Commentary: What Exactly is the Davis City Council Doing?

Davis City Council welcomes Dirk Brazil as new City Manager
Davis City Council welcomes Dirk Brazil as new City Manager

So on Tuesday night, the Davis City Council adjourned their meeting at 7:10 pm. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice getting home to my family while my kids were still awake, but that just seems like a waste of staff time.

It is true that council made the decision to move the healthy beverages for children item to consent and put off the presentation by First 5 Yolo until there was an actual proposal on the table. The only other item was a ten minute item on a public hearing about the Alhambra at Mace Ranch Apartments.

So while the meeting was a bit shorter than anticipated, as agendized they were predicting a 7:30 ending.

I understand that we have had an interim city manager from April until the end of October. I understand that Dirk Brazil has been on the job in full capacity only since November and some of that time was holiday season, but Steve Pinkerton’s first council meeting went until 3 am – granted, it was a disastrous meeting that ended in the water rate implementation that led to the referendum drive and eventually was repealed three months later – but that was a council that had a strong workload throughout.

While I always get blow-back from council when I bring up this point, I’m not exactly sure what this council has done since it was seated back in July.

I am one of the few people that actually thinks the mayor’s healthy children’s initiative is a worthwhile venture. I believe we have a community based crisis in nutrition and care for low income children; the county is certainly not doing near enough and I am equally critical of the schools.

That being said, I am becoming very concerned at the lack of action on a number of items.

First, I was told that as of now there is no plan to agendize a discussion on the parcel tax. It is now December 4, which means we probably have one or two meetings left this calendar year and we are into January. We could, I suppose, get a special election on the ballot for the spring – but clearly that is a longshot now.

Mayor Dan Wolk and Councilmember Brett Lee are on the subcommittee for taxes and the council has reportedly not heard back from them yet. It was approximately a year ago that this subcommittee convened a focus group which recommended both a sales tax and parcel tax.

It is true that the sales tax passed last June and the city ended up in the black by $850,000 from the past fiscal year, but as we have noted a number of times, the infrastructure needs – deferred maintenance on roads – have not been included in budget projections.

Nor has the city received the study of the replacement costs for city buildings and other infrastructure to get a sense of the price tag there.

As we have reported, the city has set enough money aside to make about $4 million per year in annual funding for roads available through the general fund and a special roadway funding.

Back in February of 2013, the Davis City Council received a report that showed that the city’s street and bike paths were in worse condition than previously believed and the level of deferred maintenance was far higher than previously known. The PCI for the city streets was 62 with bike paths at 59.

Pavement conditions decline at a rate of about two to three points per year, so the city now believes that roads are at around a 60 while bike paths are at 56.

The report recommended that the city consider increasing pavement expenditures from $1 million per year to a level that would maintain the current deferred maintenance.

The cost of that would be about $140 million over 20 years or $7 million per year. In follow up meetings, council would discuss scenarios that would allow the city to attempt to meet the funding options. They quickly centered around a scenario that would pay about $25 million up front ($15 million in year one and $10 million in year two, and obtained through a parcel tax) and then $2 to $4 million per year after that for pavement maintenance.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton last year suggested that low-interest loans or increased revenue would be the best approach to create the large, up front funds.

As a September 8, 2014, staff report from Michael Mitchell, the Principal Civil Engineer, noted, “City Staff have allocated $4.7 million to a paving program (Capital Improvement Project 8250). While this amount is less than the $15 million mentioned above for the first year, it is better than the $1 million previously allocated. The $4.7 million will go toward a crack sealing and base repair project this fall and an overlay project next construction season on most or all of the streets that will undergo this season’s crack sealing and base repair. The overlay project next year will include some bike paths and concrete curb, gutter and sidewalk repair as well as ADA compatible ramps.”

Based on this information, the city has the ongoing funding in place. Council deserves a lot of credit for prioritizing funding within the existing general fund budget. What the city lacks however, is the $25 million up front to be able to pour into roads.

There apparently is some question about whether the road costs are really as high as they should be. This is again based on the decreasing costs for oil which has led to potential declines in the 8% average inflation rate on asphalt – but missing from that discussion, as we noted last year, was the dramatic increase in costs to repair roads when the road simply needs overlay versus reconstruction – and that is where much of the roadway costs are going to come from, if we delay.

