Guest Commentary: Boiling the Frog

by Michael Bisch

(Editor’s note: The following ran in April 2014 and is re-published by request of the author)

“People don’t pay attention until cities talk about bankruptcy, but by then the frog has already been boiled to death.” -David Crane, lecturer in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University*

According to David Crane, reduction of building, street and vehicle maintenance; elimination of arts and cultural programs; cuts in park maintenance; and closures are all indications of the social and cultural bankruptcy that comes long before financial bankruptcy.

All the while, the politicians aren’t setting aside sufficient funds to pay for the promises they’ve made to the public employees. Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m not here to argue that the city of Davis is destined for municipal bankruptcy, but it certainly isn’t taking sufficient action to avert it. It’s not even clear whether effectively meeting the fiscal emergency is the city’ top priority given everything else our leaders are pursuing.

Whether the city can walk, chew gum and balance a checkbook all at the same time remains to be seen.

There are two aspects to the city’s handling of the fiscal emergency that leave a lot to be desired:

  • Defining the full scope of the problem along with a full range of viable solutions.
  • Engaging in effective and sustained community outreach and input to ensure a robust and productive community discussion leading to an informed electorate.

The city is currently projecting an approximately $5 million structural deficit every year for as far as the eye can see. As shocking as this may be, the city is significantly understating the severity of the fiscal crisis.

The $5 million deficit projection is entirely arbitrary, virtually pulled out of thin air. The deficit projection reflects only $2.5 million per year to address the road and bicycle path maintenance backlog when the annual amount required to reduce the backlog is far, far greater.

Why the city has budgeted only $2.5 million in annual maintenance expenditure is a mystery. That figure results in worse roads and bike paths, not better, and a far greater backlog over time.

The voters deserve the right to vote on whether we have fully maintained roads and bike paths or ever-deteriorating roads and bike paths. Instead, the city is allowing us only the right to vote on the rate of decline. I, for one, would like to vote on a plan that actually fixes the problem.

Furthermore, the $5 million structural deficit does not account for the maintenance backlog for city-owned infrastructure apart from roads and bike paths. What’s the backlog for parks and recreational infrastructure, buildings, lights, street lights, parking lots, etc.? Nobody knows.

How can the voters cast informed votes if they don’t know the extent of the problem? It appears we are destined to vote on a never-ending series of Band-Aid tax measures amounting to a tax version of Chinese water torture.

Even if the city were being fully transparent regarding the extent of the fiscal emergency, and a full range of solutions to deal with it, how would the voters even know about the emergency? Expecting the voters to follow City Council deliberations or media reports does not cut it.

The city knows full well that many voters do not follow regularly follow these matters, i.e., they have “checked out.” Bemoaning the fact that many voters have checked out is not productive. What is productive is to engage in a cutting-edge community outreach and input effort suited to our age, intended to engage the voters. An extraordinary fiscal emergency requires an extraordinary community engagement effort.

Our community deserves to be fully informed, be allowed to weigh a full range of solutions, and to cast informed votes. None of this is currently the case. The voters are not children to be “guided” or “steered” by the city and the politicians in their desired direction. An immediate course correction is in order.

*Although Mr. Crane is not without political controversy, his observation is no less relevant.

-Michael Bisch is the owner of Davis Commercial Properties, a provider of commercial property management, leasing and brokerage services. He has served as a volunteer in a number of downtown-related community service organizations such as Davis Arts Alliance, Pathways to Employment and Davis Downtown.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    What is productive is to engage in a cutting-edge community outreach and input effort suited to our age, intended to engage the voters.”

    I agree. Now what are the specifics of what such a “cutting-edge community outreach” should look like?  Who should be involved, specifically, not generally?  Should the mayor be responsible for organization, the city manager, a team of assigned city council members and staff ?  Who, specifically, not generally should be recruited from the community ? Which community “thought leaders”, which organizations ? What would be the division of duties and responsibilities. What timeline should be followed for the designated work to be done ? By what metric would we measure successful engagement of the community ?

    This suggestion actually reminds me of… I come up with a wealth of ideas. The problem is, I tend to lack follow through except on those closest to my heart. So who is going to “own” the follow through on this great idea ?


    1. Howard P

      So, SS only?  Or would City matching contributions (1-3%?) to a 401/403/457 also be OK?

      Guess PERPA (new employees from 2013 on) is ‘inadequate’.

  2. Michael Bisch

    Clarification: the request to re-post this somewhat out-of-date op ed was a reaction to another one of Ron’s uninformed attacks. The attack wasn’t necessarily on me (it was fairly broad and non-specific).

    “Seems like the city has more than one option, to keep costs in check.  Why don’t we hear more about these options, on the Vanguard? (And/or, from some of those “constantly worried” about city finances?)
    Why does it seem that tax increases (or ill-advised developments) are constantly being “pushed” by some, as the “only solution”?
    Is there a lack of honesty in general, regarding this issue?” -Ron

    Lack in honesty? The truth is a number of individuals have a long public record of championing a package of economic development activities to generate new revenue for the city, cost containment, greater transparency in city fiscal matters as well as tax measures

    In answer to your question, Tia, it’s the city’s job to engage in such an outreach effort.  Whether they choose to have staff create and execute such a program or a consultant is up to them.

