Commentary: Council Should Prioritize Spending… Oh Wait, They Have

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In recent days, the Vanguard has noted what would appear to be a trend. The city finances have come in better than expected. There has been talk, at least, about some sort of increase of employee compensation – perhaps that would be in a form of a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment), perhaps more substantial.

At the same time, there has been talk about potentially co-mingling revenue efforts for roads with a a new swimming complex and now a sports park. However, not only is there a belief that such co-mingling could undermine community support for vital infrastructure, there is disagreement about the priorities.

As Councilmember Brett Lee put it last June, “It’s [useful] to split the ‘need to have’ versus the ‘nice to have’. Road and sidewalk – need to have. Swimming pool upgraded facility – that’s a nice to have.”

Moreover, as Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis, who was not yet on the council last June when these discussion took place, told the Vanguard on Monday morning: “I do not recall this being discussed during Council goal setting nor was it approved as a goal of this council. I question the wisdom of using a utility tax or innovation park development agreement funds to fund it.”

He added, “I also question the wisdom of building new infrastructure if we are not paying for the infrastructure we already have. I have been consistent in calling for an identification of all current infrastructure replacement costs and beginning to intentionally budget for them. That should be our focus in my view: pay first to maintain what we have.”

The city still faces serious economic obstacles. Roads alone are coming in at a price tag of well over $100 million. The city may have utilized the sales tax and cut over 100 positions from government, along with reforming employee medical cashout and the structure of OPEB, and transitioned the employees to pay their share of PERS – all of which staved off potential bankruptcy for the city.

But the city still remains in perilous shape. We still need to address our backlog of unfunded liabilities and to address our infrastructure needs.

Adding goodies to necessities makes it appear to the average citizen that we no longer have a funding crisis. We must therefore prioritize our spending to address the necessities first.

If only the city council had laid out their priorities, we might have avoided these kinds of disputes. Oh wait – they did. In fact, it was on February 3, 2015, just over three months ago that the council last worked with the list of goals that were developed in November 2014 and approved on December 2, 2014.

  1. Ensure fiscal resilience
  2. Drive innovation and economic vitality
  3. Pursue environmental sustainability
  4. Build and promote a vibrant downtown
  5. Promote community
  6. Fund, maintain and improve infrastructure
  7. Ensure a safe and healthy community
  8. Foster positive workplace dynamics

It is important to note that these were consensus goals. At the outset, note that several of these goals are interrelated, notably ensure fiscal resilience, drive innovation and economic vitality, and build and promote a vibrant downtown.

When the Vanguard talked to Robb Davis last week, he cited the council goal of resilience, which he saw in part as economic, “in that we’re not over-relying on a single sector to drive the economy or to provide the resources that we need to have the city services.”

But also contained within that goal was the notion that the city “[e]nsure labor contracts reflect long-term sustainability to support delivery of services.”

We will focus right now on No. 6 because, as Robb Davis noted on Monday, neither the sports park nor the pools were included in Goal 6 – “Fund, Maintain and Improve Infrastructure.”

Instead, there were five sub-components. First, “Evaluate water conservation strategies on greenbelts and in parks and include community participation.” This is not just a drought-related deal, but part of the huge cost increases to the general fund that were going to be the costs of water for greenbelts and parks.

Second, “Develop plans and funding strategies to address the long term needs of the community in planning for infrastructure and city assets.” Among the sub-components of this are to develop a reserve policy for funding infrastructure, assess condition of city assets and infrastructure, and survey streets and bike paths for conditions and maintenance assumptions on a regular basis.

Third was to sustain existing infrastructure, identifying areas where improvements are necessary.

Fourth is “provide a safe and efficient circulation system.” This includes bike circulation and safety along with sidewalks.

Finally, “Address long-term maintenance and funding needs for parks, open spaces and wildlife habitat areas.” Part of what the parcel tax might need to address is the fact that the parks tax passed in 2012 only maintained current funding, it did not increase to levels where existing infrastructure could be upgraded or repaired.

The Davis City Council, therefore, over the course of three different meetings laid out their goals and priorities. These goals and priorities did not include co-mingling the necessities – infrastructure needs that were clearly identified – roads, sidewalks, bike paths, greenbelts, parks, and buildings.

They did not include seeking funding for a swimming complex, even though that was at least discussed last spring. They certainly did not include new funding for a sports complex.

It is worth noting that it is not clear that there will be a two-thirds level of support for even just roads. When the council polled a year ago, they found that the voters would not support funding at the $150 per year parcel tax level for infrastructure. Moreover, even at $100, the support was only 62 percent, 5 percentage points below the two-thirds threshold.

At the time, many of the Vanguard’s readers balked at the idea of including pools in the mix. Now the mayor is talking about adding a $25 million sports complex at a time when the parcel tax itself is in doubt, despite the hundreds of millions that the city needs to shore up critical infrastructure.

Mayor Wolk told the paper that a ballot measure could come in June 2016 in the form of a utility users tax. He says that “an advisory measure would accompany the effort, which if passed, would ask voters ‘how do you want that money spent? Roads, pools, a sports park …’”

That was definitely news to several of his colleagues who had thought they had already laid out their priorities – and a sports complex was not one of them.

It is not simply a matter that we can put the tax on the ballot and see if the voters will support it, because their support for a sports park could also come at the expense of more critical infrastructure needs.

Our suggestion would be to shelve this idea until the critical needs are addressed and then revisit it perhaps in 2018 when we can see where things are headed more clearly.

—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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17 thoughts on “Commentary: Council Should Prioritize Spending… Oh Wait, They Have”

  1. sisterhood

    “It is not simply a matter that we can put the tax on the ballot and see if the voters will support it because their support for a sports park could also come at the expense of more critical infrastructure needs.”

