The Vanguard in the last few weeks has noted the solid recommendations from the Finance and Budget Commission, which in November and December urged the council not to approve new tax measures or utility rate increases until the city took better accounting of its “multi-year projections of underlying city revenues and expenditures” and the scope of its “funding needs for deferred maintenance and capital improvement projects that are supported, at least in part, from the General Fund.”
In a letter to the Enterprise, Elaine Roberts Musser, I think, nails the concerns of many voters directly on the head. She writes, “I am strongly in favor of the recommendations of the city of Davis Finance and Budget Commission. Many of its conclusions jive with the city utility user tax focus group of community representatives of which I was a part.”
She adds, “The biggest concern of everyone seems to be ‘accountability.’”
She nails it exactly when she explains, “There are two major issues in regard to the city’s budget: supplantation (some refer to it as ‘bait and switch’) and ongoing unmet needs.”
She writes, “Citizens don’t want tax revenues to take the place of (supplant) funding already set aside for road repair, so budgeted road repair monies wind up being spent on something like employee compensation. And we expect the city to address continuing unmet needs — such as road, bike path, building and pool repair and maintenance.”
This is exactly the concern that we raised when the city implemented the new MOUs, which in my view and the view of many here on the Vanguard made use of sales tax monies that were supposed to go to cutting into the structural deficit and unmet needs.
There is a trust issue that gets undermined when council or any government body asks for an emergency revenue measure, only to turn around some time later after the immediate “crisis” has passed and use public monies for other purposes.
The most blatant example was in 2004, when the community was asked to pass a sales tax where the proponents, including such luminaries as Lois Wolk (Assemblymember), Helen Thomson (Supervisor) and then-Mayor Susie Boyd, argued: “The City faces increasing costs. We will face higher expenditures if we are to provide the additional police protection and meet park and recreation and open space commitments we have made to our citizens.
“Without Measure P revenue,” they argued, “given the uncertain state support to the General Fund, we would be faced with very deep service cuts in police, fire, and parks.”
No sooner had the voters passed this but the money was then used to fund a very large employee compensation increase, the backbone of which is a huge contributing factor to the ongoing financial struggles of the city.
While some have argued that the $1.3 million employee compensation increase this time pales in comparison to that of a decade ago, given the conversations that the council held in putting the measure on the ballot, in some ways the turnaround is even more egregious.
Ms. Roberts Musser argues, “Immediate past and current City Council members have been much more fiscally responsible than some previous City Councils. Nevertheless, citizens are still wary.”
I think that’s a fair assessment and she quickly adds, “The make-up of future City Councils is unknown.”
She summarizes well the position of the Finance and Budget Commission:
- Include unfunded liabilities in multi-year projections of revenues and expenditures;
- Determine if there are any other potential cost-saving measures the city can implement;
- Create a complete list of deferred maintenance of existing infrastructure supported by the general fund;
- Provide clear explanations of what any proposed tax revenues will be spent on;
- Any proposed general tax should be accompanied by an advisory measure and require a four- to six-year sunset; and
- For any proposed tax, there should be a written plan explaining how revenues will be spent, the adoption of a maintenance-of-effort requirement and an annual expenditure review.
Elaine Roberts Musser concludes, “In short, show us through a new and comprehensive fiscal projection that the city really needs the money and specifically for what. A modest $50 roads parcel tax, as Councilman Brett Lee has previously suggested, and/or a modest increase in the parks tax, as Mayor Dan Wolk has proposed, are both possibilities — but if and only if the Finance and Budget Commission’s recommendations are implemented first.”
I am reluctant to go to a standalone parks tax, as I feel that the roads needs greatly outweigh the parks needs. I would be supportive of an infrastructure parcel tax that can fund existing roads, parks, and city infrastructure needs. I would not be supportive of a standalone parks tax or one that funds new projects.
However, while the need to implement the FBC recommendation is an important step, I would be supportive of a tax on the June ballot absent the prerequisite, due to the fact that infrastructure costs are deferred maintenance and therefore the costs appreciate over time. While we wait to analyze costs and needs, costs continue to mount.
It puts us in a tricky position and part of the blame has to go to the city for dragging its feet on this analysis, over the last year and a half since the sales tax measure was passed in June 2014.
—David M. Greenwald reporting