    1. Ron

      Michael:  I guess I should be “honored” that you’ve requested a re-posting of one of your previous submissions, in order to “enlighten me” (I guess).

      Strangely enough, your article above does little to enlighten anyone, regarding the specific options available to  the city to cap (and possibly even reduce) costs for city employees, going forward.

      Actually, the comment that you quoted from me above was directed to the Vanguard, in general.  Your article above essentially repeats the same “chicken-little” type comments, without much substance regarding the options that the city might have to reduce costs related to city employees. (That point is also repeated above your comment – from Carson Wilcox.)

      I’ve learned more in the past few days (asking questions on the Vanguard, which are sometimes responded to rather “curtly” – depending upon the commenter) than I’ve learned in your entire article, above.

      If you’re going to label me as “uninformed”, perhaps you should make an actual effort to “inform” (instead of launching into another idiotic insult).

        1. Ron

          David:  As I previously mentioned, I’ve only been reading the Vanguard for perhaps a year or two.  I’ve been hearing about unfunded liabilities (for cities and counties throughout the state, and the state itself) for a number of years, but have only casually followed it.

          More recently, I’ve started following it a little more closely, because I suspect that cities are reluctant to make the needed cuts (and some developer-minded individuals are once again popping up to propose “solutions”, which are actually anything but that). But first, they have to remind us of the “problem”, and that draconian tax increases (or cuts in services) are “needed”, unless we implement their suggested “solutions”.

        2. Keith O

          Yeah Ron, the city laid off employees to supposedly cut payroll, but magically our payroll has gone up rather substantially even though there are @ 20% less employees.

          Go figure.

          1. Don Shor

            The city’s budget situation was an issue in the 2010 and 2012 council elections.
            City Manager Pinkerton was hired in 2011 to cut costs, and definitely did so.
            Sue Greenwald was a consistent voice for cost management during her years on the council, which ended with the 2012 election.
            City leaders and others launched the DCIDE process (2010?) to try to focus on economic development in order to help with the city’s finances.
            There was a commission created to assess sites for peripheral annexation for economic development, later renamed the Innovation Park Task Force to try to focus on peripheral or existing sites for business development.
            An economic development strategy was created and requests for proposals were issued.

            Overall there has been a strategy developed over nearly a decade that has a three-pronged approach to solving the city’s fiscal problems: cutting and containing costs, economic development to spur revenues, and raising taxes.
            In the course of all of this, the magnitude of the city’s unfunded liabilities has been gradually made clear.

            Just identifying all of the deferred maintenance costs and unfunded pension and benefit liabilities has been challenging, but over time the range has become evident. There has been much discussion at various city commissions, as well as here on the Vanguard, about the extent of these liabilities. The longer we go without some combination of further cost cuts, more economic development, or higher taxes, the greater those liabilities will be.

            People come into the discussion at various stages and I realize it isn’t easy to see a complete chronology of what has gone before. And parts of that economic strategy have crumbled as voters have rejected one project and two others have either stalled or slipped away. So the dimensions of the problem continue to change. But it’s been a subject here for a long time and it can be frustrating when people who are relatively new to the Vanguard suggest otherwise.

        3. Ron

          Don:  “But it’s been a subject here for a long time and it can be frustrating when people who are relatively new to the Vanguard suggest otherwise.”

          Seems strange that any representatives of a publication would be “frustrated” by having “newer” readers question the rather one-sided “refrain” that’s been repeated ad nauseam, for at least the past year or so.  (Coming from a publication that’s clearly an opinion blog, with a preference for “innovation centers”, among other advocacy positions.)

          And of course, I’m not even questioning how Michael Bisch’s views were “developed”, in the article above. (Seriously, you’ve chosen to make a comment regarding me, instead of Michael’s article and pointed statement to me?)

          I don’t doubt that the Vanguard has covered the options more fully, in prior years.  It doesn’t mean that I (or anyone) would arrive at the same conclusions, though.


          1. Don Shor

            It doesn’t mean that I (or anyone) would arrive at the same conclusions, though.

            So then my questions are:
            — whether you understand the magnitude of the fiscal problem the city faces.
            — how you see those fiscal problems affecting the current infrastructure of the city (roads, buildings).
            — what you are willing to accept in the way of further cost reductions and how that might affect city services and amenities that you enjoy.
            The thing is, most people I talk to aren’t aware of the unfunded liabilities, don’t know how much we pay safety employees and other workers here, and don’t actually know what would happen if we didn’t increase city revenues.
            Do you consider yourself fully informed on those issues? It’s fine to say you don’t support economic development proposals, for example, so long as you understand that means taxes need to be raised even higher and/or city services need to be cut even more than was done under the previous city manager.

        4. Ron

          Don:  Sorry, not going down the rabbit hole with you, today.  Already spend too much time on this blog, often times with commenters who only want to fight and argue. (Not necessarily directed at you.)

  3. David Greenwald

    Ron: You might be interested to see this one…

    I don’t think you know the history nearly as well as you think you do.

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