Sunday, November 30, 2008

Help Means More Than Slopping Stuffing

The idea of Thanksgiving Day’s “One City, One Meal” event at the Knights of Columbus was wonderfully innovative: Instead of throngs of volunteers coming to feed the homeless, the idea was that everybody in town comes out to dine together. Yeah, lots of volunteers were still needed. But bonding and companionship, more than feeding people, was the goal.

So when we arrived at around 11, there were more than enough volunteers – and not a whole lot for us to do. My council colleague Neal Andrews, one of the godfathers of this event, told us to sit down and have a meal. We felt a little funny about this but we did it anyway. The result was a very meaningful Thanksgiving that helped me understand the “One City, One Meal” idea better.

I sat across from a guy named Denny, who appeared homeless or at least on the economic margins. At first we shared our meal in silence but after a while he struck up a conversation with me – and it was mostly about drag racing, which is his passion. We chatted for 10 or 15 minutes, after which he said, “I gotta go”. At the end of it, I knew more about drag racing than I ever thought possible. But I also realized that I had given Denny something that all the stuffing-slopping in the world couldn’t achieve – a real conversation, however brief, with a real person. So many of our homeless folks struggle with mental health and with healthy social interaction.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend Allison sat down next to a Spanish-speaking woman who was struggling to eat her meal while holding her grandson. Again for 10 or 15 minutes, Allison held the boy and played with him while the grandma ate hear meal in peace.

Neither of us did what we expected to do when we showed up. Yet by sharing the “One Meal” with the “One City,” we both were able to give and share far more than we anticipated.

The “Anti-Wal-Mart” Initiative

Last Monday, the City Council placed the “anti-Wal-Mart” initiative on the ballot for next November. Dozens of constituents had asked us to simply adopt the measure instead, but no one on the council made the motion to do so. I made the motion to place the measure on the ballot, and that motion passed 7-0..

Under state law, when an initiative’s proponents deliver enough signatures (in our case about 6,000 valid signatures from registered voters), we must either place it on the ballot or adopt it. I am generally not in favor of simply adopting an initiative. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that, for us (as for the voters), an initiative is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Even if everyone agrees the measure could be changed or improved, we don’t have that option. If we adopt it, we must adopt it word-for-word as the initiative’s proponents have drafted it.

In the case of this initiative, I think it is important for the voters to have a lively debate over what our community’s goals are and whether this initiative helps us accomplish those goals. As with the VCORD height/view initiative (which will also be on the ballot next November), clarity about the impact of this initiative is very important.

I have not taken a position on this initiative and I have not yet decided whether or not I will take a position on it. However, I do think it’s important that everybody understand what this initiative will and won’t do. Many initiatives have unintended consequences that voters should know about.

This initiative prohibits any retail store of over 100,000 square feet from devoting more than 3% of its merchandise to selling non-taxable merchandise (i.e. groceries). That’s all it does. It does not name Wal-Mart or any other retailer, and it does not call out Victoria Avenue or any other part of town. It does exempt warehouse retailers such as Costco.

So, I think voters will probably want to measure this initiative against what they believe the city’s goal should be. Here are some examples:

If your goal is to prevent Wal-Mart from opening a store in Ventura, this initiative will not accomplish that goal.

We have heard from many people who don’t want Wal-Mart in town. But if this initiative passes, Wal-Mart could still open any store of any size in any location in Ventura. The only thing Wal-Mart could not do would be to open a “Superstore” – a store that’s typically 150,000 to 200,000 square feet and also sells groceries. Even if the initiative passes, Wal-Mart – which apparently has a 20-year lease on the old Kmart site on Victoria – could reoccupy that store or build a new store if it does not sell groceries.


If your goal is to prevent Wal-Mart or any other retailer from building a very large store on the Kmart site on Victoria, this initiative will not accomplish that goal either.

We have also heard from many people who fear more traffic on Victoria Avenue because of large retailers. But as I explained above, this initiative would not prevent a regular Wal-Mart or other retail on the Kmart site. Indeed, because of the warehouse store exemption, the initiative would permit a full-blown Costco on the Kmart site.

The City’s new Victoria Corridor code, scheduled to be adopted by the City Council in early 2009, will provide stronger protection than the initiative in this regard. The code will limit the size of any single store to 100,000 square feet, which the initiative does not do.


If your goal is to prevent very large retail stores from also selling groceries, then this is the initiative for you.


We have also heard from many constituents, including unionized supermarket workers and their supporters, who fear that a Wal-Mart Supercenter would undercut Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons and cause the grocery workers to lose their jobs (which provide much higher pay and better benefits than Wal-Mart jobs). This initiative will make it impossible for Wal-Mart and other large retailers from building very large stores and also selling groceries.

Bear in mind, however, that if passed the initiative might affect other retailers as well as Wal-Mart. For example, the new Target at Pacific View Mall would not be permitted under this initiative. The Target is about 200,000 square feet and devotes about 6% of its square footage to groceries. If the initiative passed, Target would become a “non-conforming use,” meaning it would not be able to expand or remodel unless it conformed with the initiative – presumably by reducing the amount of square footage devoted to groceries. And no other store like it could be built in town, no matter whether it's a Target or anything else.

Clearly, the initiative’s proponents are hoping not only to prohibit a Wal-Mart Supercenter but also to discourage Wal-Mart. If a Supercenter is not permitted, the reasoning goes, perhaps Wal-Mart will not be interested in building any store in Ventura. It’s hard to know whether this will work, since Wal-Mart tends to get its corporate back up when challenged and has been very aggressive in fighting these ordinances throughout California.

And if Wal-Mart does not build a store in Ventura, it’s very possible that the company will build a Supercenter in Oxnard. This might make us feel good about having kept Wal-Mart outside our boundaries, but it will have other effects as well. Ventura residents are likely to patronize the store (apparently 20% of current Oxnard Wal-Mart shoppers are Venturans). This would mean that Ventura retailers would business to Wal-Mart anyway, even though there's no Wal-Mart in Ventura, and the City would lose all of the resulting sales tax to Oxnard.

As I say, I am not sure what position I will take on this initiative, if any. But I hope you can see that there are lots of issues that should be debated fully by the voters next fall.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Metrolink Crash

Everyone in Ventura County is feeling grief and a sense of loss from the Metrolink crash along the Ventura County line in Chatsworth on Friday, which killed 26 people. Almost all the victims lived in Ventura County, mostly in Moorpark and Simi Valley. Our hearts go out to all the victims -- and especially to our two devastated neighboring communities.

Our hearts especially go out to the family of Dean Brower of Ventura, who perished in the crash. Dean, his wife Kim, and their three children are a wonderful family with very big hearts. I remember Kim from the years that she organized the annual Girl Scout appearance at the City Council (my daughter sometimes participated). You can read more about Dean's life in yesterday's L.A. Times story. You can also learn more about Dean and his family on the web site of their family business, Pulse Drumming. The story of their family is very heart-rending, which makes Dean's loss even more sad.

I'm feeling this loss in so many ways. Among other things, I ride this line pretty frequently, and I'm also Ventura's representative on the Ventura County Transportation Commission, which is one of Metrolink's member agencies. If you're a Metrolink rider, you might be a little skittish about getting back on the train, and that's understandable. But it's kind of like flying in an airplane -- overall, the odds of an accident are very slim. I plan to get back on the train on Thursday for meetings in downtown L.A.

As of today, Ventura has no train service at all. The Pacific Surfliner is not running north of Los Angeles, and Metrolink is terminating in Chatsworth, with buses to Simi Valley and Moorpark. Service should be restored by Wednesday or perhaps Thursday at the latest. You can keep track of the schedule on the Metrolink web site.

Friday's crash highlighted some of the operational difficulties in running a commuter rail system alongside a busy freight system in a regional where there is lots of single track. If you want to read more about this aspect of the situation, check out the blog I wrote yesterday in my day-job capacity as publisher of California Planning & Development Report.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why We're Giving The Firefighters A Raise

As you may have heard by now, next Monday (8/4), the City Council is scheduled to approve a new contract with our city firefighters than includes both a raise and an increase in their pension benefits.

In such a bad budget year, I’m sure this will come as a shocker to most people. After all, this new contract will cost us more than $1 million per year. And I think I know what the reaction will be:

How dare they, especially after imposing the 911 fee?

They should be cutting spending, not increasing it! No wonder they need all that fee money!

