On Saturday, Rob White and I wrote what were really inadvertent companion pieces – even though we had not discussed what each other was writing. My piece, Time to Reengage the Public, focused on the city’s short-term need to pass a parcel tax and attempted to lay out the need for the city to engage the public on the issue of finances.
Rob White’s piece – Striking a Balance – focused on the balance between sustainable land use policies and the need for the city to develop revenue through economic development.
Mr. White argued that conditions have changed over the last decade and “what we didn’t ‘know’ broadly was that our community had gone dramatically out of balance on the fiscal side of the three part equation of sustainability (environmental and social being the other two pieces).”
He wrote, “There has been an ever increasing gap in the city finances that has created a significant (and urgent) need to increase revenues. The reason for this urgency is the growing realization by the community that the infrastructure and facilities that have been the backbone of the quality of life enjoyed in Davis have been deteriorating due to avoidance of needed maintenance and have now reached a point that replacement is the likely outcome for much of these assets.”
He adds, “To David Greenwald’s credit, he recognized some of this several years back, but I would hasten to guess that even he has experienced a little sticker shock over the last few years as the true tally is being figured.”
This has been the point that I have been making for quite some time. The Vanguard in 2008 was warning the public of the coming fiscal crisis, noting that our city compensation system was unsustainable. But in the 2008 city council election, the argument made by Don Saylor and Stephen Souza carried the day – they argued that we had a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve.
The counter argument was that this balance was – even in the pre-Lehman Brothers collapse days – a mirage. It was built on faulty premises such as unmet infrastructure needs and unfunded liabilities. The economic collapse hastened the crisis, but it didn’t cause the crisis – and therefore economic growth will not get us out of the crisis.
The Vanguard attempted to sound this alarm in the spring of 2008, a year later we attempted to sound the alarm on the roads crisis, but as Rob White correctly pointed out, it was shocking in June of 2013, after five years of cuts, to see a $5 million structural deficit for five years opening up to $8 million by 2018.
It was stunning, after years of pounding the table on roads, to see the price tag soaring to over $100 million and, if nothing is done, upwards of $400 to $600 million just in roads costs.
I laid out these numbers recently to one of the development teams proposing an innovation park and even they were stunned.
Rob White then laid out the point I have been making: “1) Davis has an increasingly poor fiscal position with respect to the City’s budget and the services it delivers; and 2) In the State of California, there are four primary ways a local government can correct that – increases taxes, charge fees, cut budgets or grow the economy.”
The argument that Mr. White ended on is the one I have been arguing as well – Davis is going to change one way or another. The current situation is not sustainable. The question is what change is least disruptive.
This equation has caused me to temporarily come out of my slow growth stance. I believe we can rectify the city’s economic condition, generate new taxes, and maintain most of what we all love about Davis – the small town, college atmosphere. In fact, I will go a step further, I think we can make it better.
Two relatively small innovation parks can serve as extensions to the university and give researchers a place to turn their research into business startups – to give fledgling companies a place to grow and to allow home grown companies like Schilling Robotics and Cedaron Medical and transplanted companies like HR Clause a place to grow and expand.
At the same time, there was a comment on my article that I think gets to the core of the problem here. I think that, while Vanguard readers – and we saw an example of that with the polling done this spring by Davis Downtown – are engaged on these issues, the general public really is not.
My intent was not to point the finger at council so much as a call to action by the city and others.
My argument is that we need to have a parcel tax, and whether we decide to do it this spring (March 2015) or next fall (November 2015) has not been decided, nor has it been determined how much we will ask. But regardless of what we include in the parcel tax, the education effort has to begin. At the start it will be more fiscal analysis than parcel tax.
The commenter responded, “What fiscal analysis? Do you feel people do not understand the roads are in disrepair? Or that our pools are leaking? Or is it that people are of two different minds on whether to support a parcel tax? If the latter, how do you think the city can change the minds of those who are adamantly opposed to a parcel tax, when the city itself has been very much a part of the problem?”
The answer is that the public may well understand that the roads are in bad condition, but most people, even those engaged in the process, even those on the council, were stunned in February 2013 when the price tag came out.
The fact that our pools are leaking is a new revelation that may change the way many, myself included, view handling the pools.
My view of the education process is that you give people facts. Not everyone reacts to the facts in the same way. There are philosophies and values that will weigh how to respond to the facts. We saw that in the discussion on Saturday and we will continue to see that into the future.
This is not about changing people minds who are adamantly opposed to a parcel tax, this is about engaging the population that falls in the gap between support for the schools parcel tax and support for the city sales tax.
At its widest, perhaps 73% of the population has been willing to vote for a parcel tax while only 58% voted for Measure O. That’s a 15% gap – and those are the people who need to be engaged on the issue of the city parcel tax.
The stakes are very high here – we are talking not only about roads, but parks, pools, and greenbelts. The community needs to understand that the amenities that they take for granted are jeopardized by the city’s current fiscal situation.
We have a long-term strategy to address these problems – continued fiscal prudence combined with economic development. But in the short term there is really no other way to go.
That’s the point that needs to be laid out to the public in a very clear way, and then the public needs to be allowed to make up its mind. It’s the public’s community and the public’s choice.
—David M. Greenwald reporting