Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Laying the Foundation for the Future

This has not been an easy year for us here in Ventura. At City Hall, at the school district, elsewhere in town – and also in our personal lives – we’ve had to cut back.

Nobody likes cutting back, especially if it means our community’s quality of life is at risk. Fewer libraries, fewer police officers, fewer fire stations, reduced bus service, reduced park maintenance, less street paving – the list goes on and on, unfortunately. And most of our time and effort at City Hall in 2010 has been spent figuring how to manage these reductions in a way that will maintain the city’s overall solvency without harming the community too much.

This is essential work these days for local government officials and we are right to devote so much attention to it. But even as we manage these reductions, we must also devote ourselves to renewing our community – appreciating what we have here in Ventura, looking ahead, and understanding how we can protect and enhance our city’s unique characteristics.

So let me begin by saying that, despite all the bad news, 2010 was a pretty good year here in Ventura. We have successfully sown the seeds of several efforts that will pay off in years to come, both for our prosperity and our quality of life. Although it went almost unnoticed, perhaps the most important accomplishment was the approval of Community Memorial Hospital’s major expansion in midtown. Starting early next year, CMH will build a new building adjacent to its old one – simultaneously upgrading our medical care, freeing up space in the old building for important economic ventures such as biotech research, and helping to improve an already wonderful, walkable commercial neighborhood around Five Points. We’re lucky to still have a community non-profit hospital, and the fact that there was so little controversy about the CMH expansion is a testimony to the way the hospital and the community understand the value of their relationship.

We also saw the expansion of our V2TC business incubator behind City Hall, with several new businesses opening up and one – The Trade Desk – moving to bigger quarters elsewhere in the building because it is growing so fast. In addition, we saw an increase in all kinds of creative and innovative businesses downtown – everyone from architects to venture capitalists and, yes, brassiere designers moved in.

There’s so much more I could talk about, but let me just sum it up by saying that nothing is more important to me as mayor than laying the foundation for Ventura’s future prosperity and quality of life. It’s sometimes hard to see this progress in such a down economy, but we here at City Hall are working hard – in collaboration with our neighborhoods, our businesses, and many others – to make sure that as we emerge from the recession Ventura will remain a great place to life and work for another generation at least.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thankful for the Lights and for our Diversity

Ventura is a great place to spend the holidays. It’s warm during the day yet wintry at night, with a splash of rain from time to time. So we can enjoy the best of both worlds – vigorous outdoor activities during the day and cozy moments by the fire at night.

We can also celebrate the fact that here in Ventura our community includes many different faiths, each of which brings something special to our community. One of the things I love about Ventura is that it’s a diverse place. The fact that we all respect and appreciate each other – and we all work together for the benefit of our community overall – is one of the most wonderful thoings about our town.

On the first Saturday of December, it was great fun to join Santa Claus in lighting our community Christmas Tree in the mini-park on Santa Clara Street next to the parking garage. It’s the first time we’ve had the tree in that location – thanks, Kathleen Ericksen and Downtown Ventura Organization – and the turnout was great. So was the music, thanks to four great choirs – the Ventura Youth Choir, the Channelaires, the Trinity Lutheran Church Choir, and the First Assembly of God Church Choir.

Over the past several months, I have visited more than a dozen churches in Ventura on Sundays, with special emphasis on evangelical Christian churches. Thanks to their ceaseless efforts, the Kingdom Center is now making a dent in the homeless problem in Ventura. And several of our churches are helping temporarily homeless families through our “safe sleep” program. (If you haven’t heard anything about that program lately, that’s because it’s working – with no problems and no incidents)

The next day it was my honor to participate in our annual community menorah lighting program at the Ventura Harbor. Rabbi Yakov Latowicz of the Chabad Center here in Ventura – and his colleagues from around the country – always do a great job of putting a program on. This year, I had the special privilege of sharing the stage with Yuli Edelstein, a former Russian diplomat and currently Israel’s Minister of the Diaspora and Public Diplomacy, who went some 30 feet up in the air in a cherry-picker to light the huge menorah.