The firefighters’ pensions are already pretty cushy!

It’s just payback to the firefighters union for campaign contributions!

All fair comments. But there are very good reasons why we are giving the firefighters a better deal – even in a bad budget year when we increased fees on lot of other things.

Most people think we’re just cutting the budget. But we’re doing more than that. At the same time that we are restraining spending, we’re also reprioritizing how the money is spent, so it goes to higher-priority items.

And the Fire Department is a high priority – one that is at risk if we don’t improve the compensation package. No matter what I or anybody else thinks about how good our firefighters have it, we’ve fallen far behind Ventura County, Oxnard, and Santa Barbara in both pay and pensions. In dealing with the future of our Fire Department, we have three choices:

-- Pay through the nose to merge with Ventura County Fire. Because the County pays better than the City does – and because they have no motivation to merge except on their terms – this would cost a fortune. The Fire Department currently costs us $20 million a year. Merging with County Fire would probably cost us $30 million a year.

-- Resign ourselves to being a “farm team”. We could not improve the compensation package – or we could even cut the pensions and salaries – but the net result would be a much lower-quality department. We might have to give up the requirement that firefighters be emergency medical technicians; and we’d probably lose most of our promising recruits to the county after a couple of years. In other words, our city firefighters would be younger and greener, kind of the like the ambulance technicians in town.

-- Invest some money in improving compensation in order to stay competitive. We don’t have to gold-plate our Fire Department to compete with the County. People like working for our Fire Department. All we have to do invest enough money that good people come to work for us and then stay. That’s what we’re trying to do with this new contract.

Earlier this year, we made a deliberate decision not to simply cut the budget across the board. We decided we were not going to sacrifice our goal of raising salaries and benefits in key areas where we knew we were far behind. Instead, we identified things the City couldn’t justify spending money on and eliminated those instead.

In other words, part of the reason we worked so hard to cut the budget this year was that we would have enough money for high-priority items like firefighter salaries.

Also – and I know a lot of people won’t believe me when I say this – we’re not using the 911 fee money to give the firefighters a raise. That money is reserved for hiring additional police officers and firefighters so that we cut reduce the response times to 911 calls. We didn’t even include the 911 money in the 2008-2009 budget. The money that we are using to provide the firefighters with a new contract is coming out of the money we already have – the increases in property tax revenue that we have obtained over the last year, plus the money we cut from other programs.

I wish all this were easier to accomplish, but it’s not. Remember that since I took office, we’ve faced a series of fiscal challenges.

First, we had to erase a $9 million budget deficit dating back to the 2003-04 fiscal year. We set a goal of balancing the budget in three years, then did it in two. And we’ve made tough cuts this year to keep the budget balanced even as our actual revenue has gone down.

Second, we had to add police officers and firefighters without the benefit of the sales tax revenue from Measure P6, which failed (with 62% of the vote!) in 2006. We used all of our 2007-08 property tax revenue growth to add the first group of officers. And we will use the 911 fee revenue to add many more, focusing on increasing response time.

We’re not out of the woods yet. It’ll be a while before the economy turns around, and we’re likely to see one or two more years of stagnant revenue in the meantime. And we all know that we have to work hard to get more revenue – especially more sales tax revenue – in order to stay competitive. That’s why we’re working so hard on downtown, on trying to bring retail back to the north end of the Pacific View Mall, on adding auto dealers at the auto center, and on targeting specific retailers we want like Best Buy.

But I’m proud of what we’ve done. I think we have our priorities straight – balance budget and have an outstanding public safety force – and I hope we can stay competitive in the future.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"I'm From Here"

“I’m from here.”

It is a very powerful thing when one of the most famous people in the world stands on a stage at the corner of Main and California, looking up at City Hall, and declares that he is home. That’s what happened Saturday night – the unofficial “Kevin Costner Night” in Ventura – when the hometown boy returned for a special premiere of his new movie, Swing Vote, a fundraiser at the new restaurant Watermark, and a free concert featuring his band, Modern West.

I thought it was a great day. The buzz from having a movie star in town was a lot of fun. Main, California, and Chestnut streets were all closed off to accommodate the activities, and an enormous stage was set up at Main and California facing uphill toward City Hall. Costner did a red-carpet walk across Main Street from the Watermark to the movie theater, stopping again and again to sign autographs – often in an old Buena High yearbook. When his band played, all of California Street turned into an outdoor amphitheater, with thousands of people standing, sitting, and listening all the way up to City Hall. You couldn’t move on the sidewalk during the concert; and afterward hundreds of people just hung around downtown, dining along the sidewalks and waiting for a glimpse of the star.

If you think it was all a bit too much Hollywood hype for Ventura, you’re probably right. We’re not used to burly bodyguards and velvet ropes and restricted access around our town. We’re not used to Hollywood entrances like Costner made, walking in the spotlight all the way from City Hall down the California Street hill to the stage, accompanied by music so grandiose you’d think it was the opening ceremony of the Olympics. (Not all was gold-plated for the star, however: Watermark owner Mark Hartley drove him from Main up to Poli in an electric golf cart – which stalled halfway up, meaning Costner had to make the rest of the climb on foot.)

And after all, the whole thing was just publicity for a new movie.

But so what? The movie’s pretty good. The band is better than you’d think. The Watermark is a fabulous restaurant. It was a nice warm afternoon and a beautiful night. And Kevin Costner – hometown boy – was as gracious and down-to-earth as his reputation suggests. He thanked his best friend, Ventura real estate agent Tim Hoctor, for putting the whole thing together. He recalled his days as a boy in downtown Ventura, attending Cabrillo Middle School and wondering what happened inside the big building at the top of the hill.

Not every city is capable of pulling off what happened in Ventura Saturday night, when our downtown was turned temporarily into a major entertainment venue featuring a world-famous star. I’ve always loved the fact that we are so good at special events in Ventura. Think of ArtWalk and the street fairs and the Music Festival, which fills venues all over town for more than a week, and the annual Hillside Conservancy concert, which turns Arroyo Verde Park into an amphitheater just as the Costner concert turned downtown into one.

We on the City Council spend most of our time grinding through the details of running a municipal government. How do we pay the police officers? How do we upgrade the sewer lines? Should buildings be two stories high, or three or four or five? When we inspect somebody’s building to make sure it’s not a fire hazard, do the taxpayers pay for that or do we make the building’s owner pay full freight?

These activities are the nuts and bolts of municipal government, and I’m not complaining that we spend a lot of time dealing with them. But Saturday night was a good reminder that a successful community requires far more than just water lines and sewer pipes and firefighters and building inspectors. A successful community requires thousands and thousands of people who are dedicated to making it a great place – a place where people put their money on the line to open new businesses, where they work together to create big events that we all love, and where they turn out in droves to see a world-famous guy who maybe sat three rows behind them in eighth-grade homeroom.

More once during the concert, I couldn’t resist turning around and just taking in the view of thousands of people lined up the California Street hill – loving the concern, loving the scene, and just loving being Venturans.

Ventura’s way better at this kind of community-building than almost any other city I can think of. That’s why I love being on the City Council.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Doing Things Differently

Monday night, the City Council undertook the first of what will presumably become a monthly event – a meeting focused entirely on planning issues. According to the protocol changes we made last spring – at the same time we switched the meeting time to 6 p.m. – we will now devote the second meeting of every month just to planning and community development.

After kind of whining in last week’s blog about how long our council meetings are, I have to admit that I was mostly to blame for the length of Monday’s meeting. Everything that the staff put forth was on the consent calendar, and we were done with that by 6:45. But Councilmember Summers and I had put forth two policy considerations. (Details below.) The first, dealing with a possible view task force, took 2 hours and 15 minutes, coming up till 9 o’clock. The second, dealing with building heights in duplex zones in Midtown, took about 45 minutes before it was tabled due to my conflict.

We’ll keep working on all this!

Moving Forward With View Protection

We’re moving forward with view protection.

Monday night the City Council voted 5-2 to accept a proposal by Councilmember Summers and me to give the General Plan policy on “public viewsheds and solar access” a high priority and create a task force to make recommendations on how to implement that policy. The task force is scheduled to come back to us in the spring

The vote was 5-2, with Neal Andrews and Jim Monahan opposed. Neal said he believes the council can deal with these issues individually at the plan and project level, as we did with the Midtown Corridors Code – an approach that has merit, and might be worth considering were it not for the pending VCORD initiative. Jim said he would have supported the idea if we committed ourselves to placing the resulting view protection policies on the ballot – something we still might do in the future, once we have an actual policy in place.

