Sunday Commentary: Protecting Davis’ Assets

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New playground at Central Park is the type of amenity we risk if we do not plan economic development.
New playground at Central Park is the type of amenity we risk losing if we do not plan economic development.

Last night, the Davis Sunset Rotary (of which I’m a member), sponsored Movies in the Park, and several hundred people armed with their children, bug spray and popcorn went to Central Park at dusk to watch “Monsters University.”   This is a spectacular tradition that the Rotary club rescued from the city of Davis a few years ago when the city’s budget crisis forced the city to cut spending.

A short distance away from where the movie was shown are the new park restrooms and the new playground that is extremely popular with the children and a great amenity to the community. At the end of the block on Fifth Street is the newly-redesigned Fifth Street that promises to improve accessibility.

On this night, we saw the best of Davis – great public amenities, public-private partnerships, and the spectacular nature of what this community can bring.

And yet, perhaps unbeknownst to most residents of Davis until the last week, Civic Pool is leaking water. The city lacks the funds to maintain its roadways. While the city was able to get grant money for Central Park, the infrastructure of Davis’ many neighborhood parks is badly in need of shoring up.

The Vanguard was the first entity to really sound the alarm about roads. As we like to tell the tale, our first two articles that warned of massive unfunded liabilities through deferred maintenance received a combined zero comments.

The city for the last 15 years has heavily relied on state and federal monies to fund roadway repairs. However, that money has always been sporadic at best, and once roads money through the Federal Reinvestment Act ran out following the 2008 recession, the city failed to backfill roads needs with general fund money.

The result was an increasing backlog of roads needs that threats to climb to over half a billion dollars if the city does not heavily invest in new repairs. That money will largely have to come from a parcel tax.

Initially, the Vanguard was reluctant to move past roads for a parcel tax. Parks and swimming pools were nice, we reasoned, but not essential infrastructure.

The thinking has to shift a little. We can see that shift in the needs that now arise for repairing Civic Pool. It is likely still cheaper to repair the pool than build a new one, and perhaps a 50-meter pool in the time of budget crisis is grandiose.

At the same time, let us consider a bigger picture here. We have aging infrastructure in pools. We have aging parks infrastructure. We know that we have city buildings in need of repair and update.

What would this community be like with new public swimming pools? What would this community be like with parks that have to be closed for disrepair? What would this community be like if we had to close down some of our greenbelts or be forced to sell them as surplus property to be developed?

Yeah, roads may be critical infrastructure, but would this community be what it is without the amenities that we have?

I admit, when the council scaled back the roads proposal to the B-modified proposal, I was disappointed. Why? We were creating a strategy that was willing to accept road conditions at a 63 – and while 63 sounds an awful lot like a D, at least that would mean we weren’t having failing roads.

But should we accept mediocrity in this community? And if Davis has to accept mediocrity, what does that mean for everyone else?

The polling numbers do not look promising for a $150 parcel tax, but we are talking about $12.50 per month. Is that a high price to pay to have roads that are in good shape without potholes and creases? Is that a high price to pay to have parks that we can go to on beautiful August evenings to enjoy our community? Is that a high price to pay for swimming pools that do not leak? For greenbelts that are green? For children running carefree in the park?

At the end of the day we have to ask ourselves what kind of community we want to live in – and I for one do not think we need to settle for mediocrity because we fell asleep for a decade and allowed our city council to spend money that we did not have.

I believe that in Davis we can sell the public on $150 a year and that we can do so easily if we are honest and forthright both about past mistakes and the commitments we need to make in the future.

I believe if the city makes the case about our needs, that just as the community stepped up time and time again to save our schools, it can step up to save our roads, bike paths, sidewalks, parks, greenbelts and swimming pools.

Maybe I’m wrong, but to me $12.50 a month doesn’t sound like that much compared to the great things we have in this community, things that are worth saving.

