Yesterday’s suggestion for a path forward toward community consensus triggered some interesting discussions, but one of the more novel thoughts was this one: “People are still angry about Mace and about Measure A. You’ve been printing a steady drumbeat of articles dealing with innovation centers and there has been month and months (years?) of unpleasant comments back and forth. Maybe the community needs a break.”
The commenter continued, “I know you think these issues are urgent, but we won’t make any progress if we just keep fighting on from our current angry state. An alternative would be to talk about other ways of improving the city’s finances, such as the revenue tax you mentioned yesterday or infill projects. Maybe if we can come to agreement on something we can ease our ill will (or at least take a break from it) and come back to this with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit.”
We are three weeks away from the 10th Anniversary of the founding of the Vanguard (and, while I’m at it, please join us for the celebration), and people often ask what I believe the greatest success of the Vanguard is.
What I have learned in 10 years of doing this is that people will not be told what to think. I may offer my opinion, but people would most of the time rather be given the facts and reach their own conclusion. However, what I have found is that the Vanguard is an effective tool to put issues on the agenda.
Here are a couple of very prominent examples.
Back in the spring of 2008, the Vanguard started looking into the issue of unfunded liabilities for pensions and retiree health care. At the time, the city had promised over $120 million in future benefits to employees that it did not have the money to pay. Our view at the time was that this system, whereby we had greatly increased employee compensation, was unsustainable.
However, in the 2008 elections, incumbents Don Saylor and Stephen Souza were of the notion that we had a balanced budget and a 15 percent reserve. Never mind that even at that point we had a large and growing list of unmet needs.
Their view would prevail at the polls, but with the collapse of the financial markets that fall and the great recession, the city clearly needed to restructure their contracts. However, the first round of MOUs, in 2009, showed very little in the way of cuts or structural changes.
Ultimately, this would become the biggest issue facing the community and, over the course of two more election cycles and another round of MOUs, the city went a long way toward addressing some of these underlying structural issues.
The Vanguard’s reporting on this helped to frame the issue and helped to push public opinion and council toward structure reforms.
At the same time, the Vanguard identified the power of the firefighters’ union as a driving force in city politics. The Vanguard noted in a series of articles that the firefighters had seen first a shift in personnel from three to four on an engine. Second, they had received what amounted to a major pension increase – 3 percent at 50 – where they could retire at the age of 50 and receive 3 percent of their final salary for each year of service. Third, they had received a massive 36 percent pay increase in their 2005 to 2009 MOU.
While they received a 36 percent increase, no other bargaining unit received more than 18 percent over that period of time.
The Vanguard began analyzing campaign contributions and found that the firefighters were bundling $100 contributions to circumvent city campaign finance laws. That enabled them to donate $4000 in direct contributions rather than the single $100 contribution. They also used a PAC (political action committee) to do an IE (independent expenditure) to spend thousands more.
The result was that from 2002 to 2008, firefighter-backed councilmembers won seven to nine races and held a majority on council that they used, among other things, to vote for salary increases, defeat reform measures, and even bury a fire investigative report.
Through a series of articles in the Vanguard that exposed these tactics, ultimately a series of reforms were put into place. The council voted to impose their last, best, and final offer in 2013. They voted 3-2 to reduce fire staffing and change the management structure.
In 2009, the Vanguard published its first article on the millions in deferred maintenance on roads. The article received zero comments. It took the Vanguard numerous articles and a meeting in 2011 with then Mayor Joe Krovoza and Mayor Pro Tem Rochelle Swanson to finally get traction on the pending roads crisis.
That led to a thorough report from a consulting company that showed that the backlog was in the hundreds of millions and that the city would have to pour in perhaps $10 million a year to start getting at the backlog.
While the city has yet to pass a revenue measure, the council, starting in 2011, put aside $1 million for road repair. That number is now at $4 million, but estimates are that is probably half of what we currently need on average.
With the roads issues, it took several years but the Vanguard was really the first entity to widely report the shortfall in roads funding, which ultimately put the issue on the agenda of the council for the city to act.
In June of 2013, the issue of Mace 391 came before council. The Vanguard was critical of the process, which seemed hidden from the public and was carelessly put on the agenda as a consent item. Ultimately, Mace 391 was defeated.
However, the discussion that summer re-started the dormant discussions on the need for economic development to help the city out of its revenue shortfall. That led to an article from David Morris in September 2013 that put Mace 391 back on the agenda, only to have it once again fall short.
While the efforts of David Morris were unsuccessful with regard to Mace 391, they did lead to community discussion which led to the RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) process that got applications for innovation parks at the land north of Sutter-Davis Hospital, as well as Mace 200.
Ultimately, these processes bogged down in land use politics, but once again, the Vanguard was instrumental at putting the discussion forth to the community.
There are lessons from these issues and discussions.
First, the Vanguard has been successful at getting issues to the forefront of community and council discussion.
Second, the fact that these issues come forward does not mean that ultimately we will be successful at enacting change, or even determining the direction of that change.
Third, change does not happen overnight. In some cases, we had defeat after defeat until the right council, the right city manager and the right moment arrived.
The poster argues on the issue of economic development and student housing, “The more people comment on this page, the more support I see for my view that the community needs a break from this conversation. There is nothing productive here, only anger and frustration on both sides.”
I disagree. The Vanguard provides a forum where people of different mindsets come forward to exchange ideas. In that process, ideas get challenged. People learn from each other.
Over the years, people with whom I have often disagreed have made valid points that have changed my thinking. I watch the give and take over time, and, while it seems like an endless rehashing of the issue, I watch people slowly shift their positions.
For me, I was opposed to any peripheral growth for economic development until the Mace 391 discussion, where it became clear that we lacked revenue to maintain our city services without massive tax increases.
I still do not want a lot of peripheral growth. I still support Measure R strongly. But these discussions on here more than anything else shifted my thinking.
As Don Shor pointed out yesterday, “[T]he next conversation we’ll need to be having is how big a parcel tax will be necessary and when. And unfortunately for those who wish to take a hiatus from discussing economic development, that’s a key issue in the future rate of taxation that the voters will need to approve.”
My biggest concern is that, while the Vanguard is reaching a larger and larger audience, there are still huge pockets it doesn’t reach and many people in this community have yet to come to grips with the fact that we are facing real peril on multiple levels.
As Don Shor notes, “A sound budget strategy would involve keeping costs contained, modest tax increases for unmet needs, and a long-term economic development strategy to develop more income sources for the future. The nature of that economic development strategy is now seriously in question, since we have far fewer options. That leaves more cost-cutting and higher tax increases. So as you consider how high you want the parcel tax to be, keep your eye on the long-term budget numbers — particularly in the out years when the sales tax measure comes up for reconsideration.”
These are discussions that should be taking place now – even if we are lacking consensus or agreement. The purpose of yesterday’s piece was an effort to move forward toward forging more consensus.
All taking a break will do is delay the inevitable confrontation. It is better to continue to work toward at least a common understanding of our challenges, even if we disagree on the solution.
So, while I get the desire for a break, I think now is the time to push forward.
—David M. Greenwald reporting