.

The serious deterioration of our infrastructure has been a focus of mine since being a candidate in 2010. I learned about the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) tables and discovered how low ours are. My colleagues and I have committed to including this unfunded liability into our long term budget, ensuring that we address road repair expenses. Our current growing deficit is, in part, due to finally accounting for these backlogs. Not accounting for the deferred maintenance of streets, structures, parks, sewers and fleet — city owned infrastructure — is similar to not counting the outstanding balance on a credit card.

We then prioritized and scheduled repairs that need to be done sooner than later to avoid higher costs. Each year pavement is allowed to deteriorate and the costs grows exponentially over time. I would expect that there is a similar decline rate for structures, parks, sewers and fleet vehicles. We need a methodical approach of assessing the life of each item, and the cost of deferring repair and/or replacement to make fiscally responsible decisions.

In a recent joint meeting with the Finance and Budget Commission I suggested they develop a list of city assets, like parks and fleet vehicles, and make an assessment on the best practice for long term maintenance. In one case, they assessed the vehicle fleet and determined the return on investment from replacing with alternative vehicles over time.

Our budget problems result from poorly informed decisions in the past. The policies that I have proposed, and continue to propose, will establish institutional devices to avoid the risk of fiscal crises like the one we find ourselves in today.[divider]

Question 5: There are some in this community who believe that Measure J/ Measure R were really intended to give residents the ability to determine whether residential and housing developments could go forward. Should we exempt business and innovation parks from required Measure R votes? And would you support amendments to Measure R to exempt the peripheral development of business and innovation parks at Nishi, Northwest Quadrant and Mace 200 from required votes?

Rochelle SwansonI think that the intentions of Measure J/R was to allow the public to weigh in on whether they supported the development of any ag land or open space parcels within, or near Davis. In light of this, I would have to say that I would not advocate for an exemption unless the public was in support of it. For example, I would consider a grassroots initiative that lays out some specific project or parameters for entitling a parcel or parcels of land.

Measure J and its renewal, Measure R, were enacted to ensure the public was able to vote on whether to develop a parcel with an agricultural or open space designation. I supported Measure J and Measure R and believe that there should be a public vote to determine if we use any agricultural or open space land for development.

While Measure J and R were primarily focused on controlling unbridled residential development, it included allowing the public to weigh in on non-residential development. As our city faces significant financial challenges, we need our entire community to weigh in on the choices before us and how we meet our fiscal challenges.

It is clear that an innovation park would not only provide significant and long term revenue for Davis, but it also help establish Davis as a world leader in agricultural research, which has always been the mission of UC Davis. We do not want to lose the spirit and character of Davis, yet we need to determine a sustainable fiscal plan for the future of our community. The best way to address this is by asking for any proposals for an innovation park to come forward now.

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Question 6: On Tuesday Beverly Hills became the first city to pass a fracking ban. In past years Davis was very often the environmental innovation thought leader amongst California cities; however, in recent years Davis has been less of a leader, trailing other towns on single-use bag ordinances, wood smoke, and other environmental innovations. Does this trouble you, and if so, how can Davis move to reclaim its reputation as a leader in environmental innovation?

Rochelle Swanson Davis is a thoughtful and conscientious community that is highly involved in the policy change process. That process takes time when everyone is encouraged to participate. While we may be slow to adopt some policies, we are able to thoroughly weight all of the factors in such decisions before making them. It is more important that we make good policy change decisions, rather than just trying to make policy changes “first” so that Davis residents have a full understanding of the pros and cons of any policy change.

This process is needed to foster inclusive discussion, participation, and input by all sectors of our community on each issue. Sometimes there may even be value in seeing if a policy change worked in another community first. If it does, we then have valuable information to include in the discussion and if it doesn’t, then we can reexamine the method of implementation and look for possible improvements or modifications. If the policy change does not have intended consequences in other communities, then we can learn from other communities’ issues and go back to the drawing board. In Davis, we have a tendency to innovatively improve the proverbial wheel – not just re-invent it. I believe that we can learn a lot from the successes and setbacks of other communities.