The last part, of course, is that tied to asking the public for money is showing them the way to sustainability. That means continued fiscal prudence on the one end, and helping to expand our economic base in a sustainable and Davis-specific way.

If we do that, I believe we can convince the voters to give us the money that we need.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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16 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Protecting Davis’ Assets”

  1. Biddlin

    “I believe if the city makes the case about our needs, that just as the community stepped up time and time again to save our schools, it can step up to save our roads, bike paths, sidewalks, parks, greenbelts, and swimming pools.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but to me $12.50 a month doesn’t sound like that much compared the great things we have in this community, things that are worth saving.

    The last part of course is that tied to asking the public for money is showing them the way to sustainability. That means continued fiscal prudence on the one end, and helping to expand our economic base in a sustainable and Davis-specific way.

    If we do that, I believe we can convince the voters to give us the money that we need.”

    A noble task and one, at which, I hope you are successful. It is the sum of all these amenities that makes cities livable.
    ;>)/

  2. hpierce

    Although David should be crowing a bit about publicizing getting the focus of infrastructure maintenance, he was not even close to ‘first’. That would have been the engineering staff in Public Works who started to stress the implications of deferred maintenance, particularly to the roadway system since the mid-late 1980’s. Time and time again they tried to explain the fact that failure to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars then would result in millions of dollars later. Time and time again, the community shrugged, the council thanked them for the report and went back to focussing on spending money on feel-good programs and services, and ignored the warnings to the extent that they actually CUT funding for street maintenance again and again.

    Staff was not in a position to do an end-run of the CC and take the clarion call directly to the public. The warnings were there, identified by professional City staff, but they were ignored.

    1. realchangz

      hpierce,
      All true and valid points. To imply that it was strictly the fault of CC, however, seems somewhat of an overreach. The “staff” to which you refer (correct me if I am wrong) was the staff of the Public Works Department. One might hope, however, that either the City Manager or the Director of Finance should be charged with taking a longer-term view concerning the ongoing sustainability of the community’s fiscal plans relative to infrastructure maintenance needs and long term economic trends.

      From a political standpoint, however, there is very little “poltical capital” to be gained from taking this longer-term, communitywide advocate perspective – as it can easily run into other, more pressing, current period pressures. And, sadly once again, our public-sector financial reporting models have been so inadequate in terms of matching of true expenses to the accounting period in which they belong, that it is only recently that we have begun having these more realistic, eyes-wide open conversations about unfunded liabilities and deferred expenditures.

      One could easily argue, that had we been employing more up-to-date accounting methodologies – rules common in private sector accounting (where they are required to match current period expenses with current period revenues) – that our successive managers might have had the requisite tools with which to mount a more pressing argument for non-deferral of these essential expenses. Alternatively, even the very existence of such reports might have at least allowed an interested CC member to have done more of their own investigation, which might have led to much earlier recognition of the deferred liabilities which we have accumulated over the past 15 years.

      All said, we do have a sizeable debt that has been accumulated. And, for those who have lived here these past couple of decades, this discussion of a deferred parcel tax is really more a discussion of recognizing the “true” expenses of the past two decades during which we should have been continuing a more aggressive and sustained approach to infrastructure maintenance, getting current on deferred compensation benefits due our employees, and working towards growing a more robust and diversified economy within the city.

      Whether it’s to be $12.50 or $125 a month in parcel taxes, one thing has to be clearly stipulated from the outset – these funds must be sequestered, set-aside and earmarked specifically and solely for purposes of infrastructure maintenance and investment. None of these funds should rightfully flow through the General Fund – lest we begin to think that we “once again have plenty of money”, “a healthy rainy day fund”, or any of the other terms employed to argue why we really can afford more departments, more raises and more special amenities.

      Don’t get me wrong, if the community wants to put up with a parcel tax to fund a new $10MM swimming pool, or velodrome, tennis complex or senior center – that’s fine – that can be in addition to the parcel tax needed to pay for the past two decades of deferred investments which are rightfully the responsibility of our current residents.

