On Sunday, Eileen Samitz in her guest column wrote that a “Sports Complex on Toxic Former City Landfill Site Is a Bad Idea.” While her focus is on environmental impact and land use policies, my bigger concern, in addition to the specifics of the proposal, is the best use of scarce tax money.
This week the Davis City Council will discuss the potential Utility User Tax which could charge utility customers as much as 5.5 percent of their utility bill to generate revenues of $5.3 million. Such tax revenue is much needed in a city where crumbling roads, bike paths and sidewalks figure to top $150 million and probably by a large margin.
However, our concern from the start has been the potential of putting “need to have” projects, such as roads and other infrastructure, with luxury items such as pools and a sports complex.
As Ms. Samitz points out, “Another major concern is that it sounds like there is an implied potential to include this expensive sports complex to be ‘piggy-backed’ onto a possible special tax for repairs of roads and our community pools and possibly other City capital infrastructure repair and maintenance cost shortfalls.”
She writes, “The current estimate of $24 million just to build the sports complex is staggering, and this does not even include long-term maintenance and operational costs.”
Sports groups have long promised that if the city built the facilities, they could maintain them. But several officials have expressed grave doubts about such promises and fear that the city could be left holding the bag when a small group of volunteers see their kids grow up with no one behind them committed to keeping up their bargain.
The bigger problem is that the city is staring down a huge hole just on roads, sidewalks and bike paths. We have seen estimates of up to $150 million, especially given the current rate of replacement of declining pavement conditions.
The city has just now undertaken a study aimed at assessing infrastructure needs and building repairs, parks, and other infrastructure. We do not even know the full costs of critical needs.
And yet, on the list of potential items is the $24 million sports complex and the 50-meter pool, with estimated costs of $9 to $10 million.
That quickly pushes our costs into the range of $200 million. Put it this way – if we continue to take in $5.3 million it would take 37 years to deal with that $200 million in deferred maintenance. The city will perhaps look to bond off that $5.3 million revenue stream, but without looking much further into the financials, what seems like a good chunk of money to address our roads needs combined with the $4 million we have already set aside, will quickly be eaten up by expanding the pool of needs.
The worst part here – as we pointed out over the weekend – is that there are simply no guarantees. The current council could decide to use the Utility User Tax strictly for roads and essential infrastructure. However, once the voters pass the taxes, the voters lose all control over spending options.
A future council could simply decide to move money towards a sports complex or a 50-meter pool and, short of recalling councilmembers or voting to rescind the tax – which is clearly much-needed, the public will have little recourse.
Special interests, of course, have the power to help frame the agenda. 100 people who wish for there to be a new 50-meter pool, or 150 people who clamor for the sports park, can shape a future council’s agenda to move money in those directions.
In other words, council saying no now will have little bearing on whether a future council will say no in a year or two when the money is in place.
City staff has proposed one possible solution for keeping the UUT a general tax but still demonstrating the public’s desire for spending priorities – the advisory tax. The problem with an advisory tax is readily apparent. The council just last year realized its limited utility and impracticality and decided not to go that route – while disappointing, it was probably a good decision.
Besides, there is no guarantee, given the apparent numbers in the community, that the swimming and sports community couldn’t generate sufficient public support for those projects – ignoring what some would consider more critical and pressing needs for maintaining our roadways and existing infrastructure.
From our perspective, the bottom line is that we need to find a way to address our pressing infrastructure needs and put off luxury projects to another day when we have more in the way of resources and less in the way of needs.
And, yes, that day may be far off and that may in fact be the price that we all have to pay for a decade of reckless spending and no public scrutiny.
— David M. Greenwald reporting