In the course of a discussion that lasted more than two hours, we also made a number of other changes and clarifications:

-- The task force will have 15 members, not 11. This did not change the composition of the task force but, rather, corrected a math error that Ed and I had made.

-- Instead of 3 members drawn from the old Vision Committee and Community Plan Advisory Committee, we will draw 2 from that group and 1 representative nominated by the Building Industry Association.

-- Both citizen and business representatives from different neighborhoods around the city will be appointed by the local Community Councils.

-- The committee will not be charged with specifically making recommendations on viewsheds and solar access for the Wells & Saticoy Community Plan, which is likely to come before the council prior to the task force’s recommendations; but East Ventura Community Council will nevertheless have two representatives on the task force.

-- The two public members and the two Vision/CPAC members will be nominated through the normal council appointments committee process.

The task force will report back to the council no later than March 15, rather than February 15.

One very important point is that we clarified that we are asking this task force not only to make recommendations on how to implement the “public viewshed and solar access” policy but also to suggest what those terms really mean.

There has been considerable discussion as to whether this policy means we intend to protect views (of the ocean, the hills, or whatever) from private property as well as public locations; as well as which public locations we should emphasize – for example, should we focus only on north-south vistas (such as along Seaward or California streets) or should we protect views from east-west locations along Seaward and Thompson, which would obviously require much more restrictive policies?

Neal called the fact that we charged the committee with figuring this out “a punt,” and in a way he’s right. This is a tricky issue that requires a lot of discussion – and in my opinion such a detailed discussion is better conducted by the stakeholder task force than by us. This is often the case on planning issues.

Having said that, I will say that in the Midtown Corridors Code, the council interpreted “public viewsheds” to mean the protection of views along the north-south roadway corridors. We also interpreted “solar access” to required stepped-back development on commercial parcels adjacent to the yards of residential parcels.

On Wells & Saticoy, Nelson Hernandez, our Community Development director, pointed out that if we wanted this committee to make recommendations on how to incorporate view/solar policies into the Wells & Saticoy Community Plan, we might further hold up approval of that plan. That plan has been in process since 2005, and we have already held it up several times to introduce additional issues for discussion. So we removed the Wells & Saticoy plan from the task force’s charge but retained the East Ventura Community Council members on the committee.

EVCC members at the meeting were understandably not happy with us for doing this. We will have to deal with view/solar issues in Wells & Saticoy when the Community Plan and the project-level Specific Plans (for example, for the Hansen Trust and Parkland properties) come before us. Dan Cormode of EVCC pointed out that the City Council may have to come up with our own definition of public viewsheds and solar access in those situations – possibly different from what the task force will come up with.

He’s right about that. As a trained city planner, I have to say that I wish we could stop the world from moving forward while we write our planning policies until they are perfect. As a politician, I know this is not realistic in most cases. Doing a Community Plan at the same time that we are doing Specific Plans in Wells & Saticoy has been an “awkward straddle” from the beginning, and it will continue to be so until we are done.

A lot of the discussion on Monday night revolved not around how the committee would be formed or what its charge would be, but whether the resulting policies should go on the ballot. VCORD’s representatives criticized us for attempting to “end-run” their initiative and for a “bait-and-switch”. Although they weren’t specific about what they meant by this, I assume that they think the end result is that we will place a completing measure on the ballot in November of 2009.

Meanwhile, Councilmember Monahan made it clear that a competing initiative was exactly what he was looking for. He asked two pro-business speakers if they would support putting a competing measure on the ballot; and indicated that he voted against the task force idea because it did not include a provision to place the resulting policies on the ballot.

I think the question of whether we should place our public viewshed/solar access policy on the ballot in November of 2009 is premature. Right now, all we are doing is creating a task force to make recommendations to us about what that policy might be. If all goes according to plan, those recommendations will return to us next spring and we can debate at that time what policies and code changes we should put into place.

If and when we put these new items into place, we can decide whether to place them on the ballot in November 2009 as well. But let’s take this one step at a time.

Oops!

I’m embarrassed. In the middle of the debate Monday night over the second policy onsideration on heights and solar access brought forward by Councilmember Summers and me – one that would slightly shave the building envelope for three-story buildings in certain Midtown location s—the city attorney reminded me that I had a conflict of interest.

The only properties affected by this change would be properties in Midtown with R-3-5 duplex zoning. I co-own a duplex on Anacapa, in the R-3-5 zone. My property would be affected by this change. If it passed, I would have less development potential than I have now.

Frankly, I assumed that because my development potential and hence my property value would be reduced by this change, it wouldn’t be a conflict. I forgot that it’s a conflict if your property is affected by a zone change at all, no matter whether the value is increased or reduced.

We had to take a time-out from the meeting while I declared my conflict and then the council tabled the item, which can be brought back in the future by my co-sponsor, Councilmember Summers, without my name attached to it.

I apologize to everybody, especially my colleagues, for the “rookie mistake”.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Revisiting Heights in Midtown -- and Elsewhere

Next Monday night (7/21), the City Council will embark on a new experiment -- a monthly meeting devoted exclusively to planning matters. Under some revisions we made a couple of months ago, we now deal with general city business on the first and third Mondays of the month and planning matters exclusively on the second Monday. We also meet earlier -- at 6 pm. We are going to try to take the fourth Monday off. Good luck.

In keeping with the spirit of the new planning-only meeting, Councilmember Ed Summers and I have placed two items on next Monday's agenda dealing with building heights.

The first is a further refinement of building heights in the interior residential neighborhoods in Midtown, placing additional conditions on buildings over 30 feet.

The second is an attempt to deal with the overall citywide height and view issues - which have been brought into focus by the VCORD initiative, now schedule for the ballot in November 2009 -- by creating a city task force to make recommendations for the City Council to consider.


Midtown Residential Building Heights

In some parts of Midtown, it is possible to build 40- to 45-foot residential buildings in the middle of residential neighborhoods. Until 2006, these "2 1/2" story buildings could be approved over the counter. We now require planning commission review for such projects.

The first proposal from Councilmember Summers and I for Monday night would place further restrictions on these essentially 3-story buildings. Under our proposal, buildings would be limited to 3o feet high unless the upper stories are set back further than the ground floor.

This doesn't solve all problems associated with tall buildings in Midtown, but at least it should mean that residential buildings in residential neighborhoods are more compatible with their surroundings. The proposal doesn't affect the heights of buildings along the Main and Thompson corridors, which are subject to a new code we passed alst year. Under that code, the upper floords of these buildings already must be set back 30 feet from back property lines.


View Protection Task Force

The second proposal from Councilmember Summers and I would create a "Public Viewshed and Solar Access" task force charged with providing the City Council with a set of recommendations for how to protect viewsheds and solar access.

This proposal was inspired by the VCORD initiative, which has qualified for the ballot for November of 2009. The VCORD initiative would impose a temporary 26-foot height limit in most parts of town and create a "View Resources Board" charged with drafting a view protection ordinance.

I have a hard time supporting the VCORD initiative, for two reasons. First, I don't think a moratorium on buildings over 26 feet is necessary, especially in a real estate downturn. And second, I can't support the manner in which the View Resources Board members are appointed. Under the initiative, these members would be appointed by VCORD -- a civic-minded but nevertheless private organization -- meaning that these appointments would be beyond the reach of the voters.

Nevertheless, VCORD's efforts have highlighted an important public issue -- how do we protect views from public places, and solar access to people's property, as we allow greater densities in certain parts of the city? VCORD's initiative admirably couches its provisions as an effort to implement the 2005 General Plan's provisions that public viewsheds and solar access should be protected. VCORD gathered more than 7,000 valid signatures for its initiative -- enough to qualify for the next municipal election in November of 2009, but not enough to qualify for the general election ballot this fall.

Even though I cannot agree with all the provisions of VCORD's initiative, I believe we should start the process of figuring out how to implement the General Plan's call to protect public viewsheds and solar access sooner rather than later. Therefore, our proposal would create a task force that is similar to the proposed VCORD committee and charge that task force with coming up with recommendations to the City Council no later than next February. Presumably this would permit us to adopt those recommendations next spring, and then voters can decide in fall whether we have done a good enough job or whether they still want to vote in favor of the VCORD initiative.

