Monday, March 23, 2009

Talk City

The other day, Ross Olney – who is, shall we say, a frequent commentator on local affairs – complimented my colleagues and I on making the tough budget decisions. At least I think it was a compliment. In a letter to the editor in the Star , Ross wrote that he was glad to see that, after months of hand-wringing, we had finally figured out that the best way to eliminate a budget deficit is to cut costs.

“Wow! A spending cut!” Ross wrote. “Why didn’t the rest of us think of that? … Although some of us wonder why they didn’t do these things months ago, it is good to see how smart we were to have elected our current council

The truth of the matter is that we haven’t actually done most of the budget-cutting yet. We’ve been talking about it for a couple of months now, and we’ve trimmed a few things around the edges. But we’re going headlong into the serious budget-cutting discussion tonight and it’s likely to slop over until a week from Monday, March 30th (a fifth Monday, which would typically have off).

So what has taken us so long? Partly, the answer is that we do a lot more hand-wringing than we have to. But partly the answer is that Ventura really is Talk City. Not only do we do a lot of talking before we act on anything, but so does everybody else – our city manager, our department heads, the Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood leaders, gadflies, cranky constituents, supportive constituents, and everybody who gets money or some other benefit from the City treasury, including the police union, the fire union, SEIU (the union that represents all other city workers), library advocates, arts advocates, developers, bloggers, prospective council candidates, and even, for example, our city’s graphics department employees, who have come up with a number of creative ways to save money so they don’t get laid off.

And that’s one of the things that I love about being on the City Council in Ventura. Everybody’s got an opinion. Nobody’s afraid to express that opinion. We talk about things forever. And in the process of doing so, we gradually reach a consensus about what to do – a consensus that will be much more likely to “stick” because of all the talking.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that we’ve tried to be up-front about our budget problems from the beginning – and, since no deed goes unpunished, the result is that we often get hammered for being fiscally irresponsible. Back around New Year’s, for example, the Star wrote a story about each city’s budget situation. We were pretty honest about how things stood, and, frankly, the other cities underplayed the problem. Now everybody else is finally acknowledging that they are in the same boat. Oxnard’s going to have a budget deficit the same size as ours – even though they passed a sales tax last fall. I’m glad we’re honest about what’s up. I’ll take Talk City over the alternative any day.

Just to set the record straight, I think it’s worth noting that the city is in much better fiscal shape now than it was when I was elected in 2003 – and we’re having a high-profile discussion about how to cut the budget because we’re trying to maintain solvency, not dig ourselves out of a hole.

As long ago as 2001, the city acknowledged a “structural” deficit – meaning, basically, that the city was running in the red every year and plugging holes with reserves and other money. When we hired Rick Cole as city manager in 2004, he set a goal of eliminating the structural deficit in three years. Partly due to strong growth in property tax revenues, we did it in two.

And last year, when we first faced budget problems because of the slumping economy, we cut $4 million off the budget in the middle of the year to maintain a balanced budget. We have so far resisted the temptation of dipping into reserves to run the city – something that government agencies are usually all too quick to do in bad times.

A number of folks have recently suggested that we have gone begging to the public with the P6 sales tax in 2006 and the failed 911 fee in 2008 because we’re broke and we don’t know how to manage our money. In fact, we’re not broke. We have sought these new sources of revenue so that we can expand our public safety force – something we hadn’t done since 1990 (at least until last year).

So tonight and next week, when you watch a lot of people ask us to protect their programs –arts grants, graphics employees, public art, the roving fire engine -- hold us accountable by paying attention not just to what the public speakers say, but to what we actually do and how much we actually cut. It’s going to hurt, but it will keep us solvent.

In the long run, I think this will be a good conversation for Talk City – because it will force us to think about what the City really can pay for, and what ought to be funded other ways. There’s always been a bias in this town – the City should initiate everything, drive everything, and fund everything. But that’s not sustainable.

A decade ago, when I was involved in the city’s visioning effort, we recommended that a wide-ranging group of community leaders and organizations work together to create a broader-based and more sustainable effort at funding all of our community programs. That way, we all work together and take responsibility for keeping things going, instead of having everybody come on Monday night and complain that the City’s not paying for everything.

