Yesterday’s commentary noted that the city’s messaging on the road congestion missed a critical opportunity to inform the public of the ongoing challenges the city faces in the repair of infrastructure – specifically roads, sidewalks, bike paths, parks, greenbelts, swimming pools and city buildings.
Several of the points made by readers were critical in understanding the disconnect on some issues. One of them noted that at a recent block party a group of well-educated working people really didn’t know about or read the Vanguard. They knew about things like plastic bag bans, MRAP, and KetMoRee, but “nobody there really had a good sense of the city’s true financial picture. The common perspective was that the city was doing well again. That we were out of the woods after the Great Recession.”
Part of the problem is that for those not reading the Vanguard, there is not a lot of coverage of the city’s financial picture.
Or as Don Shor noted in a follow up comment: “Four pages of hits at the Enterprise looking for ‘budget’ yields this total coverage of city budget issues. There was far more coverage of school district budget issues.”
He pulled up just four articles in the last year on the city budget – and three were positive: “City budget outlook brightens,” May 12, 2015; “The Mayor’s Corner: Give thanks for better budget news,” Nov 30, 2014; “Grim city budget looks rosier,” Nov 16, 2014; and “More tax revenues alone will not solve our city’s budget troubles,” Rich Rifkin, Apr 15, 2015.
A search for Bob Dunning and “unfunded liabilities” on Google turns up no hits. Bob Dunning hasn’t written about deferred maintenance either. But he has written over a dozen articles that mention the city’s sugary beverage ordinance in the last year. And he has written plenty on the city’s water rates and drought restrictions.
The other night I had a conversation with a councilmember about, among other things, the lack of declared council candidates to this point. Right now it appears we have incumbents Brett Lee and Lucas Frerichs running for sure, and challenger Matt Williams joining them, with Dan Wolk running for Assembly. As the Vanguard has pointed out, it is too soon to tell about the number of candidates – as November, January and even February and March has regularly brought candidates out of the woodwork.
Part of what is driving the lack of candidates is the perception by many that things are good in the city – and I think that’s largely perception.
On the city’s fiscal front, the passage of the sales tax certainly bought us some immediate time. But while the council should be commended for carving out $4 million on roads and launching $12 million in road repair projects in this fiscal year and next, the reality is that we have over $100 million, perhaps $150 in deferred maintenance right now in roads – and so, while we have greatly inconvenienced residents driving around town, we have just scratched the surface in need.
The larger fiscal picture is not great. As we have pointed out numerous times since June, the ten-year budget projections, to me, look very bleak. We remain in the nominal “black,” ignoring infrastructure costs that will likely take a new tax hike to address, until and unless the sales tax increase drops off. We then end up right back in the red.
The city manager, as we have noted, has taken the possibility of employee concessions off the table for the next three to four years, which basically means that, at best, we have a zero-increase in costs. But the city has talked about a small COLA (Cost-of-Living Adjustment), which could push us back into the red within a few years. At the state level, talk about increasing costs to pensions as the Baby Boomers hit retirement could also push us back into the red.
Even under the best conditions, the budget seems on the brink of going back into the red – again, not taking infrastructure needs into account. The economy is actually itself losing some steam and, even if it weren’t, within the next ten years, we’re likely to hit another downturn.
On the revenue front, the Hotel Conference Center, when built, could provide us with some good revenue, but that process figures to bog down some in legal costs.
We have also assessed the Mace Ranch Innovation Center and Nishi – but those are longer term aids to the city’s coffers and they also depend on our ability to manage the budget in a responsible manner.
The bottom line is that, while the city is not in immediate crisis, the finances are precarious at best. The messaging from the city is not helpful here. Last fall, Mayor Dan Wolk trumpeted the city’s finances as improving – which, while accurate, wasn’t particularly helpful. He seems to have backed off that drum for now.
The city messaging and the coverage in the local paper are not painting a very accurate picture of what is going on. What happens then is when the city takes on a huge amount of roads projects, the public complains about being inconvenienced. From our perspective, this was the perfect time to hit the point about where the road situation fits into the ultimate budget picture and why, in June, the council is going to be asking for a tax increase to pay for the roads.
I made the same point two years ago – the city needed to prime the public for tax increases it needed. Very little happened on that front – as a result, the public doesn’t understand the depths of the city’s financial problems. We saw in last year’s polling that most people thought our financial position was good as opposed to fair or poor – we see that in the anecdotal comments of people in the community.
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis took exception to a comment about the failure to lead – I get his criticism that he feels that the city and council have done a lot to fix our problems – I agree. I think the problem is not so much the failure to lead as the failure to communicate to the public.
Like I said yesterday – the city is pumping out press releases on the roads situation and Stacey Winton is emailing those messages and posting them on Next Door. But those messages are incomplete. They don’t present the public with the overall view of where the city stands on roads. They tell the public which roads are going to have construction, but not why we have to work on all these roads now and what the future is going to hold.
You don’t have a lot of opportunities to have people at complete attention but, when people are stuck in traffic, you have their attention and you need to utilize that attention.
—David M. Greenwald reporting