By David M. Greenwald
Four of the five members of the Davis City Council will be returning, with Brett Lee leaving the council and Josh Chapman joining it. The council is going to have to address serious short- and long-term challenges over the next two years.
The most immediate challenge will be dealing with COVID and the aftermath. Davis has probably weathered COVID better than most areas. It has had fewer cases of infection than many surrounding areas.
However, the business shutdowns have taken a toll, especially on the downtown. Some very prominent businesses are gone and probably will not return.
The city has been working on updating its Downtown Specific Plan and we are in the process of the scoping period. But even that is up in the air.
As Jim Gray pointed out a month ago, “This initial document was prepared prior to the Pandemic and I don’t believe addresses many potential threats and opportunities brought on by the public health crisis and the resulting economic and business changes.”
The job of the council is tricky, therefore. They must plan for a future that is not nearly as clear as it was perhaps a year ago at this time. What happens if businesses do not come back? Gray points out theaters are closed and might not come back, which has a big impact not only on those businesses but on the two parking garages.
Amtrak ridership is down and, while that might rebound, if many more people start working from home for various reasons in the future, we could see a massive shift in traffic.
Already the council saw it was tricky to hit a moving target when voters narrowly rejected DISC. Some of that was due to concerns about traffic and perhaps sprawl, but some of that was due to uncertainty about the post-COVID future—not to mention the lack of students participating in local elections.
That gets us to longer-term challenges. With the loss of DISC and, in 2018, of the parcel tax, the city has really not been able to address long-term fiscal issues.
In the short term the city is likely to take a big hit on revenue. Hotel income, on which they have built a revenue strategy, are down, and sales tax figures to have taken a hit, though the housing market and thus property tax remains robust.
The parcel tax that lost in 2018 was projected to bring in $3 million, with DISC perhaps $5 million at build out. Where does the city go to replace that potential revenue that they needed but did not get?
One possibility is a Utility User Tax. But the city now not only has to pay for roads—even at a reduced rate potentially—but also about $1.5 million for a ladder truck and personnel for it.
The loss of DISC will perhaps force the city to reconsider its economic development strategy. At some point they will need to look at where they can reasonably expect to gain revenue, whether from taxes or economic development plans.
Housing figures to be another huge issue with a Housing Element Committee appointed. It is composed of seven members including two from Planning, one from Social Services, one from Senior and one from Finance and Budget, with five members appointed by the council.
Their charge is to review existing housing element documents, then make recommendation to the Planning Commission and council about future housing.
In addition to the housing element update, the city is finally going to have to tackle a new General Plan. It has been newly two decades since the last General Plan update—so long ago that in fact the Vanguard, now approaching 15 years old, was not in existence at the last update.
Despite COVID, the housing market remains hot, with housing prices recently setting a new high with a median housing price of over $700,000 statewide.
A tricky issue for Davis will be what happens to students post-COVID. Will they shift to a more distance-learning model? Right now that seems unlikely. But it is an open question still.
Finally, one of the biggest issues in the short and probably longer term will be the issue of public safety and reimagining policing.
Last week that drew 162 public comments—80 percent or more were positive.
Despite the heavy tilt toward support, the measure is likely to be somewhat controversial. Calls to make drastic changes to policing in Minneapolis following the May death of George Floyd led to police union pushback, work slowdowns and officers leaving the department—which has in turn been commonly blamed on rising crime rates (though crime has gone up this year across the country regardless of local policies).
The city has some tough questions, like the recommendations from the subcommittee including finding out why there are racial disparities in arrests and police stops—a frequent complaint from Black residents, which now reflects that they are arrested and stopped at five times their population share, and stats show Blacks are disproportionately stopped even excluding out-of-town arrests.
More controversial may be calls to shift non-violent and low-risk services calls to unarmed personnel, and also calls for a CAHOOTS-style model of policing.
That figures to be an issue that has both a local and national component—and right now the calls for police reform are being driven more by the national conversation, whereas in 2006 and 2017 it was local incidents driving police reform talk.
These issues of course are by no means the only issues that the council will have to take up in the coming weeks and months and over the course of their term. But they figure to be some of the hot-bed issues that they have to address.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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