Things haven’t quite worked out the way we envisioned at the time. But we’ve made good progress. Many of our nonprofits are much more successful and in better financial shape than they were in those days. Many more have been successfully “hatched,” sometimes with City seed money. I’m hopeful that the current budget crisis will move us farther down this road – so the entire community can pitch in and figure out how to get things done, rather than simply coming to us on Monday nights and begging.

Budget Cutting: City Council, Public Art

Writing in today's Ventura County Star, Kevin Clerici focuses on both public art and the City Council's own budget, playing out the theme that these may be mostly symbolic cuts given the magnitude of our budget problem. On public art, he paraphrased my comments to him by saying: "He (Fulton) likened the move to the council’s decision to slash its travel budget, which amounted to a few hundred dollars in the city’s $85 million operational budget."

Actually, what I told Kevin Clerici in our telephone conversation on Friday was hat cutting the City Council's entire budget, not just the travel budget, was important to show we are serious about balancing the budget.

The City Council budget is about $300,000 out of a total General Fund of $85-90 million. At my suggestion, a few weeks ago the council directed Mayor Weir to cut this budget 15-20%. The reduced budget -- to about $250,000, a cut of around 16-17% -- is on the agenda tonight.

The council budget includes our salaries (which are $600 per month and, because they are in the charter, cannot be changed except by a vote of the people); the $200 a month in local travel allowance we get; memberships to a variety of organizations (this is a good deal of the expense -- for example, belonging to the League of California Cities costs around $25,000 per year); and our own travel and training budget. Travel and training is about $28,000 per year, or about $4,000 per councilmember. The support provided to the council, and especially the mayor, by the City Manager's administrative staff is not included in the budget.

Although it's easy to hammer us for going on junkets, we're trying hard to spend our travel and training money wisely.

For example, later this week I'm going to attend the League of Cities Planners Institute in Anaheim, the most important training event of the year on planning targeted at elected City Councilmembers and appointed Planning Commissioners. In the past, I would have stayed at the conference hotel, attended the entire thing wire-to-wire, and put in for full reimbursement. That would have cost $1200-1500, including the conference fee, which is around $500.

This year, I'm only going to part of it, I'm staying at a cheaper hotel, and I'll only seek partial reimbursement from the city. It'll cost the council budget $300-400 instead of $1200-1500.

As for the public art budget, Kevin is quite right that we can't easily reprogram the money for operations. We have long since stopped funding the public art program out of the General Fund. But in so doing, we have shifted the cost of public art to a narrow base. Public art is funded with 2% of the cost of capital projects, and most of our capital projects are paid for either by your water/sewer payments (these are kept in a completely separate fund) or by the gas tax money we receive from the state for transportation projects. This is why so much of our public art winds up being on bridges or at the wastewater plant. Whether or not we can recapture some of the money currently committed for public art, and use it to stretch our capital dollars a little further on water, sewer, and transportation projects, I don't know.

It has long concerned me that the public art program is not more broadly funded. Most cities fund their public art programs with a 1% fee on all construction projects -- not just public projects but also private development projects. Now's not the time to impose that requirement, but when we come out of the recession I think it's something we should discuss. That, however, is the topic for another blog.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Going Interactive ... But How?

Yesterday, I received this email:

"Your blog is worthless without comments. The entire point of this technology movement is for a read/write communication to open up and allow more transparency. By removing the ability to comment on your blog kills any dialogue that could have taken place. I encourage you to open up a dialog with the people you are representing so that you can properly represent us."

Since my rule is that my constituents have the right to be as rude as they want and I have to be nice in return, I decided not to fire an email right back. (Starting off with "Dear Mr. Deputy Mayor" or even "Hey Bill" would have been nice.) And it's kind of disconcerting to think that providing my constituents with detailed information about what I'm thinking and how I'm approaching issues is useless ... unless I provide an open line for constituents to rag on me in return.

Nevertheless, I've been wanting to allow comments for a long time. The technologically irony is ... I can't figure out how to open up this blog for comments. I've tried to figure it out repeatedly without success. So if anybody out there knows how to do this on Blogspot, please ... send me an email, the old-fashioned way, at

I can't guarantee I'll post all comments. I'll probably moderate them to screen out the extreme and the obscene. Nevertheless, this blog can provide a lot more interactivity than it currently does, and I'd be happy to move in that direction. Help!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Fun Begins

Last night, our City Council took the first steps toward significant the significant budget-cutting that will be required to maintain fiscal solvency over the past couple of years. These steps were tentative -- not as bold as they could have been -- and they won't be enough.

