Commentary: A Public Widely Uninformed on City Fiscal Issues – Part Two

The upside for the city in the survey that we have been evaluating following its Tuesday release is that the city gets mostly high marks on the provision of city services, and the sales tax measure is widely supported and likely to be renewed.

But even a cursory evaluation of public opinion shows a public that is widely unaware of the extent of the city’s fiscal problems.  And, while that does not appear to hurt it with regards to the sales tax, it probably did harm it irreparably in the failure of the 2018 roads tax – and perhaps the prospect of future tax or revenue measures as well.

The voters believe Davis is on the right track by a 54-24 margin.  While the 22 percent “Don’t Know” would seem rather high for such a highly subjective, vague and non-specific question as this, I think more informed voters would take issue with the idea that the city is headed in the right direction.

The city has a number of large and potentially growing challenges – generating basic revenues, a $200 million shortfall for infrastructure, lagging sales tax, and lack of affordability of housing (ironically an issue the voters did correctly identify).  As we have discussed, these are not insurmountable issues, but they are challenges which do not appear to be recognized, as we will see as we dig deeper.

About 6 percent identify the budget or the economy as the most important problem, and 5 percent identify road quality and repair.  Captured somewhere in the budget and economy category is the fiscal condition and lack of economic development that many believe are critical issues.  But the survey does not appear to indicate that those issues are on the radar for the voters – which some have said is due to this survey question only allowing the respondent to select one issue.

It is on the city satisfaction ratings we start to see a problem.

The question asks: “18. Would you say you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with each of the following in Davis?”

When it comes to “Maintenance of streets, sidewalks, and pedestrian and bike paths,” while 42 percent are dissatisfied – 20 percent of which are very dissatisfied – the issue somehow gets a net positive rating.  The city has a deep deficit here running between $6 million and $16 million per year and hundreds of millions over the next 20 years.

One only needs to drive down many streets to hit deep cracks, potholes and bumps.  How people are satisfied with the roadways – a very visible issue – is really baffling.

This is an issue with which we have seen some deterioration of the city’s ratings.  In 2014, 77 percent of people were satisfied with the maintenance of streets, et al., but it is still baffling given the report that had just come out about the city being over $100 million in a hole.

Ratings for the management of city finances also reveal the depths of the lack of voter knowledge.  The city gets a net positive rating here as well – barely.  Thirty-six percent say they are satisfied (only 6 percent are very satisfied) while 27 percent are unsatisfied.

The big number though is the 37 percent, more than a third, and a plurality of respondents admit they don’t know.

The management of city finances is probably not the best measure.  After all, you can argue that the current council has done a good job managing a tricky situation.  Or you can argue that they have not done nearly enough on the issue of cost containment, revenue generation or economic development.

Despite the voters’ perhaps misperceptions on the state of roads and city finances, the consultants reports, “Just over half of voters believe that the City of Davis has at least some need for additional funding.”  The question asked of them was: “Would you say that the City of Davis has a great need for more money, some need for more money, only a little need for more money, or no real need for more money for city services?”

But even here we have a lot of questions.  Just 11 percent see a great need.  While 42 percent seem some need.  Another 27 percent see either little or no real need.  While another 18 percent simply admit they don’t know.

How one can come to the conclusion that having a $200 million shortfall in funding for basic infrastructure needs is only some need, rather than a great need, suggests to me that only 11 percent really understand the true nature of the city’s fiscal predicament while the rest – 89 percent – really do not know the extent of the problem.

We are asking the voters to support taxes and possibly economic development projects, and yet they really do not understand the nature of the city’s fiscal problem.

These numbers come with a real warning sign as well – as we have noted with the schools, where the numbers are almost completely identical – with the answer to the statement “Taxes in Davis are already high enough, I’ll vote against any new tax measure.”

The good news for the city is, by a 55-37 margin, voters reject that statement.  But there is a problem here, that 37 percent voting against any new tax precludes making the threshold needed to pass a two-thirds parcel tax.  Now for the city, they can pass sales tax during the general city election at 50 percent.  But any specific tax or tax off the general election cycle needs a two-thirds vote.

This is not quite the crisis it is for the schools, which rely on a two-thirds parcel tax for local funding, but it is something our city must be aware of.

Bottom line – as I have stated a number of times in the past, the voters in Davis simply do not understand the fiscal condition of the city and how perilous things are.  That may not cause the city problems in an election with a sales tax renewal polling in the 70 percent range, but when it came to passing a roads tax in 2018, and possibly an economic development project, that might become a problem.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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. Matt Williams

    One only needs to drive down many streets to hit deep cracks, potholes and bumps.  How people are satisfied with the roadways – a very visible issue is really baffling.

    I don’t think it is very baffling when you consider that only 6% of the survey population is either Somewhat or Very Dissatisfied with “The Overall Quality of Life”

    Does that high level of satisfaction with the quality of life in Davis produce Complacency?

    1. David Greenwald

      I think. As I have argued quality of life in Davis remains good, but I think we are getting close to a step decline if we don’t change our trajectory.

      1. Matt Williams

        David, you see that, but you are far from Complacent … for better or for worse.

        Also, I suspect your answer to “The Overall Quality of Life” question in the survey might be a bit more circumspect than the survey results reported.

        1. David Greenwald

          I agree but the city has some valuable data now about the public’s knowledge of its own challenges.  The question really is what are they going to do about it.

  2. Ron Oertel

    From article:  “Now for the city, they can pass sales tax during the general city election at 50 percent.”

    Low-hanging fruit.  Sacramento’s sales tax is a half-percentage point higher, than Davis’.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Maybe. Based upon the survey results, it certainly appears that the 50% threshold to approve it is within easy reach.

        One might argue that it’s also more “fair” than a parcel tax – which requires a higher threshold of approval.

        1. Don Shor

          One might argue that it’s also more “fair” than a parcel tax – which requires a higher threshold of approval.

          I think generally sales tax is considered more regressive because of the disproportionate impact on poorer people. Parcel taxes could be considered regressive if they are flat, but more progressive if they are ad valorem (based on assessed value). But Prop 13 distorts anything that is based on property.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I understand that the parcel taxes in Davis have been applied at a “flat” (uniform) amount. But I agree that more than one argument (and factor) can be argued regarding “fairness”.

          In any case, it appears that an increase in the sales tax rate may be within easy reach.


        3. Ron Oertel

          Regarding my statement above, I see that I made the same grammar error (or at least repetitive word choice) that I teased someone else about, yesterday!

          (Something along the lines of “arguments arguing with arguments”.)

  3. Ron Oertel

    From article:  “One only needs to drive down many streets to hit deep cracks, potholes and bumps.  How people are satisfied with the roadways – a very visible issue – is really baffling.”

    Probably because they compare Davis’ roads with roads outside of Davis (that are in worse condition). Also, Davis’ roads are mostly low-speed roads.

    People get used to it, after awhile. In fact, some people might even view it as “natural speed bumps”, slowing down traffic.

    There’s a general “dislike” for cars in the first place, in Davis.

    1. Matt Williams

      Ron, based on your past comments about roads (copied and pasted below) I believe you have an outlier perspective on roads.  You have made it crystal clear that you don’t care about the condition of the roads at all.  Your focus is on blocking peripheral development. That is your prerogative, but I suspect that the majority of Davis stakeholders do not share that opinion of yours.

      I’ll take bad roads over another massive traffic-generating (and road-deteriorating) development, any day of the week.


      All I can tell you is that I wouldn’t be staying up until midnight, out of “concern” for existing roads. In all honesty, I care a lot more about preventing more sprawl (and traffic), than I do about existing roads. 


      I don’t worry much about the condition of the roads. I do, however, worry about another sprawling, traffic-generating (and roadway-deteriorating) development on prime farmland, outside of city limits.
      My “plan” is to try to help stop it. I’m in it for the long haul.


      I’d suggest that we all buy SUV’s and mountain bikes to navigate the impassable roads


      I’m not staying awake at night, worrying about the roads in Davis.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Matt:  Once again, you’re “mixing” sarcastic quotations, with non-sarcastic quotations.  Made over the course of several comments, which you’ve compiled into a list intended to discredit.  I wish you’d stop doing this. It’s a waste of time and energy for both of us.

        Regarding my views being an “outlier”, the survey results indicate the opposite.  In fact, I’d probably be in the the “minority” column (“dissatisfied”).  I also wish that the parcel tax for road maintenance passed.

        I am not staying awake at night worrying about it, however.

        Does that “jive” with the comments you quoted, or the erroneous conclusion you made?

        I realize that some (perhaps not you) are trying to make the case to add a lot MORE traffic (e.g., via MRIC), for the “purpose” of maintaining some of the same roads that would be further impacted by such development (regarding both traffic, and road maintenance).

        Hijacking “road maintenance concerns” to support more development that will impact those same roads (as well as freeway access points, and the freeway itself) is what keeps me up at night (or at least, continuing to comment on here).

      2. Ron Oertel

        I would, however, also repeat my comment that some (perhaps even “many”) people aren’t “fans” of well-paved streets – at least for low-traffic, residential streets near their homes.

        That’s why “speed bumps” are popular, with many.  And, perhaps a reason that residents of a given community don’t always “clamor” for the small roads/alleys in front of (or in back of) their homes to be repaved.

        It’s likely that only the major arterial streets are a concern, for some.

      3. Ron Oertel

        By the way, does anyone know how much money UCD contributes toward street maintenance in Davis?  (To offset the literal/degenerative “impact” of Unitrans buses on city streets, for example?)

        If I’m not mistaken, the correct answer is “zero”.

      4. Ron Oertel

        In reference to the recent “Mace Mess” article in the Enterprise (see link below):

        “Cheers, jeers, groans and moans occasionally rang out as disgruntled homeowners expressed concerns to Mayor Brett Lee and Police Chief Darren Pytel in relation to safety, traffic gridlock and what one attendee called an “appalling mishandling of city funds.”

        Does anyone know how much in city funds was used for the project so far, and how much additional cost to the city there will be?  (I understand that funds distributed via SACOG were the primary source.)

        Same question regarding the L street project?

        “In regards to kids biking to Pioneer, one resident claimed that even a 10% student increase would only factor as 2.2 additional children on the road.”

        (It’s that “.2” kid that’s particularly difficult to see, from a driver’s perspective.)


        1. David Greenwald

          “Does anyone know how much in city funds was used for the project so far, and how much additional cost to the city there will be? (I understand that funds distributed via SACOG were the primary source.)”

          At one point it was reported that just under $1 million came from road impact fee funds and that the city had sufficient money remaining that there would be no additional expenditures from the general fund to make modifications – I don’t know if that has changed since the last time it came before council.

        2. Ron Oertel


          Do you know if that $1 million could have simply and directly been used for road maintenance in that area, without the “road diet”?

          Note the following quote:

          “Additional project goals included pavement resurfacing and the easing of traffic congestion along the corridor, with the latter intention producing a long round of snickering from the overwhelmingly irritated residents in attendance, many of whom called for a complete project overhaul.”

          (Also – same questions, regarding the L street project.)

          1. David Greenwald

            “Do you know if that $1 million could have simply and directly been used for road maintenance in that area, without the “road diet”?”

            I suppose so, but the project was in fact a transportation/ bicycling project from the start.

            The L Street project of the bike crossing on F St?

        3. Ron Oertel

          The citation from the Enterprise (directly above your comment) shows that one of the goals of the “Mace Mess” was to resurface the streets. I assume that this was done, while simultaneously eliminating traffic lanes (which apparently irritated a large number of people, as noted in the Enterprise article). Therefore, I was just wondering if the city’s funds could have been simply used to resurface the streets.