That said, I have been committed to supporting responsible environmental policies, as my voting record demonstrates. I am proud and grateful to have received the endorsement of the Sierra Club. It is my position that Davis’ policies should reflect Davis resident’s priorities, philosophy, and needs.

Finally, I don’t believe we have lost our reputation as being among leaders in environmental innovation. First isn’t always “best.” More importantly, we have a process to make good decisions on environmental policies and invite the public to help us make those decisions with their valued and needed input.

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Question 7: Davis is a city that stands out as very unique in many respects. However, our growth control policies that make for such a unique character have come with some challenges. When compared to other like-sized college towns, Davis has far fewer firms and a much smaller retail economy. The city faces significant budget challenges beginning next year. Without increased revenue that comes from growth and economic development, Davis will have to cut city services and raise taxes.

With respect to the city’s fiscal situation, the budget, economic and peripheral development, what is your desired vision for Davis over the coming 10 and 20 years?

Rochelle Swanson: “Growth control policies” for residential development are an asset because (1) housing usually doesn’t pay for the services they generate  (2) urban sprawl generates infrastructure costs that saddle the public with debt service and maintenance costs, versus smart infill growth, which I support.

Not zoning land to allow big-box and large-scale retail likely have held down the city’s tax base but to the detriment of our special downtown. I would not change this direction.

We would also be better off fiscally with sizable tracts within the city available for manufacturing, which generates significant sales tax from purchase of equipment.  Another part of the problem is that the city’s largest employer, UC Davis, a state entity, does not contribute to our property tax rolls.

Long term, there are sensible strategies to address these concerns.

Sales tax revenues for the city have been improving and will increase even more if Measure O passes (vote YES on O) the city could seek out retail opportunities that are consistent with the community’s values that would not undermine downtown. Other sectors with low sales-tax generation (business-to-business firms) that don’t compete with downtown Davis could be targeted.  Infill development near and in downtown could be a mix of retail, commercial and housing, to bolster downtown.  The  hotel/conference center could boost hotel tax revenues and downtown spending. The innovation parks could improve the city’s fiscal situation if they pay off in sales tax revenues or possibly even some specific special assessments that benefit the city at large.

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Question 8: Davis is a city that is often associated with a well-educated, upper middle class community that comes to city council meetings, works at UC Davis or in Sacramento, and is well represented at council meetings and other civic events. But there is increasingly another group of people that get hidden – renters, non-participants in civic activities, less affluent and less educated. Davis is no longer the monolithic community it may have been in the past: 42% percent of our school children are now non-white, more than one-fifth are Title I students.

In December 2012, the Vanguard called this “The Other Davis.” Explain your understanding of “The Other Davis” and what policies you would put forward as a councilmember to both engage this population and meet their needs?

Rochelle SwansonThere is sympathy, empathy, understanding and relating. I’m in a unique position in that I have been in a low-income family striving to make ends meet, humiliated by the lack of affluence and marginalized by the “alphabet soup” at PTA meetings.

I now find myself in a position where the perception is that I am the “Davisite” with the coveted letters behind the name.

To me the real “other Davis” is the people who are not part of the perception. They struggle to make rent, they don’t have the multiple degrees and they have likely been trapped as renters. They don’t work at the University. They are not students and they do not qualify for special programs.

The perception is that Davis is affluent and yet nearly a quarter of our students qualify for free and/or reduced lunch. It’s tough to struggle, but I would argue it’s tougher when you are the outlier and your reality is not reflected in the policies of your community.

I have been part of that “other Davis.” It can be lonely. The term “lip service” comes to mind. Engagement means reaching beyond the loud voices of the political insiders and pulling in those that need a voice — recognizing those not being represented.

I think one of the main reasons I am on Council is to utilize the memories of not fitting in, struggling financially and being sidelined for not having the time and money to volunteer at school or serve on a commission. One of things I would like to institute in the next term is a true quarterly Town Hall.

I would like to see the Council hold meetings in neighborhood multi-purpose rooms at different schools on different days and times throughout the year so that city government is less intimidating and more accommodating to the real life work schedules. “We the people” should not feel like a clique, it should feel like all people count.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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