By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Normally it would be good news for the city that the vast majority of residents think the city is headed in the right direction. According to the most recent satisfaction polls, about 69 percent say the right direction and 30 percent the wrong direction, which tracks with the last poll from 2019.
We know that national surveys are not trending in the right direction and the support for national institutions is plunging to record low levels. But sometimes, an overly positive outlook is due to the public being unaware of the community’s problems rather than the city doing a good job.
This reminds me of polling from 2014 when two-thirds of the community thought city finances were good or fair even though the structural deficit was sufficient to require a rise in sales tax—and even after it passed the city still had at least a $7 million and some would say at least $10 million gap between what it was spending and what it needed to spend on infrastructure.
The city actually faces very serious challenges and I would argue—along with apparently less than a third of everyone else—that we are headed not only on the wrong track, but that we are headed for real peril.
The problem is clearly that the city is not adequately communicating to the community the extent of the challenges that we face. To some extent I get it, if you are an elected official, it is not in your best interest to tell the community that we are in trouble. That’s generally not a good way to get reelected.
But there are policy implications for it. While the voters in 2014 were willing to increase the sales tax, they have not been willing to help improve city revenue otherwise. The Nishi Project with the R&D space was voted down. The roads tax was voted down. Two innovation centers were voted down in 2020 and 2022.
Only small percentages recognize the severity of the budget and quality and conditions of the roads.
But it’s worse than that. The citizens are primarily concerned with nuisance issues—homelessness, crime, downtown parking. Concern about homelessness has shot way up from 7 to 14 percent. Crime from 4 percent in 2019 to 10 percent. But we still live in one of the safest communities in the country with an extraordinarily low violent crime rate.
What worries me perhaps most is the fact that the community seems to think, despite recognizing some challenges, that everything is all right.
For instance, 30 percent cite, as their top concern, lack of affordable housing. Worse than that, on the satisfaction ratings, affordability of housing is listed only at 23 percent satisfied. With HALF the respondents saying they are very dissatisfied with the affordability of housing.
Those are similar numbers to what we saw in 2019. But what are they doing about it? You would think if the voters were concerned about affordable housing that they would support ways to build more housing, especially affordable housing, and we really haven’t seen that.
But here’s the disconnect. They still view the track of the city as being positive not negative.
And yet, the lack of affordable housing has serious impacts. We have seen a slow decline in the number of families with children that can move into Davis. That is putting pressure on the schools and ultimately going to lead to declining enrollment despite our efforts to prop up both enrollment through inter-district transfers and revenue through a series of parcel taxes.
The voters don’t seem to connect the lack of affordable housing and the decline of enrollment to the eventual quality of life. Some have pointed out that I have been complaining about this for over a decade—but that’s part of the problem, this is a slow burn. We are the frog in a pot of water that is slowly getting heated up.
I had a conversation with a person who was involved in the Save Our Schools push from 2008 to 2010. At that time, it was an immediate crisis that was going to force school closures and programs being cut. The parents got together and through the Davis Schools Foundation raised the money to bridge the gap until a parcel tax could provide annual revenue to fix it.
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. We have gone from $100 per year parcel tax in 2007 to nearly $1000 today. People don’t understand that a slow and constant decline in enrollment makes it hard to maintain quality of programs.
The community gives mediocre marks to the maintenance of streets, 62 percent—it is a net positive of 24 percent, but if we were grading this in school, it would be a D-. The management of city finances similarly gets a plus 24 but mediocre, and the performance of the council is also a mediocre 60 percent and a plus 21.
I am not going to defend some of the council’s priorities with respect to spending—increasing employee compensation, for instance, and the purchase of a ladder truck.
But a big problem with the city’s finances is the lack of revenue. People complain about the parking downtown, but, more and more, where are they going to go even if they go to downtown? Empty store fronts.
The city has been sitting on their Downtown Plan since before the pandemic, and, even if it they approve it, it is not clear where the revenue comes from to revitalize the downtown.
In the meantime, the voters continue to fail to leverage the billions coming into the university in order to help spinoff technology startups, and provide innovation space for companies that are wanting to expand but lack the space in Davis. The city got lucky keeping Schilling Robotics, but have lost a number of companies that lacked the space to expand and countless companies that moved to the area—but not Davis because there was no landing space.
This is a community that is increasingly out of the price range of young families with children—even those teaching at the university. We just have yet to see the full effect of that slow transition away from the vital community this place was a generation ago when I moved here.
Then again, maybe some of this is starting to show up elsewhere in the polling. The confidence level has plunged in the last three years. While 58 percent still are confident in the ability of Davis’ leaders to solve difficult problems, the disagreement number has increased from 28 percent to 41 percent, closing the rating from a plus 30 to a plus 17.
With elections around the corner, that can’t be a settling thought for the incumbents.