It is easy to understand why the Davis City Council took the action that they did last week by pushing the issue of a Sports Park to a special advisory committee, rather than dealing with it as a potential project to be funded by the proposed utility user tax.
Still, listening to the comments on Tuesday night, there was a real sense that most of the advocates for the Sports Park saw the world through the eyes of their narrow interests rather than the totality of the situation faced by the city.
It is this totality I wish to speak towards this morning, because Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis probably hit on the overriding consideration when he said, “I have no illusion that we’re going to be able to raise enough money to cover all of the backlogs that we currently have.”
Everybody wants to celebrate that things are getting better – but the reality is that, while the economy has improved, the long-term picture looks very bleak. People want to talk about the importance of sports and youth recreational programs – and I agree – but there is also the importance of fiscal solvency and core infrastructure.
The truth is we live in a society where great universities erect stadiums for hundreds of millions of dollars, at the same time when faculty is being laid off and tuition for students is either pricing students out of school or saddling them with a lifetime of student loan debt.
Given that not one person on council and not one staff member disputed, refuted, or even questioned Robb Davis’ comment about not being able to raise enough money to cover our backlogs – do we have any business talking about sports facilities?
Right now we don’t really know the full extent of our infrastructure needs. How bad are the roads? The estimate in February 2013 was that the immediate backlog was $150 million and if we did not infuse tens of millions into road maintenance, the city could be facing a $444 million hole down the line. Ultimately, the council took on the scenario of pumping money into the problem but reducing the overall quality of our roads to about a PCI of 63 rather than the previous goal of 70.
What we do not know is how much more we will have to pay for parks, building, and other infrastructure. At the estimated $5.3 million in annual revenue, the tax is expected to provide about $106 million over the next twenty years. If the council can maintain its discipline and keep the $4 million currently reserved for roads, we may be able to fund most of our infrastructure needs with this tax.
But that assumes a lot.
As we have noted, our current projected budget forecast is precarious at best. We stay in the black, if we can continue the 1 percent sales tax past 2020-21 – but barely. That assumes no employee increases and continued economic growth, both of which at this point seem dubious to hold for the next decade.
City projections presently show the city fund balance returning to the red if voters do not renew Measure O in 2020 or the city employees get even a 1 percent annual COLA.
The model also assumes that the city remain at record low city staffing levels, down over 100 FTE since 2008.
While there are those who believe we will grow more quickly, our planning should assume a very modest and conservative growth rate.
That leads many to believe that the city’s savior will be economic development. Indeed, many slow-growthers such as myself saw economic development as the key to saving the city’s budget.
There was a brief window where this all looked possible. In the aftermath of the defeat of Mace 391,there seemed to be a consensus forming about the need for some sort of business or innovation park. The city put out for proposals and got three proposals, two of which resulted in applications.
However, in the last year, much of that momentum seems to be lost. The Davis Innovation Center has “paused” their process and there is no reason to believe they will restart. The city jettisoned its well-respected Chief Innovation Office and replaced him with someone lacking economic development experience, who comes with a much lower salary and total compensation.
There has been pushback on the parks from those in the community.
All is not lost of course. There is still the Mace Ranch Innovation Proposal. Nishi, while being modest in terms of innovation square footage, still has a fighting chance to win a Measure R vote.
There are also some internal options that figure to inject tax revenue down the line. One is the Hotel Conference Center that was pushed forward last week by the Planning Commission. The other is the Panattoni Business Park. And there are the startup efforts like Pollinate Davis and Davis Roots.
But in terms of property tax and sales tax generating projects, those were always going to be the innovation parks. A big question going forward is whether the council will put a Measure R vote on the June 2016 ballot next to their own candidacies.
Delaying the project, to late 2016 or 2017, delays the build out of the parks. We could reasonably be looking at these projects not breaking ground for two, three, even four years from now – even if they should pass a Measure R vote. That pushes meaningful taxes out potentially ten years or so.
There has been a lot of talk about economic development as the savior for the city, but even if that is true, we have pushed the time horizon out far enough that, realistically, we are looking at ten years at best before such revenue starts to help us – and if you looked at the projections lately, you would see that we need a lot of help before then.
Given all of that, should we be thinking about asking voters to approve a tax for a sports park? I do agree that such facilities are beneficial to the community – however, I would prefer to see it privately financed, privately run, and the operating expenses privately managed. If that happens, it is a win-win situation for the community.
But any talk of using tax dollars for a Sports Parks, even in a separate vote, diverts us from the current pressing needs which are quite serious and have implications that go well beyond sports facilities.
—David M. Greenwald reporting