Commentary: State of the City Address Had Strengths and Weaknesses

The Davis Chamber had a new format for their event, with Mayor Robb Davis giving the main speech, but with City Manager Dirk Brazil and Assistant City Managers Kelly Stachowicz and Mike Webb also giving talks.

In the end, I liked the format more than I thought I would.  I was skeptical about the format going in – and I’m kind of mixed going out.

For me, the three biggest issues that needed to be addressed were: (1) the fiscal landscape of the city; (2) the need for economic development and the expansion of commercial space; and (3) the housing crisis.

Mayor Robb Davis really nailed the first of these.  He laid out the problem squarely and unequivocally: “Our greatest weakness as a city right now is our inability to fund the maintenance of our infrastructure.  That is true for our roads.  That is true for our parks.  That is true for our pools.  That is true for just about every city building.

“It’s not that we’re not putting any money into those things,” he explained.  “It’s that we’re not putting sufficient money into it, year on year to really maintain the things that we already have.”

Assistant City Manager Kelly Stachowicz clearly wanted to present what she saw as a balanced view.  She explained that, “for the most part, we’re doing okay with our annual budget.”  Our revenues have met our expenditures, and so “our short-term picture is not a bad one.”

But she acknowledged, while we have made progress with OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits), especially on pensions and infrastructure, “we are not putting in enough money each year to be able to completely pay off these liabilities.”

She praised council for prioritizing these needs over “politically popular pet projects,” when there was “extra money” available at the end of the last budget cycle.

Dirk Brazil, the city manager, was the optimist, but acknowledged the challenge ahead.”I’m always accused of being overly optimistic and, generally speaking, that is the case,” he said.  “But we do have some challenges and you’ve heard them.”

At the same time, he noted the investment of Mark Friedman in Interland, as an example “that Davis is a community that people can do business in and they want to do business in here and we are more than willing to help them achieve whatever goal it is they want to achieve.”

One of our commenters noted, “My read of the article is that there seems to be a disconnect between our City Manager, staff and Mayor about the ‘state of the city’s’ fiscal health. This reminds me of a similar disconnect in an Enterprise article about finances before the holidays with the Mayor laying out issues and the staff saying there are a few problems but we are in good shape…”

Tia Will added, “While our city manager and assistant city manager did not come out and contradict Mayor Davis, they were careful to phrase their comments so as to focus  (or avoid focusing) on the immediate short term financial situation while avoiding any detail regarding long term obligations and risk.”

Interesting points.  I have a somewhat different view here – I think city staff, while trying to present what they saw as a balanced view, clearly had a more positive overall view than the mayor.  But that is not surprising, given the city manager’s world view of optimism.  Leadership clearly is going to have to come from the council and it is going to need to be more than just Mayor Davis.

With those thoughts in mind, here are a few critical thoughts.

First, I was disappointed that there was not more discussion on the other two most critical issues.  Clearly, Robb Davis and staff wanted to hit on the fiscal, which is important and I appreciate that – but I would have liked more discussion of housing and commercial needs.

Assistant City Manager Mike Webb had a couple of interesting PowerPoint slides showing the resurgent growth in the number of building permits issued in 2015 and 2016.  Last year, the number of building permits hit a new peak at just over 4500.  We also saw a huge growth in housing resale applications, rising from a low mark of 351 in 2009 up to 587 in 2014, peaking at 717 in 2015 and then leveling to 606 in 2016.

The city also, Mr. Webb reported, has 40 active planning applications on the table, that include projects like Chiles Ranch to applications like Sterling.  Mr. Webb reported that there could be 2400 new dwellings in the city with these developments.

But, for the most part, the focus was not on housing or commercial, but on the fiscal issue.

The Vanguard’s article focused heavily on the fiscal side.  But a quick glance at the Enterprise article shows us the breakdown of the talk.

The article has 20 paragraphs.  After two introductory paragraphs, three were spent on the water project, another on the restorative justice program, then six paragraphs in the middle on the fiscal, four on the permits and discussion by Mike Webb, three on Ms. Stachowicz’s talk (none of which laid out the downside), and then there was finally a closing remark from Mayor Davis – on a promising note.

“The challenges are laid out,” Mr. Davis concluded. “The commitment of the council and the staff — I hope it doesn’t sound self-serving — but it shouldn’t be questioned, and I’m proud to work with them.”

The purpose here is not to criticize the Enterprise article – it’s fairly accurate in its reflection of the tone of the discussion.

Here is the problem in a nutshell: there were between 80 to 100 people in attendance.  The talk was not videoed – in fact the lighting was so bad due to the PowerPoints it would have been nearly impossible to video even if they had it planned.  So the only coverage of the event that the public could see would be in the Enterprise and the Vanguard.

The Vanguard’s coverage focused on what we considered the most important issue covered – the fiscal state of the city – while the Enterprise was more general.

The Chamber chose a good venue for its members who took advantage of it, but the city needs to do more to get the word out about our challenges.  Earlier this week, we talked about the need to get a broader message out to the residents of Davis, to lay out the enormity of our challenges.  This venue was not designed to do that and did not work for that.

We need to do more.

As one of our readers noted, “David outlined his (6) steps in yesterday’s article and one was Public Education meaning educating the public about the critical for improvement in our city’s  fiscal health.”

They continued, “This panel’s summary seems like it would confuse the public, not educate them….A less informed citizen would I am sure rather believe ‘all is ok’ than the reality our Mayor is describing.  I would hope the staff starting with the CM would align themselves more with the Mayor and be proactive in the outreach as Steve Pinkerton was. So far I only see elected leaders; no matter how strong/weak our city manager government might be, there is a real need for the CM to engage with the public. Interested to hear feedback…and be kind since this is my first critical post after ‘coming out’ from the anonymous underbrush…..”

Based on what I saw on Tuesday, I would say the impetus is going to have to come from city councilmembers, not the city manager or city staff.  There were three councilmembers in attendance on Tuesday – Lucas Frerichs and Rochelle Swanson joined the mayor.

I would like to see the council step up this year and really work to inform the public about the extent of the challenges that lie ahead this year.

Along those lines, once again Robb Davis has agreed to write a series of columns for the Vanguard but wants direction as to what the topics should be.  We are soliciting feedback.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Jim Frame

    I’m not seeing any comments.  Is the comment system broken, is my system (which is new, and I’m still finding configuration changes that need to be made) not seeing comments, or is it just a really quiet day?

    1. Don Shor

      I wonder how many people walk up to our Mayor on any given day and say “boy, I’m sure worried about those unfunded liabilities.”
      I’d guess dealing with budget issues is one of the more thankless parts of the job, since nobody seems to care until they close a pool or something.

  2. Tia Will

    I think that some of us may have exhausted our take on the State of the City on the previous thread. Every thing seems to be working fine with the system.

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