If I were to be asked to deliver the State of the City Address, I might take a riff from Charles Dickens – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Back in November, I felt pretty optimistic about things. We had the Jumpstart Davis meet-up and there was real energy, with cool startups that seemed to be emerging.
The economic downtown in Davis was a warning shot across our bows that we could not continue with business as usual. That meant we had to get our fiscal house in order – deal with things like structural deficits, deferred maintenance, unfunded liabilities, and pension crises. None of these was particularly unique to Davis, but they were all exacerbated by the lack of a sales tax base for the city.
Davis has long been considered a sleeping giant when it comes to economic development. The university has been flexing its muscles with ambitious fundraising for research and development and the city is ideally situated near enough to Sacramento and with a world class university in its backyard to really do something special – while, I think, retaining essential core elements such as sustainability and environmental stewardship.
So as we emerge from the recession and money is not so tight, we are looking at the potential from major investments, startups, high tech, clean tech, green energy and technology, and agricultural technology that can help feed the world into the 21st century.
In 2013 after the city of Davis had stumbled in multiple efforts to bring this promise into reality, the city brought on a Chief Innovation Officer, Rob White. Over the course of the next year and a half, the entire nature of the discourse changed.
Peripheral innovation parks were not a new concept – but by the fall of 2013, the idea had grown legs. What was largely DOA in 2010 and 2012, even after things like DSIDE and Studio 30 and the Innovation Park Task Force, emerged as credible in late 2013.
Following the RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest), the two identified sites in the east and the west emerged with project proposals and formal applications. Seven million square feet of innovation park space could emerge from these new projects.
However, just as we appear to be on the brink of success, the worst angels of our nature have reemerged. Here is the thing we should worry most about – the enemy is not who you think it is. Throughout this process I have heard about “fear” – that people will vote against these proposals out of fear, fear of change, fear of eroding their property values. There was a fear of some amorphous slow growther conspiracy that would emerge to defeat the projects.
Instead, we should be looking within – fear should be replaced by greed, envy, and naked political ambition.
As I started to warn earlier this week, one potential point where these projects could be undone would be at the point of competition between competing proposals. My concern goes deeper and it is not the developers or the project proposers that we have to worry about, but the political wrangling behind the scenes.
That makes the calculations not straight-ahead cost-benefit analyses, with the best interests of the community at heart, but rather a matter perhaps of where the projects will be, who is backing them, and who benefits from the projects going through. I am not going to untangle any of this today, but rather suggest that we need to make this process as clean and as transparent as possible and evaluate everything on the merits of how much they will benefit the community, while we do our best to mitigate the downside.
But there is more and it involves changing the narrative in the community. I will be very honest – I don’t know how to do it.
For years, the Vanguard warned about the impending fiscal crisis that was from 2008-2010 largely being ignored. We gave away unsustainable pensions and retiree health, making promises to future employees and retirees that were not funded.
When we got in a fiscal hole, we papered over those concerns through attrition and failure to maintain critical infrastructure. We missed the opportunity in the 2009 MOUs to make the needed structural changes.
When we analyzed city compensation we found that, compared to other industries and sectors, we were paying a lot both in salaries and benefits.
It took a few years, but good portions of the community caught up with that thinking and Davis has become very strong on the need for fiscal restraint.
Going forward, here is one problem that we may face. When consultants did a salary comparison for the city manager search back in July, we found that Davis was at the very bottom in compensation regionally and among cities of comparable populations. We rectified this by bumping up the salary to about the 75th percentile.
The explanation for this was that Davis is a challenging venue with a high cost of living and an engaged population.
So it turns out that, if we extended that comparison to other executive positions, we will find similar results – Davis compensates comparable positions a good deal less than comparable cities.
Here’s the problem as it was presented to me recently – we expect a lot from our city staff, they get hammered both publicly and privately in emails and phone calls from community members, and then we pay them 20 to 30 percent less than they can get in other places.
The result is that we may end up losing some of our good, younger executive staff – the very same ones, perhaps, that we may rely on to do the work we are expecting on economic development and innovation.
I know that there are people convinced that either we do not have very good city staff members or that we can find good staff members for a lot less than we are paying. I am sure there are those who believe we don’t need good city staff members at all and this can be taken care of otherwise.
At the end of the day, we had a moment where everything seemed to line up to create great promise for the future of this community, and now it feels like, in the matter of a few weeks, it is all just slipping away.
The challenge, I think, is this: how can we continue to be fiscally responsible, how can we continue to demand excellence of our public servants, and how can we do so in a way that doesn’t undercut the great things we are trying to do?
I wish I had the answer for that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting