On Tuesday night, the Davis City Council voted to create the Sports Park Task Force, amending the composition slightly to allow for each councilmember to select one member each, with the rest of the composition from the pre-designated groups.
The Vanguard pointed out earlier this week that the make up of the task force was heavily skewed, or stacked, in favor of those who would support having a task force.
This was an issue that Elaine Roberts Musser raised, noting that if the purpose is “to explore the idea of what a sports park would look like or that sort of thing, I don’t really have a problem with the make up.”
But, she added, “There’s been a point raised by the Vanguard that is this fair if what you’re talking about is whether we need a sports park. That’s what you need to make very clear.”
For Councilmember Rochelle Swanson who made the motion, the issue isn’t whether we need a sports complex. She said, “We know we need a sports complex.” She said anyone who has had a kid in sports in this community knows what it’s like to be in a car driving across the region.
“The idea for the task is it’s not if, because we do need it, it becomes the where and the how,” she said.
But does everyone else in this community agree with Councilmember Swanson? Shouldn’t the first question we ask be whether we need a sports park?
There are several problems I keep coming back to on this issue. The first is that we have increasingly finite resources in our community and a growing list of needs from roads to parks to infrastructure to bike paths, city buildings and pools.
It is all well and good to say we can separate the question of a sports complex from the question about a utility user tax or a parcel tax. But in the end, whether it is roads, parks, sports complex, or school parcel tax – it is one pie and a bunch of competing needs.
The question, therefore, is probably poorly cast as needs versus wants, and more properly cast as where it falls on the list of expensive priorities.
There was a report this week that CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) officials are preparing for the fact that, with the retirement of baby boomers, payouts will exceed fund contributions. Therefore, the retirement fund is once again considering a proposal to lower its assumed rate of return, even following several periods of strong performances.
This change would once again require the city to pay more into the system to keep it running.
Part of the problem that we face here in Davis, along with the rest of the state, is that decisions we made 10 to 20 years ago have repercussions now that will impact our ability to commit to new projects.
I also very respectfully disagree with Elaine Roberts Musser on her comment – I still have a problem with the make up of the committee even if the question is “how” rather than “if.”
Here’s why that remains important, and it has to do with the funding mechanisms.
While the ability of each councilmember to appoint their own representation is crucial and could mitigate some of my concerns – I think there is a danger that if you have a committee with only one person who understands the state of the city’s finances, those considerations will be under-appreciated by the body overall.
The danger I see rests in the nature of sports leagues in the city. What happens is people get involved in them when their kids are young and in sports, and then when their kids grow up, they drop out of their involvement.
So the people involved today will not be the same people involved in even in five years, and certainly in 10 years. Without the perpetual commitment of the sports league, funding sources are likely to wither and dry up, and that leaves the city in a bind – do they allow their assets to deteriorate or do they pump public money into them to make sure that the fields are safe and well-maintained?
This week I laid out the thin line that the city is perched on for being able to pay its bills. And in some ways, as a reader rightly pointed out, I actually gave the city budget more credit than it deserved.
I stated that the city is in the black. That was technically true. But the reality is that the city faces far more in deferred maintenance deficit and unfunded liabilities than it uses each year for the general fund. While that does not at least presently present a solvency danger, it does demonstrate that the city’s finances are not in great shape.
The city’s general fund is propped up by deferred maintenance, by a temporary sales tax, and a lot of hope in the future about economic development – much of which will be dependent on the whims of the voters.
So I think a vital question ought to be whether we can afford to make this commitment, because I don’t think we can rely on the voluntary sports organizations to pay the ongoing costs. It would be nice if they could, but relying on it, I think, sets us up for more problems down the line.
In 2010, the Vanguard wrote a commentary that the MOU that the city council approved by a 3-2 vote effectively punted the problem to the next council. That is exactly what happened. And, in effect, it punted the problem beyond the next council to where we are still paying for it.
The city manager, by refusing to consider additional employee concessions in this round, is doing the same thing.
If the council wants to build a sports complex, then I think it needs to be the one to do it. It needs to figure out the financing. And it needs to be public and not private financing, so that we are honest about what the future costs are most likely to be.
In my view, we have the danger that, if people on the task force are not taking a skeptical and oppositional view, these types of tough questions can be glossed over.
I urge the council to make this a fair process. Structure a more balanced approach here, with more people who can speak to fiscal, management and open space concerns. Make the first question be whether we need this and, second, how it would be funded, both in the construction as well as the maintenance.
If we do that, at least this process won’t appear to be rigged from the start.
I am not necessarily opposed to the idea that we may need additional sports facilities in this community. I do think we need a discussion about where these fit into a very long list of expensive community needs, and I don’t think this task force is equipped to address that question.
I also fear that the timing of the completion of this will be the spring, and three of the members on council will be facing various forms of elections – that might not be the best time for tough and possibly unpopular choices.
—David M. Greenwald reporting