There are two major differences between our proposal and the VCORD initiative, baesd on the two areas of disagreement between some councilmembers and VCORD. The first is that our proposal does not call for a temporary height limit, as the VCORD initiative does. The second is that the task force would be appointed by the City Council, which is directly accountable to the voters; rather than by VCORD, which is not directly accountable to the voters.

Our proposal calls for an 11-member task force including the following members:

-- 3 representatives who served on either the Seize The Future Citizen Outreach Committee (the “Vision Committee”) or the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (the CPAC), not to include any current members of the City Council or the Planning Commission.

-- 1 representative nominated by the Chamber of Commerce.

-- 1 representative nominated by the Visitor and Convention Bureau

-- 1 representative nominated by the City’s environmental organizations.

-- 1 representative nominated by the Ventura Citizens Organized for Responsible Development (VCORD)

-- 2 representatives from each of the three neighborhoods scheduled to have Community Plans prepared in the foreseeable future (Saticoy & Wells, Westside, and Midtown), including 1 representative nominated by the local Community Council and 1 business owner.

-- 2 members appointed at large.

Our proposal also specifies that all meetings of this task force will be publicly noticed meetings open to the public.

How We Spent 5 Hours, 40 Minutes

Our City Council is notorious for long meetings. A couple of months ago, we moved the start time for our meetings from 7 pm to 6 pm in hopes of finishing our meetings earlier, so that everybody doesn't have to stay up to the middle of the night.

Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. Last night (July 14th), it didn't work. Even with one councilmember (Carl Morehouse) missing, we met until 11:40 p.m.

What did we spend 5 hours and 40 minutes doing? Here's what:

Preliminaries (roll call, pledge, presentations, council communications, regional reports): 30 minutes.

Public Communication: 30 minutes. It was "First Monday," when we take public speakers at the beginning of the meeting and allow them 3 minutes each. We had 9 speakers -- some regulars, some we had never seen before.

City Manager Report: 10 minutes. This wasn't on the agenda originally, but we added it so that we could hear a report on the City's investments in Freddie Mac bonds.

Consent Agenda: 6 minutes. This consists of many smaller items that do not require discussion.

Council Advisory Group Appointments: Less than 5 minutes.

Code Enforcement: 90 minutes. This was a policy discussion about whether to require city inspections on resale homes and rentals. The staff came to us with some ideas but really wanted a discussion. I did not time the staff presentation but I'm guessing 15 minutes at least. We heard from only 5 speakers. In the end, we adopted the staff recommendation with one minor change.

By now it was 10 until 9. We had been meeting for almost three hours.

10-minute break: 15 minutes.

Fair Board presentation: 5 minutes. This was a presentation of the County Fair poster.

Item 12: Sewer and Water Rates. 40 minutes, including a staff presentation of almost 20 minutes. There were no public speakers and we approved the staff recommendation. This too was an important policy discussion about where our water and sewer rates are going and how we can or should reach out to our ratepayers about coming rate increases.

Item 13: Green Streets: 90 minutes. again including a staff report of almost 20 minutes. There were 4 public speakers. We had earlier asked the Public Works staff to come up with a plan to "green" our streets. The discussion involved a demonstration project on South Catalina Street, as well as implications for stomwater runoff, which is a big deal. Probably the most important item on the agenda, and it started up shortly before 10 pm.

By now it was almost 11:30.

Item 14: Fuel conservation: 15 minutes. This was an update by the staff on fuel conservation efforts for the city's operations.

Item 15: Low Impact Development: 7 minutes. This was a request from Councilmember Brennan that we endorse the Ocean Protection Council's "low impact development" stormwater runoff principles.

So there you go. That's how we spent almost 6 hours. My personal opinion is that nothing coherent ever gets done past 10, and we should work harder to end our meetings at about 10 pm. But you can see that, every week, a huge number of issues comes flying at us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What To Do About North Bank

Tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 14th), the City Council will hold a special meeting for one specific purpose: to discuss how to interpret the “Commerce” land use designation in the North Bank area around the Century 16 theater near the Johnson Drive offramp. I am unable to attend because of a day-job commitment elsewhere, so I want to use the blog to provide my thoughts.

This meeting grew out of a request to consider a General Plan Amendment to change the designation on their property – the vacant lot across Johnson from Motel 6 – from Commercial to Residential. Casdan Properties is a developer of rental residential properties and they want to build what amounts to a big apartment complex on this site, which is on the corner of Johnson and North Bank. We denied the amendment request 4-3 a few weeks ago – which doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of rental apartments on the site – but agreed to take a look at the general issue again.

First, a bit about the land use designations that we included in the 2005 General Plan. They were deliberately more general than the land use designations in the previous general plan; the idea was to provide flexibility in each neighborhood for a very specific zoning code that would allow mixed-use development. So the “Commerce” designation, which was applied to the parcels that used to be designated as “Commercial,” allows the possibility of building housing.

We’ve created the more specific codes in Downtown and the Midtown Corridors, but the more general designation has created confusion in parts of town where we have not adopted a more specific code. In many cases, developers have sought to interpret the Commerce designation broadly, sometimes to mean a project that is mostly residential with only a small bit of retail associated with it.

This is what Casdan Properties tried to do at the Johnson Drive/North Bank site. When Casdan bought the property in 2003, it was zoned for Commercial. Casdan’s goal was clearly to flip the zoning to residential, thereby increasing the value of the property, and then build apartments. It’s a typical tactic among some developers: Buy property zoned for commercial and industrial use cheaply, then get a zone change to residential, and reap the profits.

After the 2005 General Plan passed, Casdan began working on a proposal for an apartment complex with a bit of retail, which they argued was in conformance with the Commerce land use designation. The staff disagreed and encouraged Casdan to go through the General Plan Amendment pre-screen process – which allows the Council to take an “early look” at a project that would require a General Plan Amendment – to test the waters for switching to a Residential land use designation. Casdan went through the pre-screen but didn’t really want to. When this came to us, they actually asked us to turn down the switch to Residential and instead signal to the staff that a mostly residential project would be okay under the Commerce designation.

We turned down the switch to Residential 4-3, but we couldn’t agree on what other guidance we should givef on how to interpret the Commerce designation. Councilmember Andrews said he thought the site was a good location for tall office buildings that might compete with the towers in Oxnard. Mayor Weir favored a residential project because of the proximity to the nearby bike path, the businesses in the North Bank area, and the Santa Clara River. Some folks argued that residential development would allow commuters to live in Ventura but get right on the freeway to go elsewhere.

Much of the discussion revolved around how much retail should be required as part of the project. The staff pushed for a big chunk – essentially all along Johnson and North Bank, perhaps 25%. Casdan said that was too much and they wouldn’t be able to lease up that much retail.

My own view has always been that this is a lousy site for residential development.

Yes, it’s near the Santa Clara River and the bike path – but it’s also right up against the freeway and it’s very noisy. (There’s also a lot of new research suggesting that living near freeways is very harmful to children.)

Yes, it’s close to other residential neighborhoods – but, except for a pre-existing Montalvo neighborhood nearby, there’s no other residential south of the railroad tracks. And it’s right across Johnson Drive from another vacant lot that has one of the largest freeway frontages in the City – clearly, one of our prime sites for large-scale retail.

Yes, it’s close to the North Bank businesses – but those businesses have always struggled and we are likely to see them struggle even more in the future. Mayor Weir liked the proximity to the movie theater, Toys R Us, and the restaurants. So do I – except that this area is increasingly uncompetitive for retail and is likely to go downhill further when River Park opens just across the bridge in Oxnard unless we rethink it. The theater is likely to close or go to second-run movies. Toys R Us will probably close or move as well. The whole area will undergo major change.

And yes, Casdan probably can’t lease up a project that’s mostly a retail or office project. But that’s not because there’s no market in that area. It’s because Casdan is a residential developer. When I asked Casdan at the last meeting why they wanted to build residential in this location, rather than some other kind of development, their answer was that residential development is the business they’re in. That wasn’t a good enough answer for me, especially since they had originally bought the property with the clear intention of turning a quick profit by flipping the zoning from commercial to residential.

I suggested another meeting for the purpose of discussing not just the Casdan Property but all the properties in the North Bank area, because all the properties are clearly going to change – not just Casdan. So here’s how I think the Commerce designation should be interpreted in that vicinity:

-- We should protect the properties along the freeway on the other side of Johnson – the vacant lot by Motel 6 and the Toys R Us site – for large-scale retail. This means not allowing any residential development on these properties, and also planning the properties across Johnson – the Casdan Parcel and the movie theater site – in a way that doesn’t preclude large-scale retail on the other parcels.

