Over the last several months, a number of people have come to me, concerned that if they end up supporting first the sales tax, then the parcel tax, and now the innovation parks, the new revenue will not go into shoring up city infrastructure and securing vital city services and amenities, but rather go for salary increases.
There is a history of this. Much of the same rhetoric that we are using today was used in 2004 to pass a half-cent sales tax. We were told that parks would close and police and firefighters would be laid off. The measure passed, but instead of being used to shore up vital programs, it went to employee salary and compensation increases. Massive increases.
Fire got a 36% pay increase starting in 2005, until the 2009 MOU. Police got about half that at 18%. Everyone got at least 15%.
We have spent a lot of time this week pouring over the results of the Godbe Research public opinion survey, but the most telling answer in looking at potential opposition statements to the parcel tax (which polling showed it would not pass at either tested level), the most salient, is that there is “no guarantee funds will be spent where most needed.”
The irony (and again this points to the bad survey form) is that the parcel tax can be allocated to specific funding. Now, it’s not like categorical funds which can only be spent in a given category, which is why the school district has the parcel tax oversight committee, ostensibly to monitor and make sure the money is being spent as advertised by the school district.
Still, not only does the city have fudge room, but also, right now there are millions in general fund money being allocated to roadways out of necessity and those could be reallocated to other uses (such as employee compensation) if a parcel tax passes.
The bottom line here is that this comes down to trust. As I have argued here, over the past several years, really starting in 2011 with Joe Krovoza and Rochelle Swanson on board and later joined by Dan Wolk, Brett Lee and Lucas Frerichs, the council has done a lot to earn public trust on city finances. Some want to argue they could have gone further, others have pushed back that we have gone too far.
Bottom line, the city has done a lot to restore public trust.
But we are not done. In fact, this is the most dangerous time in the last seven years. The economy is finally improving, but the city is not seeing a huge increase in tax revenue. The public has just passed a sales tax measure, but polling and anecdotal evidence shows it does not grasp the enormity of the financial threat. As noted earlier this week, nearly 65% of those 504 Davis registered voters polled believe that our fiscal condition is at least fair, with less than a quarter believing it is poor or very poor.
We were looking at $5 million in structural deficits increasing to $8 million when the voters passed a sales tax measure this past June. The voters are clearly not paying attention and the lackluster Measure O campaign last spring did not help.
The firefighters’ union that has lost influence and faced a rash of reforms in 2013 is resurgent and hoping, with a new mayor who is more sympathetic to their needs and the council needing to hire a new city manager – after the union chased the last city manager off to the hills, that they can regain their traction in city government in a community where the vast majority of residents are not paying attention.
The city council believes that times have changed and that the pre-2010 ways are no longer viable. I think that is largely true. I don’t think we are going to go back to days where we retroactively increased pensions to 3% at 50, increased fire personnel to four on every engine, and instituted 36% increases.
But we had a long history where the firefighters’ union literally ran city hall. They got everything they wanted. They got the council by a 3-2 vote to not read the fire report in 2008, for crying out loud. That was not that long ago.
For the last four years, at least by a majority vote, the firefighters were shut out of city government and the city manager worked hard to implement reforms. But that changed last fall when two city councilmembers attempted to fire the city manager back in November and the city manager took a job at Incline Village.
The union president was likely buoyed by the four top elected officials co-signing a letter opposing the shared management.
While both shared management and the reduction in fire staffing will be difficult to roll back, having a sympathetic ear from the mayor and potentially a new city manager is a game changer.
We should be worried about who the next city manager is going to be and whether he or she will have ties to the union president. We should be worried about what kind of access and influence the union president has had on the hiring process.
The polling right now shows that a parcel tax will have a tough road to get approved as it is, but if we cannot trust city governance to guard the henhouse then it has no chance. The same may likely be the case with the innovation parks, though we have not seen specific polling.
If we do not get both approved by the voters, then this city will struggle just to provide basic services, let alone the amenities that this community has grown accustomed to. Without trust, there will be little chance of success.
We stand at the crossroads; it’s now in the hands of the city council to chart our future.
—David M. Greenwald reporting