But again, the parcel tax seems to not be a matter of urgency at this time.

While I think there is prudence to have some patience in this regards. Dirk Brazil has barely been on the job for a month and he is still getting a lay of the land.

Another matter of some import, however, is how the city will manage its fiscal office. Under City Manager Bill Emlen, who was a land use planner, the city’s finance department was run by Paul Navazio.

When Steve Pinkerton was hired, Paul Navazio shortly thereafter ended up leaving to take the City Manager position in Woodland. Mr. Pinkerton was a very hands-on fiscal manager and he brought on Yvonne Quiring to head up the finance department.

Now, with Mr. Pinkerton gone, there is speculation that Ms. Quiring will retire, and Mr. Brazil does not have a background in finance. That leaves us in a rather precarious position on a matter of such import. So we will monitor that situation over the coming months.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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  1. Alan Pryor

    Following are my Public Comments delivered to Council during their most recent December 2 meeting.
    Good Evening. My name is Alan Pryor speaking as a private citizen.

    At the last Council retreat two goals among others were identified for 2015 – 1) Ensure fiscal resilience and 2) Fund, maintain and improve infrastructure

    Funding infrastructure while maintaining fiscal resilience will almost certainly require a parcel tax measure to be put on a ballot sometime in the future. As co-chair or Treasurer of Measure D (the Parks Parcel Tax Measure), Measure I (the Measure authorizing the Surface Water Project ), and Measure O (the Sales Tax Measure), I think I have a pretty good sense of what the good citizens of Davis are willing to pay for.

    Unfortunately, I believe there is currently a general sense of unease on the part of the general public with respect to the Council’s future fiscal responsibility goals. I think many are also starting to feel that the Council is taking the public’s largesse and willingness to fund future City undertakings for granted. Given the high threshold requirement for passage of such a parcel tax measure, these growing concerns must be allayed in order for any future parcel tax measure to succeed. Fortunately, I believe there are some very simple steps the Council can take to placate these public misgivings.

    The first of which was recently identified by our own Bob Dunning in a recent column in which he openly questioned what were the City’s intentions to reduce water rates now that the low interest financing was received from State revolving funds. Rising water rates is still a very big issue with many, many residents of Davis despite the recent settlement of litigation. Moves by the Council to lower the future water rates consistent with the lower interest costs will play well with the local population.

    The 2nd step the City can take is to implement the planned new DWR waste removal contract with green waste containerization in a way that minimizes any potential rate increases or, better yet, lowers them even if only by a small amount. These include holding the line on new franchise and other environmental fees anticipated to be in the contract and ensuring that any services utilized by only a minority of ratepayers are paid for by those specific users and not by the general public at large.

    Thirdly, I understand the waste water enterprise fund is somewhat flush with cash because of sewage plant upgrade cost reductions for which sewer rates were already raised to fund. The City should revisit these costs to see if rate reductions can be made to the obvious benefit of Davis ratepayers.

    Fourth, the Council can move aggressively toward implementing a Community Choice Energy (CCE) program to give residents relief from ever rising PG&E electricity rates. Currently, residents in Marin and Sonoma Counties are enjoying electricity rates from their CCEs that are from 3 to 6 percent less than PG&E’s electricity rates. Further, the electricity the CCEs contract for is produced with 30% lower carbon emissions than similar electricity otherwise provided by PG&E. Providing lower electricity rates while reducing its carbon footprint is a very visible sign to the public that the City leadership is acting in a fiscally conservative and environmentally responsible manner.

    I would urge the Council to direct the URAC to look into these issues with a critical eye towards reducing all utility costs to Davis residents over the coming years to meet only our actual needs (with an appropriate reserve, of course). By doing so, I firmly believe that the various annual utility rates that Davis residents collectively pay for these services could be reduced by an amount equal to or exceeding anything that would be asked for in any new parcel tax measure.

    Doing so would clearly demonstrate to the voting public that the Council does not consider residents to be a never empty piggy bank from which unlimited withdrawals can occur and that you have their financial backs. Without these demonstrable steps toward providing citizen fiscal resilience, I believe any possible future parcel tax measure would be doomed to failure.

