Sunday Commentary: The Vanguard’s View of the Council Accomplishments of 2014-15

Davis Mayor Dan Wolk at the Council Meeting in July
Davis Mayor Dan Wolk at the council meeting in July

This week the mayor published his monthly Mayor’s Corner and called  the past year “a year to remember.” He writes, “This month marks the end of this new City Council’s first year — and my first year as your mayor. And what a year it was. At [the] risk of sounding like a broken record, here are some of the key milestones we have achieved in the past 12 months…”

Naturally, we have a somewhat different view of some accomplishments of the city council and under the leadership of the mayor. So, with all due respect to the mayor, we will use this space to respond.

The mayor writes: “Adopted a balanced budget with a 15-percent ‘rainy day’ reserve. The budget makes targeted investments in roads, police officer recruitment, the Senior Center and the Rainbow City play structure in Community Park.”

This reminds us of the 2008 claims by the council majority of a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve. The problem is that, just as it was in 2008, the accomplishment is an illusion. While the council has started to discuss infrastructure needs, none of that is included in the budget. The budget is balanced mainly due to the fact that the voters passed the sales tax in 2014. Without the sales tax, we would be in the red and, once the sales tax expires, we will be in the red. As such, this does not appear to be worthy of plaudits.

The mayor writes, “Made great strides in the water project, from adopting a fair and straightforward rate structure, to settling litigation, to securing millions in low-interest loans from the state.”

This is one area where Dan Wolk deserves a lot of credit. He came in last summer, sat down with the litigants and came to an agreement that allowed them to settle with the opponents, paving the day for the implementation of the new rates. However, recently we have heard from the plaintiffs that the city has failed to carry out its side of the bargain – more on that in the coming weeks.

Next he writes, “Hired City Manager Dirk Brazil, who has done an impressive job — including working with former City Manager John Meyer to make positive changes in the organization.”

I would give the city manager mixed reviews so far. Bringing on John Meyer was fine, but we have seen a lack of leadership on fiscal matters. Mr. Brazil’s comment that there would be no further take-backs on employee compensation, despite very thin margins on the budget, was concerning. His handling of economic development and the dismissal of Rob White was alarming.

Dan Wolk writes, “Approved a citywide green waste containerization and composting program.”

Other than the strange affinity for the “claw,” we are supportive of this project, although it was largely a continuation of previous initiatives.

He writes, “Accomplished, with our Yolo County partners, particularly First 5 Yolo, a number of goals of the Healthy Families Initiative, including implementing key ‘safe routes to schools’ projects, regulating soda in kids’ meals and helping to initiate the ‘Help Me Grow’ effort to screen children for behavioral and developmental challenges.”

The soda initiative was controversial, though the Vanguard supported it. We are concerned about safe routes to school, and do not believe that the city has done nearly enough to improve them.

Mayor Wolk does not mention the CFD (Community Facilities District) controversy, which we believe will harm future efforts by the city. On the plus side, the city is apparently continuing the shared management for fire until at least the end of 2016. The fact that this has become increasingly a non-issue is critical. The city manager was supportive of it in concept and things seem to be calming down on the fire front after a tumultuous start.

The mayor then lays out “key challenges we will be tackling over the next year.”

“Economic development: Two significant economic development projects remain on track — Mace Innovation Center abutting East Davis and the Nishi mixed-use development, near Richards Boulevard and Olive Drive. Both are on schedule for a 2016 vote. These projects have a potential to bring much-needed jobs and revenue to our community.”

In addition to the loss of our CIO, the city also lost one of the proposed Innovation Centers. At this point we are skeptical about the chances of either two remaining projects passing. Opposition seems to be mounting and the city seems to have lost key momentum.

Reinvestment in infrastructure: At its last meeting in July, the City Council agreed in concept to placing a utility user tax measure on the ballot in June 2016 that would help to fund needs like roads, bike lanes, parks and Community Pool. These are the items that make Davis Davis and are in sore need of revitalization. After its summer recess, the City Council will work on the specifics of the measure.”

