If you look at polls of residents of Davis, they consistently rate the quality of life in Davis as high, and they tend to believe that the finances of the city are good and things are going well. To me, there is a disconnect between the views expressed by the typical citizen and the realities I see in following the politics and governance of the city on a day to day basis.
There was a comment at yesterday’s city council candidates’ forum that really struck me, and it was made by Will Arnold. He made the comment that you won’t hear him talk about renaissance a lot, but you won’t hear him talk about crises either. The renaissance, of course, is Mr. Arnold’s reference to Mayor Dan Wolk and, at the same time, his effort to separate himself from the mayor’s rosy prognostications from earlier this year.
A lot of people I talked to yesterday following the forum, which Davis Media Access videoed and will be posted online when available, were laudatory of the forum and the candidates themselves – who seemed to be focused on critical issues and not bogged down with over-exuberant rhetoric.
While some may call me a “Debbie Downer” or, as one reader noted a few weeks ago, I see a crisis everywhere, but the crises never seem to come to pass. I tend to see myself as a realist – I chose to live as a renter in this community rather than a homeowner in another community. But if we do not fight to change our trajectory, there is trouble around the corner.
The reality is that the Vanguard was often on the front lines of warning the community about real crises – unfunded liabilities, unmet needs, unsustainable employee compensation, roads, and other very real issues. Some we have averted through strong action by the city and council, others have just been forestalled, while still others are mounting and they simply have not collapsed the system as of yet.
The problem, I think, that we face is that not enough people are paying enough attention. Last week everyone was up in arms about the prospect of hunting the Davis turkeys. This week, sadly, some person decided to run over a poor bird out of fun and malice. But as someone pointed out to me, why don’t people in this community get as energized about the budget?
The answer there is obvious – but the biggest problem that we now face as a community is that most people do not know the danger that is lurking behind the corner. People love Davis, its engagement and vibrance, even if they are turned off by the political machinations.
I was relieved yesterday to listen to the five council candidates and I realized that, even though they may not all agree on the solutions to the problems, they all get that there are problems. That is a far cry from 2008 when two incumbents proudly boasted that we had a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve, a mere four months before the entire system would collapse.
The problem that I see is that I don’t think the community as a whole understands it. The Vanguard readership most certainly does.
Right now the biggest problem I see is surprising disengagement by huge segments of the Davis population – who enjoy the amenities of the community, but are not aware of the threat posed to all of them.
In December and January, our mayor would point to a renaissance, arguing that our budget is balanced and resilient while we are reinvesting in our infrastructure.
What I see, on the other hand, is a very fragile balanced budget on paper only. One projection has the city facing somewhere in the neighborhood of $655 million in unfunded liabilities. We have focused heavily on roads for the last six or seven years, mainly because it took that long to get the council to put real resources into it, but at this point we are spending $4 million and need to be spending at least $8 million a year on roads.
We have a parks tax that pays for about a quarter of our parks needs. We have several hundred million in unfunded city infrastructure needs above and beyond parks and roads.
Costs continue to expand. I think the stunning statistic is that, despite the city council’s efforts to rein in spending in 2009 and 2013, and despite the fact that personnel was reduced through attrition by about 100 employees in the last seven years, we are actually spending much more per employee now than we did in 2008.
Our budget is balanced primarily because we passed a sales tax measure in 2014 and, when that goes away, so too will our balanced budget.
As a community we take pride in our parks, greenbelts, bike paths, pools and other amenities. We like our fire department (although some of us are concerned about compensation costs) and our police. The budgetary threat we face is huge and long-term. We can supplement things with taxes, but in the longer term if we do not find ways to diversify and increase our revenue from business, Davis will be more unaffordable and those vital services will be threatened.
The other huge issue, aside from the ongoing budget crisis (yes, I believe it is a crisis), is the rental housing crisis (yes, there’s that word again). I have laid out this issue numerous times in the last few weeks.
The bottom line is this: the university is growing. The university is not providing housing to accommodate the additional students. The city is not growing in terms of housing and we are increasingly crunched in terms of vacancy rate and the availability of housing for students and renters.
To me this is a numbers game.
For years the vacancy rate has been absurdly low and now it is around 0.2 percent. At the same time, the university is expanding the number of students admitted. We are expecting about 1100 more new students next fall than we had this fall.
The university, as we have reported multiple times, has made it clear they cannot or at least will not build enough housing to accommodate the increased student population.
Some have suggested that the solution here is clear – that UC Davis simply “needs to drastically slow down their student population growth and drastically speed up the provision of their on-campus student housing.”
But others point out that neither is likely to happen, and many question whether the city has any real influence over that decision.
Others point out that the idea that UC Davis needs to slow its population growth is an anathema. After all, do we really want fewer kids to get a UC Davis education simply because it causes problems for our city planning?
The danger that the city faces is a demographic issue. As we have noted, 57 percent of housing units are rental properties and 55 percent of Davis residents live in rental housing. Right now, the majority of those are students who do not vote or do not vote locally.
However, as pressures rise, that may change and, without a long-term solution, those renters could out-vote local property owners and make major changes to long-standing city land use ordinances, including Measure R, and they could have an impact on the viability of future housing projects like Nishi.
It is not clear if that scenario would happen, but if the pressure of student growth continues to hammer into a housing market that cannot or at least does not expand, something may have to give.
The community that many love is at risk right now. The next council term will determine which path we go forward on issues like economic development, jobs, land use, rental housing and the budget. If our leaders do not step up to address these crucial issues full on, we will face an existential crisis in Davis (yep, that word again).
—David M. Greenwald reporting