I increasingly find myself in a strange position with regard to city finances and the direction in which we should be moving. On the one hand, the Vanguard has been pushing for revenue for roads for a long time now. However, after last week’s discussion on revenue measures, the city council seems to be moving away from a way to fund infrastructure.
Put simply, increasing the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) is a no-brainer but isn’t likely to move the needle. The UUT (Utility User Tax) appears to be off the table. The soda tax is unlikely to fund infrastructure (and I would argue it should go toward children’s health and nutrition, not general fund needs). And the parcel tax is a big hairy monster that is unlikely to be placed on the ballot.
On the other hand, as the passage of the MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) demonstrate, the current council as a whole, not singling out individuals here, does not seem to have the collective appetite to make further cuts. We remain perched on a precarious ledge. Whatever benefits come from innovation parks, if they come, will be down the line and there is a lot of work to even get them on the ballot.
While the MOU issue has gotten scant coverage in the local press and general finances appear to take a backseat to our coverage, we have noticed some percolation.
Last week there were two letters in the local paper that cited a story in the Sacramento Bee – that the Vanguard, but not the local paper, picked up.
Jean and Alan Jackman wrote, “I find it shocking to read in the Sacramento Bee that six Davis Fire Department employees in 2014 earned between $241,709 and $297,692 in one year and that the police chief earned $236,908, less than the six in the Fire Department.”
“And those figures do not include employer payments for health care or benefits. The city manager doesn’t even appear on the list of highly compensated employees,” they wrote. “Then I note the lack of transparency for five years in our open-space parcel tax funds. And last week the council vote of 4-1 without discussion regarding employee raises. There seems to be a disturbing pattern here. Who is minding the cash register?”
The same day John Rogers added, “I have always wondered which Davis union was the strongest. After reading in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee about the 50 highest-paid local government officials, I think I have figured it out. A Davis fire captain is No. 8 at $297,692. Three Firefighter IIs are No. 10 at $294,308, No. 15 at $275,920 and No. 16 at $275,814. A fire captain is No. 18 at $265,576, a fire division chief is No. 38 at $241,707 and the Davis police chief is No. 44 at $236,908.”
He added, “Davis firefighters have the strongest union by far. It seems to me that the firefighters union would want to help the city fix the potholes in our streets. It would make the fire trucks less bouncy.”
Finally, a good column by Rich Rifkin: “What will the people of Davis prioritize?”
Mr. Rifkin’s main thrust is that the residents of Davis have to make a choice between city services and cost. Residents, he says, “want a city government that delivers a vast array of services” and in order “to afford those services and more, citizens have voted in favor of all manner of new taxes,” but at the same time, “Davis residents apparently want to provide generous pay and benefits to city employees.”
However, he argues, “the citizens of Davis cannot have it all.”
He notes that, since 2008, “as the compensation given to city workers exploded in cost and the real estate bubble burst, almost all city services have declined. We now have much worse roads and sidewalks, fewer police officers on patrol, parks and greenbelts that are not properly maintained, city buildings in need of repair and so on. When non-critical infrastructure breaks, it will not be fixed.”
Mr. Rifkin notes, “In order to keep paying humongous salaries and benefits, the city reduced its workforce by roughly 100 full-time people between 2009 and 2012. Even though some of those jobs of late have been filled, the explosion in pension and medical costs portend a dire future, where services will have to be vastly cut back in the years ahead.”
On top of increased health care costs and pension costs, the council has made matters worse by voting to increase pay beginning on January 1 to four labor groups. He writes, “In 2016-17, the taxpayers will shell out $1.129 million more for these hikes, with more to come when the dust settles with the rest of the city employees.”
These, he argues “are only the beginning. They will drive up the cost of pensions, too, and more services will have to be cut as those costs rise.”
Rich Rifkin ultimately pins these decisions on city manager Dirk Brazil, about whom he says, “Dirk Brazil, has been the driving force behind jacking up the cost of labor for Davis lately.”
He argues, “It’s what he was hired to do after the labor unions prodded our cost-conscious city manager, Steve Pinkerton, to leave. (The firefighters held a big celebration at a downtown pizza place on Pinkerton’s last day, and their political candidates feasted with them.)”
Mr. Rifkin writes, “Brazil strangely tries to argue that these raises are needed because take-home pay has fallen in recent years for many employees who are funding a little more of their bloated pensions. But Brazil, ever-munificent with taxpayer money, ignores the fact that total employee compensation is what really counts — and it has kept rising to the point that the services we want are no longer affordable.”
While Mr. Rifkin nails most of this, I disagree that Mr. Brazil was hired to increase compensation to labor. Instead, I think he was hired to make sure the mayor got elected to the assembly and that increasing compensation to labor groups is just a means to that end.
Many will disagree with that sentiment, but I urge you again to watch the debate and discussion at last week’s meeting where the city manager pushed back on the council majority regarding the revenue measures, where the mayor was on the losing side of a 3-2 vote. (Don’t believe me? Watch the videos here.)
Where does this take us? It will be an interesting 2016, that’s for sure.
—David M. Greenwald reporting