We finally saw the plan which appears to be utilizing a Utility User Tax. We have expressed a number of concerns about this project – the lack of accountability, the poor connection between utility usage and infrastructure, the low success rate of UUTs across the state, and the inability of the council to make concrete promises on the usage of revenues.

“Sports park: Also at its last meeting in July, the City Council unanimously agreed to form a task force to work efficiently and effectively on developing a proposal to meet our community’s demonstrated need for more playing fields. This is an idea that has been around for a long while; the time has come to address it and we will be doing so this fall.”

The Vanguard is strongly opposed to the building of a sports park until critical infrastructure needs have been dealt with. The council, in our view, supported the task force as a way to separate the questions, not necessarily as a showing of support for the sports park.

“Renewable energy: Over the next few months, the city will be working on developing a community choice energy program, which will give residents the ability to keep their existing utility while choosing whether to receive more of their energy from renewable resources, including solar. CCEs have been successful in other jurisdictions, and we will be working hard over the next few months to bring such a program to our community.”

While the CCE is a way forward, it does not accomplish a key goal of separating the city from PG&E.

Maintain fiscal stability: The adopted budget is very prudent, disciplined and tackles long-term budgetary liabilities. As the fiscal year unfolds, we will need to be focused on ensuring that the city remains fiscally sound.”

As we have expressed before – our view of the budget is very different. We have presented our concerns about the budget process here before, starting with the fact that we appear now to be reliant on the renewal of a tax measure that was billed to the public as “temporary” and “emergency.” However, it is clear that the city goes immediately back into the red as soon as the taxes expire after the 2020-21 fiscal year.

We also have not seen the fact addressed that our budget is barely holding into the black at a time where we are at a historic low in terms of number of full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. At 352, we are down a full 100 from the peak. Those cuts were largely done by attrition and without much regard as to services provided and workload. The question is whether we can assume that, over the next decade, we can continue to operate at 352 FTE. Again, it seems likely that we will need to grow the number of employees to a more workable level.

Finally, the precarious nature of the budget suggests that we ought to examine employee compensation once again to see if we can gain cost savings there, but the city manager precluded that possibility by stating at the budget and finance commission meeting that he will not seek any additional concessions from employee bargaining groups.

In sum, things have improved, but they are extremely precarious. It is not that we are still facing challenges, it is that the recovery right now leaves us with absolutely zero room for error, even with the current sales tax revenues in place.

Economic development is definitely the longer term strategy to pursue, but even if the voters approved the Mace Ranch Innovation Park in June 2016, it might be ten years before the build out is sufficient to start adding to our revenues, and 20 to 50 years before the build out is complete.

In the meantime, we go red – as it stands now – in 2021. That’s the reality that we face.

—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.

Related posts

8 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    columns like dan’s will make it hard for me to vote for him.  as an announced candidate, not sure why he’s being published anyway.

  2. Topcat

    In sum, things have improved, but they are extremely precarious. It is not that we are still facing challenges, it is that the recovery right now leaves us with absolutely zero room for error,

    Yes, rather than a lot of happy talk from the mayor, I’d like to see some real honesty about the long term financial prospects for the City.  This would, of course include all the long term liabilities and critical infrastructure updates that the City will be facing in the future.

    1. Barack Palin

      Yes, we fell for this same balanced budget line years ago and the public was stupid enough to fall for it.  As David states, it’s just an illusion.

  3. Anon

    In sum, things have improved, but they are extremely precarious.”

    Reading the Vanguard’s column, they pretty much track in essentials with what the Mayor has said.  My take from Mayor Wolk’s column is that there have been some good accomplishments by the city over the past year, but we still have challenges ahead.

    Example: Innovation parks

    Vanguard: “In addition to the loss of our CIO, the city also lost one of the proposed Innovation Centers. At this point we are skeptical about the chances of either two remaining projects passing. Opposition seems to be mounting and the city seems to have lost key momentum.”