The main step we took last night was to eliminate 11 currently vacant jobs. This will save a lot of money because, even though the jobs are vacant, up to now the city has continued to do the work of those jobs by spending money in other ways -- temporary help, overtime, etc.

But we punted on a lot of tough stuff -- and, in particular, we punted on the question of whether we are going to push for straight pay cuts from our office and maintenance personnel or, instead, will accept the furlough idea put forth by their union, the Service Employees International Union.

We'll probably "have it out" at our meeting of March 23rd, when we will have no choice but to make very serious cuts. This is around the time a lot of other issues will come to a head as well, including the question of what to do about library service and whether to seriously consider placing a sales tax on the ballot.

In the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, we are running about $6 million short of our budget projections. This is not surprising; everybody's tax revenue is way down. A couple of weeks ago, the staff brought to us a series of measures that would cut $3.6 million in the current fiscal year. These included cutting 33 positions (some vacant), encouraging employees to retire by providing severance benefits to those who choose to retire, and completing labor negotiations so that all city employees take a 5% cut.

At that time we said okay to #2 and #3, but we punted on #1, largely because we were concerned it might undermine the "Budgeting For Outcomes" process -- a series of committees at City Hall working to try to figure out how to cut NEXT year's budget (when the shortfall is estimated to be $10-12 million). We also asked our Finance, Budget, and Audit Committee (Councilmembers Andrews, Summers, and Monahan) to look over other ideas for how we might cut the budget.

Last night we discussed things some more. Some of the bargaining units have agreed in principle to take a 5% cut -- but they do it in different ways, some by giving up holidays, others by giving up overtime, etc. (I don't care how they get there; the end result is the same.) Many city employees are pondering whether to take the early retirement offer. And our Budget Committee suggested that we wait and see how that works out before we actually give the okay to lay people off.

Two things happened last night that gave us pause. The first was that the firefighters point out that even cutting the vacant positions would mean the end of our innovativfe Medic Engine 10, which is not attached to any fire station but roams around the city at peak hours. ME 10 has significantly cut our response times. Also, SEIU again argued that we should agree to furloughs -- cut their wages, but also cut their hours -- rather than simply giving them a pay cut. The tricky part about accepting this idea at this point is that we had previously authorized the City Manager to negotiate a straight pay cut, and we have successfully negotiated such a cut with other unions like police and fire.

So we punted again on a couple of things. First, we punted on eliminating the two vacant firefighter positions. Second, we punted on which way to go on SEIU's proposal.

We have the option of discussing the SEIU proposal in closed session, since it requires an actual contract negotiation. We opted to do this next Monday night on a 5-2 vote (Andrews and Monahan voting no). There are good reasons to discuss this in public. There are also good reasons to discuss this privately, since it almost inevitably involves a discussion of what contract tradeoffs we can live with. I voted, reluctantly, for the closed session; but I will try to keep the public informed as to where we are going on this.

We'll take everything else up on March 23. This is not only the night that we will have to decide whether to lay anybody off; it is also the night we will discuss the "Budgeting For Outcomes" and next year's budget. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Recession In the Pocketbook, Depression In the Soul

To the extent that a politician ever gets a day off, mine is Saturday. Every week is a tough slog these days; in addition to the bruising council schedule, my day job is also demanding, and I often travel elsewhere in California late in the week.

This week I got back to Ventura at 8:30 Friday night after being gone since 5 o'clock Tuesday morning. I waslooking forward to my typical “day off” on Saturday – a trip to the Farmers Market, the dry cleaners, Target, Trader Joe’s. A day to feel like a typical person.

Here’s what happened:

At the Farmers Market, I ran into a devoted constituent who is very active in the library issue and talked to me for a long time ago different ways to keep Wright Library open. She was, by turns, angry, fearful, concerned, confused, and full of ideas.

On my way to Target I stopped off across the street at Fire Station #5 and chatted with firefighters about how the pending budget cuts might affect them. They were, by turns, angry, fearful, concerned, confused, and full of ideas.

