Yesterday the Vanguard ran two separated but really related articles – the first expressed commentary on a new contract for DCEA (Davis City Employees Association). The second was commentary on a new proposed school parcel tax.
In a lot of ways, both the district and the city face the same challenge. This community is accustomed to a high quality of life. We have great schools, a great downtown, great greenbelts, great bike paths, great neighborhoods. But at the same time, we no longer are able to sustain funding to maintain those great assets.
On the city side of things, we have a roughly $8 to $10 million deficit of sorts. In June we attempted to shore that up with a new parcel tax for roads, but it only received 57 percent of the vote.
For the past decade or so, the city has survived by treading water, eating deferred maintenance costs, but in need of new sources of revenue. We had held the line on employee salaries until the last round of MOUs, which culminated last week with the agreement with DCEA. More importantly, the city has held costs in line by limiting new hires – meaning that the city continues to operate around 100 FTE (full-time equivalent) below its high point.
But again, without new revenue, it is hard to see this as sustainable. The city leaders failed to make the case to the voters for the roads tax and the vote came up short of the two-thirds needed for passage. It is easy to argue that putting two measures on the ballot concurrently was a mistake, as it was going for a two-thirds vote rather than a majority vote. That could be remedied in 2020, but more likely 2022.
Long term, we still believe that we need new sources of revenue from economic development. There have been some positive occurrences on that front. The voters passed measures to increase the city’s TOT (transient occupancy tax) take and to take taxes from recreational cannabis. That figures to pay off when two new hotels are built, and five physical stores and four mobile dispensaries open.
Still, this is only a small stopgap – what we need is full-scale economic development (see today’s other commentary).
In a way, I am more concerned about the schools than the city. The voters have been willing to support school district endeavors, with one exception, at between 69 and 73 percent support. One of the parcel taxes in 2012 passed with just 67 percent, but the most recent parcel tax in 2016 hit 70 percent, while the most recent school bond hit 72 percent a couple weeks ago.
However, that measure covers only about one-third of the now crumbling school infrastructure. In the meantime, we are struggling to maintain instructional funding to pay for both programs and teachers. We are looking at yet another $300 parcel tax (about what we were advocating back in 2016).
In short, we have a great school district but we are also in deep trouble and many in this community do not yet realize it
In many ways, the teacher compensation gap is the canary in the coal mine – we have seen the data and heard the heartbreaking stories on the compensation gap, but at the bottom line we are now conflicted between long-term ability both to provide great programs and competitively compensate our great teachers.
Furthermore, we are facing declining enrollment, likely due to the high cost of housing.
We have structural deficits as well. Lack of funding through LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula), decreased possibility of parcel taxes in the future – right up against the bubble, as polling showed that we might be reaching the end to our expansion of the parcel tax, and at the very least we need to engage the community in the future to be able to expand.
As Alan Fernandes put it on Thursday, “In embarking on a year long study session, I for one have become pretty resolute that in order to meaningfully close the compensation gap once and for all, do it with some degree of ‘nowness’ because this is an issue that we need to start working on now.”
He made it clear: “We need a local source of revenue.” Mr. Fernandes said that relying on the state is “never going to allow us as a district to catch up, particularly in light of the way LCFF is structured.”
Finally, while the school bond helps, we need an estimated $450 million and it provides just $150 million of that. We have aging facilities, and we need to upgrade our technology – the schools are still designed as though this were the 20th century, build in the 1960s.
Over the last six months I have argued that the challenges we face in our schools mirror the problems that we face in this community. We are facing a very real crisis of quality of life in this community on all fronts.
We struggle because we put schools and city resources into separate single silos. We have a tendency to view issues of our schools in one silo and issues of the city in another silo. Many people who do not have kids in schools do not necessarily follow the district that closely.
Schools may be the key to the quality of life in this community. However, housing is its lifeblood. Without the ability to build and maintain all levels of affordable housing, this community is not going to resemble the one we have right now.
In a lot of ways, Davis built its greatness on the 1972 General Plan which looked forward to create a network of parks, bike paths, and greenbelts. But our lack of continued vision and a general failure to invest could lead to our downfall.
Our great community is no longer so great. Oh sure, we have bike paths, parks and greenbelts. But, increasingly, we cannot afford to maintain them. We lack the tax revenue to keep up with other communities.
Something has to change here. We cannot maintain this community with the resources that we currently have.
The question for the community as we head to 2019 is how and where do we get the resources to maintain the great levels of services, amenities and schools in Davis. This is a crisis that is building and it will not go away without leadership and vision.
—David M. Greenwald reporting