      What we all most need is a clear understanding of the community’s “burn rate” – that is: “How much “income do we need to match our current expenditures (assuming they are all being paid out when due)”. Only then can we rightfully expected our elected leaders to be in a position to honestly and dispassionately evaluate the city’s budget and requested program funding needs.

  3. hpierce

    By the way, since “deferred maintenance” wasn’t sexy enough to get the CC’s attention (or the community’s), someone tried the term “unmet NEEDS” to get the point across that there were some necessities being ignored. Again, instead of making tough choices, unmet needs were, well, unmet as a priority. This happened year after year.

  4. Mark West

    DG: “but we are talking about $12.50 per month. Is that a high price to pay to have roads that are in good shape without potholes and creases? Is that a high price to pay to have parks that we can go to on beautiful August evenings to enjoy our community? Is that a high price to pay for swimming pools that do not leak? For greenbelts that are green? For children running carefree in the park?”

    I doubt that $12.50 per month will put a dent in the total cost of all these things that you want to save. The basic problem is we still don’t know what the total backlog is for our failure to properly maintain our infrastructure. The real question you need to be asking is will the City Council face up to the decades long failure to fully fund our infrastructure and start to honestly address the problem, rather than passing it on to someone else. The people of Davis cannot do anything about this until the City Council first agrees to do their job, make the difficult decisions, and then lead the way.

    We need a full accounting of the backlog, a list of priorities for how to spend the money we have, and a comprehensive plan that will lead to a sustainable fiscal future. The current piecemeal approach of dealing with one crisis after another in isolation is insufficient.

      1. South of Davis

        David wrote:

        > we are talking about $12.50 per month. Is that a high price to pay to have
        > roads that are in good shape without potholes and creases?

        It is interesting to spin it as “just” $12.50 a month vs. $1,500 over the next ten years.

        Assuming a person “owns” a little $500K home in Davis “free and clear” they will still need to pay (over the next 10 years) about $55,000 in property taxes and about $10,000 in parcel taxes. With a typical city services bill about $150,month and (according to the city) water rates are scheduled to triple we are looking at another $20,000 in checks written to the city over the next ten years, when you add on homeowners insurance and capital improvements (that homeowners can’t put off and make other pay for later like the city does) it costs more to “own” a modest home in Davis (way more to “own” a “nice” Davis home) then to “rent” and average home in the US.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I don’t know why you find it “interesting” to “spin” it as “just…” Obviously my goal is to minimize the hit that it will take on an individual’s pocket book, obviously the cost adds up over time.

          1. South of Davis

            BP wrote:

            > It,’s just three more lattes a month. Isn’t that the usual spin?

            I should have given David a little credit for not using “less than $0.50/day”…

            It seems like we keep getting “nickel & dimed” and all those nickels and dimes really add up.

            P.S. Did we always have a “municipal service charge” and “public safety charge” on the city services bills?

            P.P.S. The “municipal service charge” and “public safety charge” on MY city services bills just went up, did they go up for everyone (looks like I’ll have to cut back on lattes again)?

  5. Michael Harrington

    I think Mayor Wolk has inherited a ghastly budget situation, and Joe Krovoza did his best, but it was fiscal meltdown coming from the Saylor-Souza days.

    I believe that Mayor Wolk, with this CC, has a chance to repair a lot of the damage and move the City ahead over the next two years.

  6. Alan Miller

    Government makes wiser choices when it is short of money than when it is too plentiful of money. The Vanguard may have convinced me that a road’s only tax is wise due to the increasing cost as roads deteriorate. Beyond that, any additions will likely turn me against any such tax.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i’m not convinced that that is true. what happens when cuts happen is you cut what expedient. more seriously, you fail to do things like invest in infrastructure. the decisions made in 2008-2010 involved the council failing to invest infrastructure as a means to cut costs short term. so your statement is completely misplaced.

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