          Seems like there’s some new/ongoing problems there, as well. I assume that you read the Enterprise article.

          I’m not sure what was done on L Street, as I rarely use it.  I just recall some recent street closures, along with some complaints from bicyclists regarding the new design.  (I recall that the comments from bicyclists were made on a different blog.)

          I realize that the L Street project did not eliminate traffic lanes.

          That’s o.k. – I can probably find the information on the city’s website, if I want to find out more about L Street.  Or, maybe I’ll go take a look.

          (Was mostly just wondering about the source of funds for the project.)


          1. Don Shor

            The scope of this project is to resurface Mace Boulevard, from Cowell to Redbud and enhance the movement of non‐motorized transportation along the corridor and between the neighborhoods east and west of Mace Blvd, particularly increasing levels of bicycling to Pioneer Elementary School. The Project Scope includes resurfacing and restriping the entire corridor, reconstructing where needed, improving Mace/Cowell intersection for bicycles and pedestrians (e.g. remove free right turns/extend pedestrian refuge islands, installing bike boxes), installing two‐way protected, buffered cycle track on the east side, reconfiguring lanes from four to two plus turn lanes, installing a buffered bike lane on west side, and installing a HAWK signal control at San Marino.


            Funding info here:
            SACOG grant funding, note the comment about “meaningful non-motorized transportation improvements….”
            Just resurfacing with those funds would probably not have met the grant requirements. These things come with strings attached.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Don:  Thanks for the information.

          Again, I was just wondering if the city’s portion of the funds could have been separated out and used solely for resurfacing, had it chosen to do so.

          Looks like the answer is “yes”.

          I’m not really looking to debate what ended up occurring, there (or the other goals).  The Enterprise article addresses some of that, in regard to the residents who attended that meeting.

          I had similar questions regarding L Street, but I realize that I can probably find that information on my own.

  4. Craig Ross

    Why would a citizen stay up at night worrying about the roads in Davis?  But if you’re an officeholder, I might lose some sleep worrying about how to fund them.

    More importantly, I’d worry about how to improve my communications to the public.

    1. Ron Oertel

      More importantly, I’d worry about how to improve my communications to the public.

      Don’t worry – they’ve recently hired a “communications director”, apparently without much regard to the additional impact on the budget.

        1. Craig Ross

          That has nothing to with whether the hire was made “without much regard to the additional impact on the budget” – in fact, you haven’t established if it does have an additional impact on the budget.  You haven’t established if they traded off that position for another position that they kept vacant.  You haven’t established whether they were aware of the impact on the budget but felt the position was important enough in function to pay additional money.  You’ve simply taken a piece of information and added your opinion to the rest without much regard for the calculations that city management would have to take.

        2. Ron Oertel

          “in fact, you haven’t established if it does have an additional impact on the budget.”

          Yeah, that person (in this new position) is probably working “for free”.

          I wouldn’t mind seeing a discussion regarding the rest of your questions/comments.


        3. Craig Ross

          For the record, my objection was the statement, “apparently without much regard to the additional impact on the budget“ which was written without any evidence at all to corroborate it.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Fair enough.

          But, I wonder what subjects this new position is intended to “communicate”. Some of those council members (and perhaps other officials) are rather “optimistic”, regarding their view of development proposals.

          I’d still like to see a complete discussion regarding the claimed reason that the communications director position was created, along with a justification for the resulting expense.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Craig… you are making good points… sometimes good points fall on deaf, or even antagonistic, ears… c’est la vie… c’est la guerre… have a great day and weekend…

  5. Bill Marshall

    A longitudinal question could have be, “how satisfied are you with your family’s fiscal health?”, or, “how satisfied are you with the maintenance of your house?”

    Very many folk are “complacent” about both, even though they are not saving enough for retirement, education for kids, economic downturns, nor addressing routine maintenance of their home, including water heater, appliances, etc.

    Go figure.

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