    Agreed.

    I guess some folks will think I have no business commenting on this, since I don’t pay taxes in Davis any longer, except when I’m visiting dear friends there.

    A sports complex is not needed. I view it as another divisive measure to separate the haves vs. the have nots. There’s enough of that already going around in your town, IMHO.

  2. Topcat

    Now the Mayor is talking about adding a $25 million sports complex at a time when the parcel tax itself is in doubt despite the hundreds of millions that the city needs to shore up critical infrastructure.

    I see fixing the critical infrastructure as a much higher priority than a new sports complex.  There are a lot of venues around the city already for sports.  Sure, it would be nice to have more.  Perhaps a private funder or private company could be found to build and operate a sports complex at no cost to the taxpayers?

    1. sisterhood

      “…operate a sports complex at no cost to the taxpayers?”

      …And free uniforms & equipment for any child who wants to participate.

    2. Mark West

      I’m not sure why this is being viewed as an either/or proposition.  I have stated many times that I believe we need to fully and transparently address our unfunded fiscal obligations, but I do not see why we cannot also invest in our future at the same time.  Are we so simple minded as a community that we cannot conceive of doing more than one thing at a time, or making plans that extend beyond the current fiscal year?

      How much will it actually cost to build out the sports park?  How much of that cost can be covered by non-City funds, such as Federal grants, cost sharing with an expanding solar project, and perhaps the sale of surplus property.  The current Little League fields would become surplus once the new park was constructed so that land could be sold. Similarly, there would no longer be the current high demand for Nugget Fields for soccer games allowing the School District to sell that land, perhaps putting some of those funds towards the reconstruction of Community Pool for use by the High Schools.  A new 50 meter pool at Community could allow for redevelopment (sale?) of the Civic pool site as well.  How about having some of the costs covered by the development agreement for a new business parks as a compensatory ‘perk’ for the community to help offset some detrimental impact.

      Facing up to our current backlog of infrastructure costs is a necessary requirement for the City, but so is planning and investing in the things that make this City a nice place to live.  I believe it is fiscally prudent to do both at the same time, and not limit ourselves simply because there are those who both fear the future and lack the imagination to see a way forward.

       

       

       

      1. Don Shor

        I have stated many times that I believe we need to fully and transparently address our unfunded fiscal obligations, but I do not see why we cannot also invest in our future at the same time.

        The premise of the Enterprise article was that this proposal would require a tax increase. You figure out a way to do it without a tax increase, I’m sure it will be more popular.

  3. Alan Miller

    such co-mingling could undermine community support for vital infrastructure

    It certainly would undermine my support.

    Perhaps a private funder or private company could be found to build and operate a sports complex at no cost to the taxpayers?

    And that’s the municipal funding scheme joke of the day.

    1. Davis Progressive

      wolk already is running for higher office.  this is a clear effort by him to engage the support of what he considers key constituencies.

      unfortunately by attempting to latch the sports stuff onto critical roads needs, he actually undermines those efforts.  a lot of people are skeptical of the city’s parcel tax proposal believing that it is a ruse to raise employee compensation.  that is further undermined by the mayor attempting to stick the sports parks on.

      moreover, there are large and mobilized audiences who will now flood city hall and attempt to get the remaining councilmembers to cave.

    2. Tia Will

      BP

      It looks like he already knows how to add pork to other projects.”

      “Pork”  is the word commonly used by those when referring to projects that they do not support.” Needed infrastructure” is the expression for “pork”….ooops, excuse me…..projects that the speaker does support. I am with Mark West conceptually on this. Before we start declaring what we will and won’t support, how about seeing some actual numbers and suggestions on how funding might be obtained ?

      1. Jim Frame

        Before we start declaring what we will and won’t support, how about seeing some actual numbers and suggestions on how funding might be obtained ?

        We *have* seen some actual numbers, Tia:  $100M in deferred capital maintenance, upward of $5M per year in increased retiree costs, and an as-yet-unknown (to me, anyway) rise in the cost of the water that keeps the parks green.  All that’s *before* we start talking about new swimming pools, sports fields or staff raises.

        Suggestions on how we might fund these have also been discussed at length.  There aren’t any easy answers, and they all have downsides.  Raising taxes is one option, but it faces some formidable obstacles that will limit the amount of revenue available.  Creating one or more innovation parks is another, but it’s not yet clear how much of the unfunded deficit these will support, and — like any growth — they bring some undesirable change along with the good.

        Finally, because past councils have so badly mislead the citizenry about the city’s financial health, many of us are no longer inclined to go along with the “just trust us” mantra.  We want the enormous financial problems we face today fixed, *then* maybe we’ll listen to proposals for shiny new toys.

         

        1. Barack Palin

          Yes, with my water bill tripling in 5 years and a soon to be applied up to 39% drought surcharge I can’t wait to have a utility tax added so I can pay for pools and a new sports complex.

  4. TrueBlueDevil

    Do we even know if the fix of the water leaks at the community pool worked? Pretty key, given that we are in a big drought. The city should double down on this effort, and the Vanguard would do us a service by following up with the powers that be.

    Today’s Enterprise said the $900,000 city windfall in revenues will be put into a reserve fund. It also said Yolo County has something like $700M+ in needed road repairs, and Davis has the worst roads in Yolo County.

    The city is apparently looking at some kind of utility tax or user fees that would require just a simple majority on a vote, not a super majority.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i think you’d be better off not going by the enterprise article.  first of all, it has several errors and omissions.  second, dan wolk may be looking into a utility tax, but that doesn’t mean “the city” is.

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