    Thank You

    1. Davis Progressive

      one thing that concerns me is that even when bill emlen and the council majority were in charge of the city – we had people like paul navazio who would tell enough people the truth that we could discern through the dissembling.  with dirk in charge with no experience in finance and quiring out the door – who will tell us the truth?

  2. DavisBurns

    The condition of our roads may have benefitted from the lack of rain the last three years.  If we have normal or above average rainfall this winter, we may see the roads show more deterioration than expected.  Good thing it doesn’t freeze here in Davis or they would be even worse.

  3. Anon

    “The first of which was recently identified by our own Bob Dunning in a recent column in which he openly questioned what were the City’s intentions to reduce water rates now that the low interest financing was received from State revolving funds. Rising water rates is still a very big issue with many, many residents of Davis despite the recent settlement of litigation. Moves by the Council to lower the future water rates consistent with the lower interest costs will play well with the local population.”

    Be careful what you wish for.  Lower the rates and it may not pay for the project.

    1. Tia Will

      I do not agree with Bob Dunning or apparently Alan Pryor that good news in the form of low interest financing and cost reductions are reasons for lowering rates when the backlog of repairs is as substantial as being portrayed and all infrastructure repair needs have not yet been taken into account. I believe very strongly in paying for those things that we want as we go in a clearly transparent and proactive manner.

      It seems to me that hiding costs, not fully accounting for all needs, and taking too rosy a view of the city’s finances were a large part of what created our financial difficulties in the first place. I don’t think that some better than expected news should deter us from the responsible course of being willing to pay for what we are using today and for what we have chosen to use in the future.

      1. hpierce

        Let’s be REAL CLEAR.  Water is an enterprise fund.  If there are savings in water system financing, rates can be lowered, or used to fund ‘deferred maintenance/”unmet needs” of the WATER SYSTEM (or buildings, etc. needed for that purpose).  Not one cent can be legally used for other city purposes.

        Tia, there can be no connection between water revenues and unrelated City needs.  Perhaps you did not know that.

        1. hpierce

          Nice “swipe”, Frankly (because, of course, you are).  Obviously, I was referring to law and policy.  Your “shell game” insinuation was cheap.  If you have evidence that this occurs/occurred, then make it public and/or share it with the Grand Jury of Yolo county.  Otherwise, may I suggest a well designed cork?  Your choice of orifice, of course.

        2. Frankly

          hpierce – I was not insinuating illegal movement of money… although from what I can tell I don’t think even a skilled forensic accounting could figure that out.  I am talking about inter-fund transfers (loans?) and other “shell game” tactics.  For example, money was taken from the road maintenance fund to purchase Mace 391.

  4. Barack Palin

    Be careful what you wish for.  Lower the rates and it may not pay for the project.

    Now wait a minute.  The water rates we were sold were predicated partly on the interest rates of the project.  Now that the city secured better rates than projected for a savings of many millions of dollars are you saying the people shouldn’t also partake in the windfall with slightly lower rates?

    1. Anon

      If people conserve more water because of the drought requirements, it is possible there will not be enough to cover the costs of the surface water project.  Remember, the City Council voted for a highly volumetric rate that might come back to bite them you know where!

    1. Anon

      Water rates cover not only the cost of the surface water project, but replacing worn out parts for wells, pipes, etc.  The well and pipe infrastructure if very, very old.

      1. hpierce

        And, operating expenses.  It is like the City owns its own water company.  Salaries, benefits, building costs for those working in the water enterprise, tools, equipment, are also part of the mix.  Amazing how many folk confuse “fees” with taxes.  World of difference.

      2. Barack Palin

        Weren’t all those costs already figured into the water rates that were recently passed?  Now that we are realizing a big discount due to better than expected interest rates the only right thing is to return those funds to the ratepayers in the form of lower water rates.

        1. hpierce

          Or, instead of lowering the current rates, use the money to postpone and/or reduce future rate increases modelled in the rate structure?  I’d rather reduce the fee impacts in the future years rather than reducing the most recent, relatively benign increases.

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