While checking out at Trader Joe’s I talked with the cashier and an elderly lady standing in line about how bad the parking was and how much worse it might get if Wal-Mart moves in next door. Though opposed by many people for many reasons – including, apparently, this elderly constituent concerned about parking – Wal-Mart would appear to be one of the few vehicles for the city to obtain more revenue in the short run.

So it was not exactly a relaxing day off. I reconnected with my town and my constituents, but they are all understandably anxious that things are bad and getting worse. The things they cherish about their community – their neighborhood library, easy parking at Trader Joe’s, quick response times from firefighters and police officers – all seem at risk.

And all this is happening at a time when we are all afraid of what is going to happen to us personally. Will we lose our jobs? Will our wages be cut? Our health insurance? Will we ever be able to retire? I am very fortunate – I made a good amount of money, more than most people – but I am scared too. I feel at risk in my personal and business life just like everybody else.

The months ahead will not be easy. Starting tomorrow night (Monday), we on the City Council will start eliminating positions and possibly even laying people off. Over the next couple of months, we will be making even more severe cuts in city services – cuts that people will inevitably feel, even if we try to blunt the impact. We may well ask the voters for an increase in the sales tax. But even if it passes, that won’t generate enough money to restore all the services we have now. So we will be faced with terrible choices. Do we want to lay off police officers in order to keep the libraries open? Shall we close the parks or stop paving the streets? Shut down a fire station or stop servicing our vehicles?

Nobody wants to make these kinds of choices, whether it’s in government, in our private businesses, or in our personal finances. And it’s been very, very hard for all of us to face up to what has to be done. Whenever I’ve talked to people around town about making cuts in their favorite service, they’ve reacted all kinds of ways. Many have simply insisted this can’t be happening. Some have yelled at me. Others have insisted that there must be some other way – cutting back on paper clips, firing the overpaid top managers, cutting somebody else’s favorite program. Others have been combing through government budgets trying to prove that money is wasted. Many have suggested that I cut my own salary as a City Councilmember. (I’d happily do so, but that fat $7,200 per year is set in the City Charter and can’t be changed without a vote. By the way, it’s hasn’t gone up in 35 years.)

The truth is that at this point we could do all these things and probably the budget still wouldn’t be balanced. And, whether we like to admit it or not, next year’s going to get worse. Anything we save this year might only be getting a reprieve.

As I have talked to constituents over the past few weeks, I have been recalling the five stages of grieving laid out in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous book On Death and Dying, which I first read in college more than 30 years ago. The five stages were meant to be applied to grieving over the death of a loved one (or one’s own mortality). But as it turns out, they can be applied to the grieving process you go through whenever you suffer any kind of loss. The recent loss of our prosperity – and the consequences for both our personal life and our civic life – means not just a loss of material things but also a loss of confidence and a loss of our sense of well-being. In dealing with constituents – and dealing with my own feelings about the current financial situation – I have come to recognize all five stages of grief, which area:

Denial: "This can't be happening, not to me!"

Anger: "Who is to blame?"

Bargaining: "I'll do anything for a few more years!"

Depression: "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"

Acceptance: "It's going to be okay."

In both our personal lives and our civic life, many of us have been in denial. This library can’t be closing! A lot of people have moved on to anger, which is why I get yelled at so much. It’s all the City Council’s fault! Or it's the fault of the stupid library director, who should be fired! Many people are stuck there, but I notice a bunch of constituents moving on to bargaining. Let’s raise enough money just to keep the library open for a year, and then maybe things will improve!

Maybe because our city’s financial woes have been coming on for a while, I guess I feel like I have worked through those first three and right now I’m at depression. Things are awful. Why bother continuing to make them better? That’s how I feel a lot of the time these days.

But I also know that people have faced tough times before. I’m trying my best to move toward acceptance. Acceptance is liberating, because it makes you realize that some things are going to happen that you can’t control. We are less prosperous than we were a year or two ago. We will have less money to make things happen. This means we will have to endure some cutbacks; but it also means we will have to use the money we have more creatively, and come up with solutions nobody has tried before.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope things will get better – nor does it mean we shouldn’t campaign for a sales tax measure if the Council decides to put it on the ballot this year. But it does mean that, tax or no tax, we will have to pull together as a community, both to accept the loss that we are going to feel and to turn things around so our community is successful again. It’s hard to work through the five stages of grief in a situation like this. But people – and communites like Ventura – are very resilient. And that gives me hope.