And just a few weeks ago, I had another great privilege – cutting the ribbon for the grand opening of the Ventura County Hindu Temple, the first such temple in the Tri-Counties area. The Temple opened just in time for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

In these dark times, we in Ventura should be grateful that we still have wonderful sunshine during the day – and so many ways to celebrate the light in our community.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Arts Is An Anchor For Our Entire Creative Economy

Last Thursday, it was my pleasure to preside over the Sixth Annual Mayor’s Arts Awards. It was a great event – an overflow crowd at new Smith Event Pavilion at the Museum of Ventura County. It was a wonderful opportunity to honor people making an important contribution to the arts in Ventura – and also to reflect on the role the arts are playing in building the long-term prosperity of Ventura.

And it was also a great opportunity for me to issue a challenge to you and everybody else in the community:

I am committed to buying at least one piece of local art as a gift during this Holiday season. Will you join me?

And I am committed to buying at least one piece of local art in 2011. Will you join me in that to?

If your answer is yes, email me at We’re putting together a Facebook page where those who answer the challenge can show images of the art they buy and discuss how they have met this challenge.

First, a nod to the award winners. They were: Helen Yunker, Arts Patron; Jack Halbert, Artist in the Community; Sylvia White, Creative Entrepreneur ; Margaret Travers, Arts Leader; Bob Moskowitz, Arts Educator; Chris Jay, Emerging Artist. Congratulations – you all do a great job, and you were all gracious, caring, and often very funny in accepting your awards!

Just as important to me, in the depths of this persistent recession, is to reflect upon the role the arts have played – and will play – in promoting our two most important goals: enduring prosperity and a high quality of life.

At the Mayor’s Arts Awards, I gave a special shout-out to Greg Carson and Todd Collart, who were mayor and deputy mayor during the depths of the last recession, from 1991 to 1993. It was a time when Ventura was reeling from oil industry cutbacks and, as a community, we were uncertain to where our future would lie. Under Greg’s and Todd’s leadership, the city created the Cultural Affairs Commission, produced the first Cultural Plan, and – despite the bleak times – launched Ventura on the trajectory to become “California’s New Art City”.

Now it’s 20 years later and we are in another bleak time. The city has had to cut deeply into our arts and culture programs in order to balance the budget. And yet, the Mayor’s Arts Awards highlighted the important role that the arts and culture sector is playing – and will play – in laying the foundation for Ventura’s future prosperity.

For the first 10 or so years after the Cultural Plan was adopted, Ventura focused on building ArtWalk, encouraging more local performances and galleries, finding ways for arts patrons to support local art. This led to a lot of discussion about the economic significance of the arts = the direct and indirect spending that arts create here in Ventura.

That’s still important. But in the last few years, the arts have come to play a more wide-ranging role in the emerging “creative economy” all through the United States and here in Ventura as well. I believe we have to focus not so much on the arts as a discrete sector of the economy, but rather as a catalyst for a much broader economy.

The “creative economy” means lots of things, but one thing is for sure: It doesn’t mean just art. It also means fashion and design – and also all creative activities associated with innovation in lots of areas, whether that’s high-tech, biotech, web development, or anything else that involves creative and innovative activity. These businesses like to locate near each other – and near arts and culture activity.

Today, our economic development strategy revolves around our Ventura Ventures Technology Incubator downtown, which currently houses a dozen start-up businesses, most of whom are engaged in creating new types of business activity on the internet. When we talk to these entrepreneurs, they always say that being close to other creative people is important to them. That means not just artists but also restaurateurs, architects and designers, even surfers and others who express themselves in one way or another.

So make no mistake: Our future prosperity depends on our ability to grow these creative jobs and businesses here in Ventura. Plus, we’ll be more successful if we are able to use the creative arts to educate our kids and create a local workforce capable of working in these creative industries, broadly defined.

For generations, we in the United States have rewarded our kids for learning how to perform rote tasks. But that’s now what Ventura’s new economy is going to need. Blue-collar jobs requiring workers to perform routine functions – “left-brain” skills, if you will – have been going overseas for decades. Now white-collar routine jobs – technical support, accounting, even law – are going overseas as well. The American economy in the 21st Century depends on workers who can create, innovate, invent. Even factory managers place a premium on shop workers who are good problem-solvers and critical thinkers – the “right-brain” skills that emerge from training in the creative arts.

So the Mayor’s Arts Awards is not just a place to highlight our wonderful local artists. It’s a place to celebrate the foundation of Ventura’s future prosperity. We may not have a lot of city funds to provide for arts and culture right now, but everyone in Ventura has a lot of energy and know-how to link arts and culture to our emerging creative economy.

