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.


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.