    Vanguard: “Economic development is definitely the longer term strategy to pursue, but even if the voters approved the Mace Ranch Innovation Park in June 2016, it might be ten years before the build out is sufficient to start adding to our revenues, and 20 to 50 years before the build out is complete.”

    The fact of the matter is the city has two viable innovation park options on the table, Mace and Nishi, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, in a city that tends to be averse to economic development.  Yes, it will be quite a few years before buildout, which highlights the need for a economic bridge until then, such as a parcel/UUT tax.  Opposition is mounting?  What evidence is there of that?  The Binning Tract folks, who won’t even vote in the election for innovation parks?  They are not likely a force to be reckoned with, and frankly have shot themselves in the foot IMO.  If the Vanguard continually gives the opposition more credit than their numbers deserve, the Vanguard is helping to fulfill its own prophecy that the innovation parks will fail.  If the Vanguard feels economic development is the strategy for the city to pursue, then why not actively support it, rather than the gloom and doom statement that the Vanguard is skeptical an innovation park will ever succeed?

    Example: Budget

    Vanguard: “As we have expressed before – our view of the budget is very different. We have presented our concerns about the budget process here before, starting with the fact that we appear now to be reliant on the renewal of a tax measure that was billed to the public as “temporary” and “emergency.” However, it is clear that the city goes immediately back into the red as soon as the taxes expire after the 2020-21 fiscal year.

    Vanguard: “In sum, things have improved, but they are extremely precarious. It is not that we are still facing challenges, it is that the recovery right now leaves us with absolutely zero room for error, even with the current sales tax revenues in place.”

    The Vanguard concedes Mayor Wolk’s point that things have improved; and concedes the city is still facing challenges, which Mayor Wolk also noted.  So it doesn’t sound to me as if the views of the Mayor and the Vanguard are “very different”, other than the Mayor chooses to look at the glass half full, whereas the Vanguard almost always chooses to view the glass half empty.  Yes the sales tax expires in 2021, but that doesn’t mean citizens will not renew it if they see that it is a necessary fiscal bridge until well-planned innovation parks come online that will generate substantial tax revenue.

    I could continue on and pick apart the Vanguard’s article piece by piece, but that would be overkill in terms of the point I am trying to make.  Why not say, “Yes we agree with Mayor Wolk that things have improved, but we do have concern about the expiration of the sales tax in 2021.  If it were not renewed, the city budget would be in the red again.”  It is a nuanced difference, but this article sounds too much like a hit piece on Mayor Dan. JMO

     

  4. hpierce

    David… you try to mke the point, “but the city manager that precluded that possibility by stating at the budget and finance commission meeting that he will not seek any additional concessions from employee bargaining groups.”

    I take exception to the first highlighted passage.  The second sounds like he is indicating that HE will not be recommending the additional concessions.  The reason I take exception to the first, is that the CC gives the CM his marching orders.  If he doesn’t “march” he will face possible dismissal, on a 3-2 vote, on any given Tuesday night (properly noticed).

    For those who want to see additional “employee concessions”, contact the CC members, copying the CM.

    But to say that the CM has precluded anything, is either an opinion, and/or BS. It is not a “fact”, as David “reports”

    1. Matt Williams

      pierce, as a Finance and Budget Commission member, I was at the FBC meeting when Dirk said it. I, and may other FBC members all sat up and took notice when he said it. David may be “reporting” but what he is reporting was said is factually correct.

      With that said, the other points you make are arguably true. However, they don’t call the governance model that Davis has in place the “Weak Mayor, Strong City Manager” model for no good reason.

  5. scotch

    Wow!  Dan must be a great mayor!  What a string of accomplishments!  Before reading this, I had concerns about infrastructure, particularly deteriorating roads and bike trails, underfunded pension expenses, a poor tax base augmented by a sales tax increase that is only temporary, and other proposed taxes to add to my already lengthy property tax bill.  But now it seems not only is the city solvent, but Dan is proposing a large multi sport complex on the north edge of town, funded, I presume, by the city.   As my friend Candide said, this must be the best of all possible cities.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for