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