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.

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