And everybody has at least a little money to buy local art. So remember – If you’re willing to take me up on my challenge, send me an email and we'll keep track of who's buying local art!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let's Be One City At Thanksgiving

It's a well-established tradition for middle-class people on Thanksgiving morning to take a little time to help feed the homeless. This is an admirable habit, but it doesn't really break down the barriers between people -- the people with houses are doing the serving and the people without houses are doing the eating.

Here in Ventura, we have a different tradition, which we call "One City, One Meal". We all go down to the Knights of Columbus Hall on Figueroa Street and break bread together -- homeless and housed, poor and rich. The idea here is not for "us to help "them," but for everyone to get the idea that we are all friends and neighbors who live in the same city.

You can find out more about how you can participate in One City, One Meal by calling 648-4977. But to give you a flavor, I thouoght I'd re-post the blog I wrote after participating in One City, One Meal two years ago. It was titled "Help Means More Than Slopping Stuffing". Here it is:

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.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Apology to the Tea Party

Many of you will recall that several Tea Party members attended the September 20th City Council meeting to oppose the idea of a ban on single-use plastic bags. Subsequently, quite a few Tea Party members contacted me and chastised me for using the term "teabaggers," which they regard as derisive.

I did not recall using this term, and in fact I referred most of them to my blog on the plastic bag issue, in which I did use the term "Tea Party activists" but not the term "teabaggers". However, I stand corrected. As the video of meeting shows, I did use the term "teabaggers" in noting that we would welcome any further late testimony on the topic. (One Tea Party member had shown up after public comment because we had moved the item up.)

I did use the term in a kind of a flip way (pairing it with a reference to "tree-huggers"), which
I actually hope shows that I did not mean it derisively. That's no excuse for using a term that the Tea Party dislikes, however. I was unaware that Tea Party members dislike the term and did not know that it has a sexual connotation that the Tea Party, understandably, finds offensive.

I am sorry that I used this term in public and I certainly won't use it again. Thanks for understanding.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

At The Library Crossroads

Tonight, the Ventura City Council took an important step toward resolving our longstanding library issues. It's either a baby step toward pulling out of the Ventura County Library system, or a big step toward living with the library service we currently have. I don't know which.

The occasion was a joint meeting with the Library Advisory Commission where we were scheduled to discuss the possibility of embarking on a new strategic plan for the library. But the tenor of the meeting was colored by Camarillo's decision last night to withdraw from the county library system and contract with LSSI, a private company, for library services. (Moorpark made the same jump a couple of years ago.) Some library activists have been unhappy, to say the least, since H.P. Wright Library closed almost a year ago; and they have been agitating for us to withdraw and contract with LSSI as well. A majority of the City Council has stood behind the county library system so far. Would we jump to LSSI? That was the mystery.

In the end, we voted -- uanimously -- to take our first step toward considering the possibility of following suit. If that sounds tentative, it is. Technically, here's what we voted to do, and like I say it's going to sound really tentative:

We voted to agendize an item in the near future the possibility of giving the county the requisite six-month notice for withdrawing from the system this year (meaning July 1, 2011), and we directed the staff to come up with a proposal to put library operations out to bid. The idea is to set up the possibility of withdrawing, seek bids for library operations, and see what we get.

We also directed the Library Advisory Commission to design a strategic planning process that will assist the community in deciding what vision of library service we want to pursue in Ventura in the future. (There was a lot of concern about the overall cost of this effort, so we stipulated that it should be relatively speedy and inexpensive. At the suggestion of Linda Kapala, the library at Foothill High School and a big advocate of reopening Wright, I agreed to see whether graduate students at USC's public policy school, where I teach part-time, could help-out.)

But the main event was the possible withdrawal from the county library system. This was proposed by Councilmember Neal Andrews and seconded by Councilmember Jim Monahan, who opposed closing Wright. Neal in particular has always been in favor of putting more pressure on the county as a way to maintain good library service. My initial instinct was to vote against this motion -- I even said so in the meeting -- but upon reflection I changed my mine, right there in the middle of the meeting. Here's my reasoning.

A lot of people have been wondering whether the county library system can survive without Camarillo. (Presently, it consists of two other larger cities, Ventura and Simi Valley, as well as unincorporated areas and three smaller cities, Fillmore, Ojai, and Port Hueneme.)

