In the aftermath of the defeat of the Nishi project, the Vanguard has sought to continue a community conversation about growth and development. In so doing, I think Matt Williams is correct when he says that part of the problem here is that we are starting the conversation at a midpoint – we are looking to the solutions without addressing the problem itself.
At the most basic level he argues, and I completely agree, that our current path is not sustainable. The solution to that problem is not set and is not a given. That is really the subject for a diverse set of further community conversations that look into things like the General Plan, growth and urban development, economic development and environmental sustainability.
Since 2008, the Vanguard has argued that the city’s fiscal path has been unsustainable. In fact, over the course of the last nine years, for most of that duration, the city has had a fundamental problem – that its expenditures have often been projected to exceed its revenues.
As the city has moved past the immediate economic downturn, the problem has shifted, but the fundamentals remain the same – while right now our immediate revenues exceed our expenditures, our needs still vastly exceed our ability to pay for those needs. And so, while the city has done well to take $8 million or so in excess but one-time funds and use them to pay for infrastructure needs, those are a drop in the barrel compared to what we need.
The number that has been identified is $655 million over 20 years, around $32 million a year, in a city where our general fund itself is less than half that number.
Back in March, Matt Williams during a candidates’ forum put broke down how the figure was calculated. $200 million of that is for roads over 20 years. $352 million is for buildings and parks. $114 million is for retiree pensions and health benefits.
He said that we are doing better on retiree health benefits and pensions, “but that’s only $114 million of the $655 million.” We have a parks tax, but the parks tax is “leaving us with $315 million worth of capital infrastructure maintenance that we’re going to have to do to the parks surfaces and buildings.”
He said, “These reports came from staff. They came in the last 120 days. We really do have to understand what we have promised to ourselves.”
For a moment, forget your vision, your goals, your ideology, and ask yourself one simple question: is the city’s current path on fiscal health sustainable?
The path we are on means that Davis as we know cannot continue. We do not have enough money to pave our roads. Right now we have done a good job setting aside some money ($4 million or so annually), but that’s half of what we need.
We have great parks in this town that are in peril due to lack of funding to maintain their infrastructure. We have city buildings and other infrastructure that need an influx of money. And we still have to fund retiree pensions and health benefits, which are likely to continue to rapidly increase in cost.
In short, without a new solution, what makes Davis great – our roads, bike paths, parks, greenbelts, swimming pools and other great amenities are threatened due to lack of funds.
I want to make this clear – this has been a problem a long time in the making. We made some choices 15 to 20 years ago that have led to these problems. We increased pensions. We increased salaries and total compensation. The real estate market collapsed and therefore our revenue stream collapsed.
Some of these things were outside of our immediate control – the economic collapse, the pension rate hikes, the loss of transportation funding from the state and federal governments.
The way we handled this crisis in 2008 to 2010 was problematic at best, and it has compounded the current problems. On the other hand, the council has been, since 2011 and 2012, working hard to fix a lot of these problems.
The bottom line is something we all must accept: the current path is not sustainable, which means we need to change our policies.
There is a second problem that is just as severe, if not more severe. I have for a long time been a supporter of growth control policies. I support Measure J and Measure R. I support Davis as a small compact city surrounded by agricultural land. I support green and sustainable policies.
However, I am not now nor have I ever been a zero growther. We have very good schools, some might call them great, but Davis is increasingly relying on people who live elsewhere to send their kids to our schools.
We have a community that is pricing out people in my age bracket, income bracket, and family status. Those are the people with children who attend our schools.
At the same time, a student housing shortage is hastening the decline in availability of single family homes, while putting pressure on students, landlords and the community to figure out a way to provide more student housing.
UC Davis has been part of the problem in this respect. We have seen from Eileen Samitz’s guest commentary last fall that, twice in the past 30 years, UC Davis has made commitments to provide more housing to a higher percentage of students but has failed to do so.
That need is more urgent now than ever, as UC Davis is headed toward 39,000 students in this decade – the current enrollment of 36,104 in 2015-16 plus 725 added enrollment per year gets UCD to 39,004 in 2019-20. The university recently committed to providing 90 percent of new students (but not the added faculty and staff) with on-campus housing.
There are two problems with that. First, we have a housing crisis now, and all UC Davis is willing to build for is 90 percent of future demand. Second, and most critically, we have no assurance of when and even if these houses will come on line.
Putting it in immediate terms, there will be 1000 students next fall at UC Davis over and above current enrollment, and there will be no additional housing for them to live.
Again, we can talk about solutions here – more on campus housing, more pressure on UC Davis, more infill housing in Davis, more peripheral housing in Davis, more commuting students – but the question we must first address is whether the current situation is sustainable.
The logical conclusion of the current path is that more students will live outside of Davis and commute, and more students will move into formerly single-family homes and potentially exacerbate problems stemming from noise, parking, mini-dorms, public nuisance and basic supply of housing for families.
Is this sustainable? No.
I get the argument that people want to preserve Davis as we have it now. Who doesn’t? Everyone loves this community for a variety of reasons.
But my view is that, without good planning and constructive dialogue, in ten years Davis won’t be Davis – without making some changes. I’m not going to presuppose what those changes should be.
Here is what I see without change: City services will decline. We will not have the great parks, bike paths, or greenbelts unless we have the finances to maintain them. Housing will be in more short supply, which will continue to bifurcate this town between an aging population and a young student renter class.
Housing for students will be scarce, forcing more students to jam into existing rental housing, and causing more students to commute into town. The commute into town not only has environmental consequences, but it will continue to jam our existing roads and infrastructure – which we will not have the funding to upgrade.
At some point, things will have to give, a real urgent crisis will happen, and the best decisions are not generally made when facing an emergency problem.
We have time right now to address the sustainability of our future issue, but all sides have to be willing to come to the table and give something.
That is where we need to start our conversation, where it goes from there – we all have our ideas on the best way to proceed.
—David M. Greenwald reporting