-- We should require that the Casdan and movie theater properties be focused mostly on retail serving the neighborhood and the greater East Ventura area. The North Bank shopping centers were hard-hit by bridge construction and they will be hard-hit again by RiverPark because many businesses dependent on lunchers and shoppers from the towers across the river. But those customers are gone and will never come back. However, Johnson is a major commuter route for our own residents who commute between East Ventura and other cities. These folks don’t have enough neighborhood shopping. To buy almost anything, they either have to go over to Victoria or they cross the river to Oxnard.

-- These retail developments should be designed so they are convenient to driving commuters along Johnson and also to pedestrians and bicyclists for adjacent neighborhoods using the bike trail to get there. There may even be some potential for small second-story offices for businesses whose owners live nearby. Second-story offices above retail are not always successful – witness the struggle of such space in the Ralph’s shopping center on Victoria – but there is second-story office space (above more office) just up the street on Johnson (across the tracks). (I don't think Councilmember Andrews' idea of high-rise office makes sense, since we just redid the Victoria code to promote Class A office space over there.)

All this does not preclude some residential units on the movie theater and Casdan sites, especially on the backside along the river. But I think that mostly residential projects on these sites does not make sense. The Casdan property is too close to the freeway. Johnson is a busy street. It’s too close to the large-scale retail sites across the street. And the people in the residential neighborhoods need upgraded neighborhood shopping opportunities – not just a coffee shop in an apartment building.

If this means that we will not allow the project Casdan wants to build, then maybe Casdan is the wrong developer for the site. Our goal should be to figure out how to best use the North Bank properties to benefit the surrounding neighborhoods and Ventura as a whole – not to accommodate a residential developer that purchased the land with the clearly goal of making money by flipping the zoning.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cut the Budget and Hold the Fees

This has not been an easy time to be a member of the City Council.

Over the past few months, we have been constantly skewered – by the Ventura County Star and many of our own constituents – on the question of fees, first the 911 fee and more recently the weed abatement fee.

At the same time, we’ve spent almost every Monday night for the last two months debating how to cut the budget – not just next year’s budget, but this year’s budget too.

Well, last Monday night (May 5th) we made some tough decisions on the budget – and we began to address the question of fees as well. And next Monday night (May 12th), we’ll continue our discussion of fees. I’ll get to the fees in a minute, but first let me talk about the budget cuts.

Budget Cuts

As I pointed in my last post (below), we at the City of Ventura – like most other cities in the county and the state – were a bit surprised by the quick drop in both the real estate market and retail sales. Property tax revenues are now growing slowly and may soon drop. Sales tax revenues have leveled off and are beginning to decline too.

All this means we have to start spending less money, not more. Twice in the last two months, the City Council has cut $1 million out of the current year budget, mostly by postponing certain capital projects and making similar changes. On Monday night, we made about $4 million in cuts. We did this by accepting the vast majority of cuts proposed by City Manager Rick Cole and his staff as the result of a months-long debate at the staff level about what we can live without.

We punted on a few things that individual council members wanted to discuss further – reducing downtown police foot patrols and closing police storefronts, cutting arts grants, cutting our subsidy of the Visitor and Convention Bureau, and a couple of other things. But we bit the bullet on a lot of other things.

Make no mistake: These cuts are going to hurt. They are going to anger some of our constituents, who will complain that we have cut the wrong things. For example:

-- We have completely eliminated the neighborhood speed bump program. If your neighborhood wants to ask for speed bumps, unfortunately the City is not going to be able to put them in any more.

-- We are punting on renovations to many of our parks.

-- We’re also cutting back on parking lot cleaning in many of our parks, and also we’ll be maintaining fewer trees in parks and mowing the grass less frequently.

-- We will be cutting curb and gutter repairs by half, so some curbs and gutters that are in bad shape simply won’t be fixed.

-- We’ve also agreed to cut sand cleaning by 50% in the Pierpoint, though we may well put that back in next year’s budget when it actually comes before us.

I’m particularly concerned about some of the cuts in the police department. I fear that we may wind up using fewer civilian folks, forcing our sworn officers to do routine desk tasks. And much as I love the arts, I’m not sure I can support maintaining arts grants at the current level when people can’t even get speed bumps anymore. But as most of us have said, everybody’s ox is going to get gored before we’re done; and we have to bear as fair as possible in doing to the goring.

And I don’t see any way to avoid even more cuts next year. This is going to get worse before it gets better.

Rethinking Fees

We got creamed in the press and by constituents all winter and spring over passage of the 911 fee. More recently, we’ve gotten hammered by hillside property owners for the weed abatement fee of $99, which is meant to cover the city’s cost of ensuring that hillside property owners are complying with the State Fire Code.

Most recently, an appellate court in the Bay Area struck down a city’s 911 fee up there; and our City Attorney cautioned us to re-examine the weed fee. Our 911 fee is still in place – the so-called “opt-out” period ended yesterday – but on Monday night we did waive the weed abatement fee for this year while we take a step back. (By the way, only about 10% of people opted out of the 911 fee; and we have still reserved the 911 funds to hire more police officers – we are not using the funds to plug the budget gaps described above.)

Next Monday we will talk about fees some more because the annual “cost of living” fee increases will come to us for approval. But that’s clearly just the beginning of the conversation.

As far as I can tell, overall Ventura’s “fee burden” isn’t all that high. The proposed 2008-09 budget estimates fees at a little over $11 million, or about 12% of our general fund. By contrast, property and sales tax together make up close to $50 million, or more than half our general fund.

I’d say people don’t complain much about fees when they understand what service they’re paying for. If you’re doing a room addition, for example, and we charge a fee to cover the city’s cost of processing the permit, people understand that. If we raise the fee a lot they may gripe, but at least they understand that they are paying for something they are getting.

In the case of both the 911 fee and the weed abatement fee, it’s not as clear to people what they are buying their fee. They’re not paying a fee based on something they are applying for – a room addition, a business license, whatever – but rather based on the fact that they fall into a particular category of resident. For example, everyone who buys telephone service pays the 911 fee (unless you opt-out, in which case you pay by the call); and that, of course, is just about everyone, which is why some people think it’s a tax. The money is earmarked to maintain the state-mandated 911 call center. Similarly, everybody who owns hillside property received a bill for the weed fee, whether or not they maintain their property on their own, simply because they live in a high-fire-hazard area. That money is earmarked to pay for the city’s cost on ensuring compliance with the State Fire Code.

So when people gripe, it’s because they’re being asked to pay a fee when they aren’t applying for or seeking anything in particular. This is a fair point and we’ll debate it over the coming weeks and months. But if we do back off fees like this, then we will have to make much deeper cuts in our city services, at least in the short run. We’ll probably just be trading constituent complaints about high fees for constituent complaints about poor service.

In the case of the weed fee, the action we took on Monday night was stimulated partly by the backlash – but also partly by City Attorney Ariel Calonne’s concern about how we passed the fee in the first place.

What happened was that last year we approved our usual “fee list” (like the one we will consider next Monday night), and it included a variety of new fees and charged from the Fire Department. These were put into place because we had encouraged all the departments – including Fire – to look for new sources of revenue. Last year we approved a $99-per-hour charge for fire inspections. This got translated at the staff level into the $99 weed abatement fee. Thus, Ariel is not sure that we really adopted this fee as we should have. Maybe the Fire Department was too zealous in interpreting the $99-per-hour fee schedule that we approved – but they were definitely operating with our encouragement to increase revenue however possible.

Who Pays?

I know this isn’t a popular statement, but my personal view is that the City has been too reluctant to charge fees in the past, because the good folks who work for the City hate to make our residents pay for things. That’s why our overall fee burden is fairly low.

But I’m more than willing to admit that it’s time to step back and examine where we should “draw the line” between (1) charges for specific services that specific people request and (2) charges for services that we must provide to specific groups of people (often because of state law) whether they ask for those services or not.

So the question becomes, who pays for what?

The tricky part is how we handle a situation where the City is obligated by law to do something that benefits a particular group of people, but charging those people to cover the cost requires either voter approval, if it’s a tax, or public acceptance for the notion that it’s a fee.

The hillside weed thing is a good example. When a wildlife breaks out in the hillsides – as happens frequently in Ventura – hillside residents expect the government to spend enormous amounts of money to fight the fire and protect their neighborhood. (I know this because I used to live in Ondulando, which has been saved several times by a multimillion-dollar firefighting efforts.) So there’s a state law that says the hillside owners have to abate their fire hazards and that the City has to enforce those requirements.

You can probably argue the question of who should pay either way. On the one hand, spending a little tax money to monitor weed abatement in the hillsides might save huge amounts of tax money later – so shouldn’t we all pay? On the other hand, the primary beneficiaries of fire suppression efforts are the hillside homeowners – so shouldn’t they pay? We often face the same kinds of “who pays?” questions down at the beach.

In any event, I think all the public debate over the last few months – including all the criticism of the City Council – has done us a favor. It’s forced a long-overdue conversation about who pays and who benefits and what our priorities should be. So I’m looking forward to talking to all of you about this more and reaching a better community consensus about it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rebuilding Community Memorial -- and Five Points Too

If you’re interested in the future of Five Points and the neighborhood around Community Memorial Hospital, I’d strongly suggest you drop by CMH’s design workshop “charrette” sessions this week. There’s a public session Wednesday night at 7 p.m. and another one Friday at 5 p.m., as well as less formal talks every day at lunchtime (12:30 p.m.). All are being held in the old American Legion building (now housing Mai’s CafĂ©) at 2809 Main Street. Come in through the back door.

The reason for all the design work is that CMH has to construct a new hospital building for patients and acute care. That’s because a state law requires hospitals to retrofit some of the facilities – or build new facilities – to meet seismic standards by 2013. The design charrette is a semi-private, semi-public week-long event sponsored by CMH (not by the city) to work out some design ideas. Official application and public hearings and so forth will occur later.

I went to an initial public meeting last week and then again to the first public session Tuesday night. Both meetings have been lightly attended by the public. But the design team is kicking around some good ideas. CMH’s current idea is to build a new building to the south of the old building (behind the American Legion Hall) and use the old building for new purposes, including possibly a biotech incubator that would line up with the city’s economic development strategy.

The design team is also talking about reorienting the hospital so that the new building’s “front door” would be on Cabrillo Street behind the American Legion Hall, and create a new what is now the parking lot in between American Legion Hall and the hospital. (Some planning efforts in the past have suggested that the American Legion building, now owned by CMH, should be torn down and replaced with some kind of park.) An additional parking garage next to the park, behind Billy O’s and other businesses on the north side of Main Street, would probably also be part of the project. The effect would be to turn the park into a “square” at the “new front” of the hospital.

CMH’s design team is also working up some ideas about the general Five Points area that won’t be part of the hospital project but could be part of an eventual plan for additional development at Five Points. Among the ideas:

* Updated retail buildings along Main Street, along with angled parking.
* Possible roundabouts along Main Street at both Loma Vista and Five Points.
* Reconfiguring the streets in between Main Street and the CMH so they are better designed for both pedestrians and cars.

I was actually pretty disappointed that so few people have come out to the public portions of the charrette so far. So if you want to know more about the CMH projects or have ideas about what might happen at Five Points, go to one of the charrette sessions. I’d love to know what you think.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Help Us Balance the Budget

It’s not fun being on the City Council these days. You all know we getting hammered for charging new fees – the 911 fee, the weed abatement inspection fee. But we’re also in the middle of making very tough decisions about how to cut our spending as well. Nobody’s hammered us about cutting their services yet – but I’m sure that will come soon enough.

I want to emphasize, however, that we’re still in the process of figuring out what programs and services to cut in order to balance the budget. We haven’t really made any decisions yet, though the staff has made some recommendations. So I’d like to ask for your help. I’d like you to let me know where you think we can cut.

In order to do so, I’d like you to take a look at the same information we’re working off of.

A few weeks ago, we on the City Council adopted four principles to guide us through these

Principle 1: In spite of adverse economic conditions, the Council remains focused and committed to the achievement of the long-term General Plan Strategic Visions embodied in the 2005 General Plan and will continue its commitment to the community to become a national model.

Principle 2: To ensure increasingly limited resources are allocated to what matters most in achieving the General Plan Strategic Visions, the Council recognizes that tough choices will need to be made and that its emphasis will be placed on eliminating, reducing, or restructuring lower-priority programs and expenses rather than compromising the success of high-priority efforts by inadequate funding.

Principle 3: Buildinq on the first two principles, programs and initiatives that produce income or save future expenses should generally be given higher priority than those that simply consume revenue.

Principle 4: Because we will be asking more in these difficult times from workforce, the Council remains committed to the goal of competitive compensation to continue to retain and attract able and loyal staff.

To gather information about how we spend our money, go to the agenda for the April 7th meeting and pull down the staff report for Agenda items #6 (“Budgeting For Outcomes Process”).

Warning: This is a really long staff report – close to 200 pages. There’s a lot of detail from the internal City Hall process of trying to prioritize what the city spends money on – a process that was known as “Budgeting For Outcomes,” and included not only city staff members but also representatives from the Chamber of Commerce. There’s mind-numbing detail here, but it contains three really important things.

First, it contains a breakdown of how we spend all of our General Fund money and, second, a first cut at what might be reduced or eliminated. This is broken down by what we call our “strategic goals” -- the goals contained in the Seize The Future vision and the General Plan. The sheets called “Citywide Outcome Rating Work Sheets” show how much money the City spends on different city activities. For every strategic goal, there’s another worksheet behind the “Outcome Rating Work Sheet” called the “Citywide Reduction-Restructure-Elimination Work sheet”. This was a theoretical exercise by the staff – if we stopped doing the 20% of the things that were least important, what would those be?

Third, beyond these worksheets are a set of recommendations – one for each strategic goal – from the Budgeting For Outcomes committee for each of those goals. This was the final set of recommendations made to the City Manager and the staff leadership team by these committees.

Take a look at all of these. It’ll help you understand what we spend money on, and I hope it’ll help you focus on what we should and should not be spending money on.

Once you’re doing doing that, go to the agenda for the April 1st meeting and pull down the staff report for Agenda item #1 -- Actions to Maintain Fiscal Sustainability”. This is a much shorter report – only 18 pages. And the really important part is the last 9 pages – the list labeled “Attachment A”.

Attachment A is the City Manager’s final recommendation of what to cut. Some of these things can be cut immediately; others can be cut in the next fiscal year starting July 1.

Please look this over and tell me what you think. What should we spend money on? What should we cut? Just email me at fulton4ventura@gmail.com.

And what do you have questions about? I’m compiling a list of questions and concerns I’m going to pass on to the City Manager. Give me a question and I’ll pass it on, and then I’ll print the answers.

Thanks for paying attention.

Starting Sooner … and Ending Sooner?

It’s pretty exhausting to be on the City Council. Most Monday’s we have a closed session to discuss litigation and other such matters beginning at 6 p.m. and then we have a regular meeting starting at 7 p.m. We usually go until between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. – and, more often than we’d like, we wind up going to 12:30 or 1 a.m. We can’t make good decisions at that hour – and it doesn’t do the public any good to take up important items at midnight.

So we’re going to start our public meetings at 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. We’ll see whether it allows us to get to important items at a decent hour and get home a little earlier.

The first meeting starting at 6 will be May 5th. We won’t be meeting next Monday, April 28th.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Earth Day 2008

Tomorrow is the 38th Earth Day. That's one day a year set aside to think about how what we do affects the planet that we live on.

I'll commemorate Earth Day by not using my car at all. This is a mostly symbolic gesture for me. I travel so much for my day job that I spend a lot of time driving back and forth to the airport and flying around, so I have a bigger carbon footprint than most people. But I do try to have at least one car-free day a week. I'm lucky to be able to have the option because I can walk or bike or conveniently take the bus to practically everything I need, including my job, the supermarket, and City Hall.

Earth Day has had meaning for me since it began back in 1970. I was a ninth-grader in a small city in Upstate New York, and I was part of a group called "Growing Americans Stopping Pollution" (GASP). We spent earth day cleaning litter out of our local riverbed. Almost 40 years later, and we are still trying to figure out how to keep our riverbeds -- and our planet -- clean enough for us to survive. (Though on Saturday morning, 450 people turned out for Earth Day beach cleanup and picked up an enormous amount of trash!) It does seem to me that the issue of climate change has created a "special moment" in our environmental awareness similar to the one that gave birth to the original Earthy Day.

I won't go on at great length about what we at the City are doing or what we as a community are doing on the environment. Suffice it to say that every day should be Earth Day; every technology should be a green technology; and every job should be a green job. But the job of protecting the environment -- on top of everything else we have to do at City Hall -- is sometimes really overwhelming. For example, climate change is sure to be on of our biggest issues here in Ventura in the years ahead. We are a beach town in between two rivers, and a rising sea level will have enormous consequences. But in the rush of daily business, neither I nor anyone else has had the time or energy (to say nothing of the money!) to begin dealing with the question. All I can promise to you is that I'll work harder on that one in the months and years ahead.

What's a tax and what's a fee?

We've been getting some flak for the new fire inspection fee for high fire hazard areas, and I think the topic warrants some discussion. The fee charges high-fire-hazard homeowners $99 each for the City's annual inspection of their property.

Last week we on the City Council got this email from a constituent:

Was this $99.00 fee for weed abatement dreamed up at the same time as the 911 fee? Fire and police protection clearly fall into the 'General Fund' category. Therefore I'm not sure what I'm paying for; but I am VERY sure I'm not getting my money's worth from this City Government . . . !!

Here's the response I wrote:


Thanks for writing. I wish we never had to charge anybody any fees for anything. Unfortunately, sometimes we do.

As I'm sure you know, the state laws governing property tax (principally Proposition 13) keep those property taxes fairly low compared to other states and also gives us only a small share of the property tax -- only about $1 out of every $6 in property taxes you pay come to the city. I wish we could change that, but we really can't. It's all either set in the state constitution or determined by the Legislature.

Therefore, sometimes we have to charge fees for specific things. In this case, the City is obligated to enforce the State Fire Code as it pertains to 1,200 property owners who live in high fire hazard areas. (This is about 3% of all the properties in the city -- there are about 40,000 properties altogether.) As I am sure you know, it is the property owner's responsibility to abate the weeds and grass in the fire hazard areas, and if this is not done by the time fire season starts the fire department will go on to your property and do it for you and you still have to reimburse the city. (I know this because I used to live in one of these areas.)

But even if you cut down the weeds yourself, there's still a cost to the city for coming out and inspecting each of the 1,200 properties and determining whether the property owner is complying. The $99 fee is designed to cover most of the city's cost of "monitoring compliance" in this way. And you're right, this fee is new. For the City, it's a question of who bears the cost of monitoring compliance of these 1,200 properties with the mandatory State Fire Code. Should that cost be borne by the 1,200 property owners in the fire hazard areas, who must comply with the law? Or should the cost be borne by the other 39,000 property owners whose properties are not in fire hazard areas? Our conclusion was that, since it is the responsibility of the 1,200 property owners to comply with the law, it is only fair that it should be their responsibility to pay for compliance monitoring too. I wish we could pay for everything out of general tax money, but we can't.

I'm sorry you don't feel like you're getting your money's worth. As I said before, unfortunately under state law the City only receives $1 out of every $6 in property taxes you pay. I don't know how much your property tax bill is, so let me use an example. Let's say the property tax bill that you just paid (due April 10th) was $1,500. (This would be about right for a house that was purchased for $300,000.) Well, about $750 of that bill goes to the school district. About $500 goes to the county. And about $250 of it goes to the City. I'm sorry if you don't feel like you're getting $250 worth of service (or whatever the amount is for you) in a six-month period from everything the City does.

This is why Cities have to charge fees when we often wish we didn't have to -- because we don't get as much property tax as people think we do. I know this is hard to believe, but generally speaking Ventura charges fees on fewer things, and charges lower fees, than most other cities in this area.

Bill Fulton
Deputy Mayor

The constituent and I emailed back and forth a couple of times more, and it was a pretty cordial exchange. In the end he still believed it was a tax, rather than a fee, and joked that politically this was okay for us because it was a tax on only 3% of the voters.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the flak on both this and the 911 fee comes from the perception that the constituents who pay the fee don't see what they're getting for it. We already have access to the 911 system, so why do have to all of a sudden start paying for that access? The city already inspects our properties, so why do we have to all of a sudden start paying for that? And it's not like we're getting anything new or anything we want. We're just paying fees for things that should be general government expenses.

These are all fair points and I can understand why people have this reaction. But my response is this: For better or worse, over the past 30 years -- since the passage of Proposition 13 -- cities have been charging more and more, and higher and higher, fees for a variety of specialized services because we can no longer afford to pay for them out of general tax revenue. The goal in charging these fees is recover costs from individual constituents who benefit from individual services; so that the general tax money can be used for things that benefit our community as a whole. We in Ventura have been behind the curve on this for many years -- there's been a culture in City Hall that we just can't bear to charge our constituents for anything. As a result, we have high expectations and not enough money to meet those expectations. We have to begin reconciling the two.

How Do We Avoid Becoming a Commuter town?

Last week my friend Camille Harris delivered another negative broadside in the Star, attacking the City on a wide range of issues. I thought the article was both inaccurate and unfair, and so I have submitted this letter to the editor to the Star.


To the Editor,

Once again, Camille Harris has written an op/ed piece that relies mostly on hyperbole -- and, in some cases, erroneous information -- to make a case against the City of Ventura's economic development and planning policies. ("New urbanists trying to wall city in gray," April 18).

That's too bad, because the goals Camille seeks to promote in her article -- especially her goal of a town with fewer commuters -- are goals shared by the City Council. And the very policies she harshly criticizes are, in fact, designed to promote the goal she professes to support. I hope that Camille and everyone else in Ventura can unite around these common goals and work together to achieve them, rather than focusing on negative rhetoric.

First, a little fact-checking is in order.

Camille claims that Ventura is mostly a commuter town and the end result of our planning efforts will be to build more housing for commuters. These statements are not true.

By any standard, Ventura is job rich, with more than 50,000 jobs -- including many good-paying jobs at the County Government center and elsewhere.

Also, about 50% of the people who work in Ventura also live in Ventura. This is a far better situation than in any other city in Ventura County. In most of the other cities, only about 25% of workers live in town and 75% commute. So we are far more in balance -- and have fewer commuters relative to the size of our city -- than Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Santa Paula, or any other city nearby.

To me, this is the single most wonderful and precious aspect of living in Ventura. Because so many people who live in town don't have to commute somewhere else, they have more time, energy, and money to devote to life in our community -- as neighborhood activists, soccer coaches, PTO presidents, and so forth.

But this wonderful balance of living and working in Ventura is also fragile. The percentage of people who both live here and work here is going down. This is especially true in the western part of our city, such as the Midtown neighborhood where Camille lives, because Santa Barbara folks can afford to outbid local residents for beautiful old houses. That is why I believe that all of us in Ventura -- the city government, businesess, environmentalists, and neighborhood activists -- must work together to ensure that our beautiful city remains a city where people can both live and work.

In fact, both of the city policies that Camille criticized so harshly in her op/ed piece -- our infill development policy and our economic development policy -- have been put in place for the purpose of maintaining the fragile jobs-housing balance that all of us, including both Camille and myself, value so highly.

If we had continued our housing sprawl policy of past years, the result would be the construction of many more large single-family homes on large lots, which would be affordable only to Santa Barbara commuters and L.A. refugees with lots of home equity. In addition to discouraging that type of development, the City Council has also strongly resisted attempts by developers to take land reserved for jobs and convert it to housing. We've been heavily criticized by the business community for being anti-business in these situations -- especially when we refused to allow this switcheroo to happen with the Star's former headquarters on Ralston. But for most of us on the council, it wasn't clear to us why being "pro-business" required us to create more housing for commuters -- and take needed land away from office and industrial developments to do it.

By contrast, our infill development policy instead encourages developers to build a greater variety of housing -- including two- and three-bedroom townhomes and condominiums -- that will be less attractive to commuters and more affordable to the hard-working people who already live and work here in town. These folks will then have the time and energy to serve as soccer coaches and PTO presidents.

On economic development, Camille is quite right that we have not done a very good job over the last decade of fostering positive economic growth -- and especially bringing good jobs to town. That is why we partnered with a venture capital firm to encourage the creation and expansion of high-tech and biotech companies here in Ventura. These companies are well established in both Santa Barbara and the Camarillo-Thousand Oaks area -- but many of the people who work at those companies commute out to those locations. With the help of our venture capital partners, we will be able to nurture companies here in town where these folks will be able to work. This will allow them to stop commuting, work in town, and -- again -- allow them to conserve their time and energy to benefit our community.

It is always tempting to believe, as Camille often suggests, that we on the City Council have the power to stop the world from changing or to protect our beautiful town from anything bad that might happen. I wish we had this power, but of course we don't. The world -- and our community -- will change whether we like it or not. I believe our job on the City Council is to work hard to make sure that we can manage the change so that it makes our community better rather than worse.

I agree with Camille that our goal should be a community where as many people as possible can both live and work in town. But this won't happen if all we do is pine for bygone days. To succeed, we all have to work together to recognize what is going on in the world around us and find ways to work aggressively to achieve the goals we all share.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why We Adopted the 911 Fee

As everybody in the world knows by now, last night Ventura became the first city in Southern California to adopt an access fee on telephones to help pay for our 911 call center.

It’s been splashed all over the newspapers and featured on the 11 o’clock news. Driving through Midtown on my way home from last night’s City Council meeting, I saw Patrick Healy of Channel 4 setting up his “live shot” in front of Pizza Chief on Main Street. Why there? He needed a pay phone as a prop – and how many pay phones are there anymore?

The 911 access fee would place a charge of $1.49 per month -- $17.88 per year – on every telephone line in Ventura, including landlines and cell phones. Individual telephone users will have the option to instead pay a fee of $50 every time they call 911. This, of course, is the controversial part – but it’s important to note that no telephone user will be charged $50 for a call unless they have selected that option in writing in advance.

I voted in favor of the 911 access fee because I think it will help us accomplish two goals.

First, it will help the City pay for a very important but expensive operation, the 911 call center. The 911 service is required by state law. Many years ago the state promised to help local governments find a way to pay for this service, but this has not happened. One of the reasons we did not add police officers or firefighters between 1990 and 2006 was because of the added cost of the 911 center. In fact, it has taken cops off the street to supervise the call center.

And second, it will – with other steps we are taking – free up money to hire more police officers and firefighters. In 2006, we asked the voters to approve Measure P6, a one-quarter-percent increase in local sales tax to add 14 police officers and 11 firefighters. The measure got 62% -- but it required two-thirds. What we kept hearing was, find another way to do this without raising our taxes. Thanks to the 911 fee and other steps, we should be able to hire 12 new police officers and 6 new firefighters within a year or two – about two-thirds of the way toward the goal we set in 2006.


Expanding Public Safety Staff

It’s quite true that discussion of the 911 fee emerged after P6 was defeated.

We spend about half of our general fund budget for police and fire. (Most of the rest goes to public works.) As I said above, the message we got from P6 was, increasing police and fire staff was really important – but find another way to do it. We knew we had to do something. Our public safety force is stretched so thin we are not making our goal of 5-minute response times. It doesn’t do much good to have a great 911 call center if we don’t have enough people to actually go out and respond to the calls.

So the first thing we did, in the 2007-08 budget, was earmark all the additional money we had available for more police officers and firefighters – six officers and three firefighters, to be exact. To do this, we squeezed all the other departments and told them to hold the line. For the first time since 1990, we are going to have a bigger police department and a bigger fire department. We now spend 54% of our General Fund on police and fire, rather than 50%, as we used to.

I was hoping we could do this again for one more year, but our revenues are lagging behind projections. The real estate boom is over, and increases in property tax revenue have been cut in half, to about 5% per year. Within a year or two they’ll be at zero until the real estate bust is over. Meanwhile, sales tax revenue is flat. This situation is not unique to Ventura. Every city in the county – indeed, in the state – is facing almost exactly the same trend on both property tax and sales tax.

But we also knew that, in the long run, we would probably need more revenue to bring police and fire staffing up to the levels where we needed them. So last year, we on the City Council asked the staff to come up with some alternatives. Back in December, we looked at a variety of choices, including another run at the sales tax, imposing additional taxes on new development, and other things. We decided that a 911 fee would be the fairest way to increase revenue.


Paying for the 911 Call Center

We get over 50,000 911 calls per year. That’s an increase of more than 250% since 1990.

The 911 system is very expensive. It involves a lot of capital cost, because you have to have really great, reliable equipment, and it involves a lot of labor cost, because you have to have lots of dispatchers and supervisors on hand all the time. Our call center currently costs a little more than $3 million a year to run. That’s not including the capital cost. Most of the money goes to the salaries of the 12 dispatchers, 4 police corporals, and 1 police sergant who work there full-time. Two to four dispatchers are on duty at all times, and one corporal is one duty from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week.

It’s important to have our own dispatchers because it’s really, really important for them to know our local geography intimately. (And, of course, you have to have a surprlus on hand so you don't get a busy signal.) You can’t do this remotely; it slows things down, and even a few seconds is vital on a 911 call. It’s also important to have the police corporal on duty because that you have to have somebody capable of making decisions instantaneously about how to respond to the call. Responding with too few people can put a police officer at risk; responding with too many can mean there aren’t enough people left for the next call

As I said above, the 911 system was mandated by the state under a state law passed in 1986. At that time, the state promised to work with the local governments to come up with a funding source to help pay for a system that everybody knew would be very, very expensive to operate.

And, in fact, the state does levy a 911 fee on each phone line – as a number of our constituents have pointed out. This fee is tiny – only a few cents a month – and it is devoted to the capital cost of the telecommunications equipment, not operations.

But the state never followed through in its promise to work with the local governments in finding a way to pay for the 911 system. (In fact, not long after the 911 law was passed, the state shifted the allocation property tax in a way that is unfavorable to the city – we get several million dollars a year less than we otherwise would.)

I’m pretty confident that if the state had followed through on its promise to work with the local governments to create a funding source, it would have looked a lot like the 911 access fee we passed last night. But since the state never did anything, we had to do something.


$1.49 per month and $50 per call

The fee will work like this:

* It’ll be $1.49 per month for every phone line billed to a Ventura address, cell phone or land line.
* Low-income lifeline customers will be exempt.
* Businesses with “trunk lines” (one phone line that leads to a switching system) will be charged for three phone lines.

This is designed to generate about $2 million to $2.5 million per year – or, in any event, no more than 85% of the cost of the 911 call center. The money will not be in the General Fund. Because it’s a fee, it will be in a separate fund that can only be used to pay for the 911 call center.

There’s a provision that says that that the city must continue to spend the same amount of General Fund money on public safety. In other words, we can’t reduce public safety spending because we’re now getting money from the 911 fee.

The controversial part was the option of paying $50 per call. Here’s how that works:

* If you don’t want to pay $1.49 per month, you don’t have to. You can fill out a form instead informing the city that you want to pay $50 per call instead. Nobody will be charged $50 unless they have notified the city in advance that they have chosen this option.

* There’s a “Good Samaritan” clause that gives the Police Department discretion to waive the fee if you’re helping out a neighbor or calling in a very serious crime.

* People can switch back to the $1.49 per month fee at any time.

Why $50? It’s 85% of the cost of processing each 911 call.

The fee-per-call idea emerged for two reasons.

The first was to help strengthen the legality of the fee. These fees have been challenged in court by telephone companies in Northern California. Most of the time they are winning. Our City Attorney, Ariel Calonne, believes that by giving telephone customers two options, the fee is less vulnerable in court.

But there’s another, very practical reason: Not everybody uses all their telephone lines for voice communication. Many uses their lines for faxes, computers, and other things like that. By choosing the fee-per-call, you can ensure that you won’t be whacked for access to a service you’re not going to use.

We could simply exempt fax or phone lines, but that would require a cumbersome administrative procedure. People would have to declare that they don’t use their phone line for voice communications; and then we’d have to check and enforce that. This would cost a lot of time and money. By charging a per-call fee, we can ensure that people don’t “game the system” by claiming that their phones are used for fax service. Everybody pays their fair share.


Conclusion

There you go – my rationale for voting in favor of the fee, even the per-call option. Given all the considerations, I think it’s the best option on the table right now. Many people have, as usual, asked why we can’t simply generate more tax revenue by allowing more big retail stores in town. (We heard the same argument on P6.) The answer is: We must do both. We have a number of important locations where we must make sure that there is good, high-quality retail that serves our community and also generates tax revenue – downtown, the north end of the mall site, the Kmart site, the auto center. Each of these locations has potential. But it takes a long time to attract good retailers and put them in place.

We waited 16 years to hire additional police officers and firefighters. I don’t want to wait any longer.