As I said tonight, I think that in the short run we will be able to maintain our current level of service. (Although Wright is closed, Avenue Library is open partly thanks to federal funds, and E.P. Foster Library will open Sundays starting this weekend. In fact, there's a big celebration of Foster as part of the ArtWalk this Sunday, starting at 1 p.m.) However, I am not sure we will be able to maintain this same level of service in the coming years -- especially since the county is predicting a 50% increase in pension costs in the next five years.

So I think it makes sense to begin looking at alternatives for operating our libraries. I could wait a year to do this, because as I said I think we're okay for now, but I as happy to go along with the council consensus to move now.

The key for me was the idea of issuing an RFP. A lot of Wright advocates around town have simply been saying that we should pull out of the system and contract with LSSI. But I'm concerned about that -- and I became more concerned after I read the contract between Camarillo and LSSI today.

Whenever cities issue big contracts, they almost always go through a competitive bid. But Camarillo did not do that for library services. Instead, Camarillo negotiated privately on what is called a "sole-source" (i.e., non-competitive) basis with LSSI. This is understandable, especially when you consider that LSSI is the only company that provides library services to municipalities and the company is highly motivated to offer a good price in order to break into the Ventura County market.

Yet this unusual private negotiation process has resulted in pros and cons for Camarillo. The pros are obviously. They're going to get the same amount of service (65 hours a week) for less money -- $1.5 million a year for operations, plus about $500,000 a year to buy materials. (This is a net gain of about $700,000 a year for Camarillo.) LSSI is a large company that has buying power with book producers and so can command good prices, so the materials budget may actually stretch farther.

Yet Camarillo also gave up important things in the LSSI deal -- things I am not sure I want to give up. The county library system maintains the library buildings and I saw nothing in the contract that suggests LSSI is going to take over that responsibility, so that's possibly an increased cost to the city. LSSI promises to provide adequate staffing, but the contract stipulates that all staffing decisions ultimately belong to LSSI. That means LSSI could cut the number of librarians and simply inform the City, rather than seek permission to do so. (I have heard that LSSI has done this in some cases, but I do not know whether this is true.) Also, LSSI retains the power to categorize its library management techniques as proprietary and therefore confidential, meaning the City can't reveal or use what it knows about those techniques without LSSI's permission. The bottom line is that LSSI is a private company. You contract for a service and you get it; but you don't get to know much about the ins and outs of how that service gets provided.

I don't think this kind of privately negotiated deal would fly in Ventura. That's why I think the RFP process is a good way to figure out what the possibilities are. We can specify what service we are interested in -- Avenue, Foster, reopening Wright, bookmobiles, book kiosks, etc. -- and see what the prices are. We could even ask for ideas -- give us an innovative way to provide library service to East Ventura and cost it out. We will know what other costs will fall on our shoulders (and clearly the cost of materials and building maintenance will be our responsibility). We can specify in the RFP anything else that's important to us -- a certain number of librarians, for example, or compliance with the city's Living Wage Ordinance, which requires city contractors to pay a certain per-hour wage plus health insurance.

And then anybody can bid on what we want. LSSI can bid and we will see if they can meet our terms if those terms deviate from LSSI's typical contract (living wage, minimum staffing, etc). The county library system will bid and we can see if they can provide a low enough price. (Having existing departments bid against private companies to provide public services is a growing trend.) Other libraries could bid if they wanted to -- Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Ventura College. And, of course, our city Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Partnerships could bid as well (maybe in collaboration with laid-off Camarillo librarians? Who knows?)

In the end we might contract with LSSI or some other entity. Or we might not like any of the bids and decide that staying as part of the county system is well worth it. But the point is that we will have tested the market to see what's out there. At this point, I think that's worth it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Back to the Bad Old Days?

Last night, after more than 3 hours of debate, the City Council voted 4-3 to add the floor of the Canada Larga Valley into the North Avenue Community Plan Area. I voted against this proposal, mostly because I think it will make it far more difficult to accomplish the many important community goals on the Westside and in the North Avenue that we all agree on. Frankly, I am afraid that this vote portends the return of the “bad old days” on land use and development in Ventura.

A little background: Back in April, the City Council green-lighted new community plans for the North Avenue and the Westside, as well as initial work to create a combined redevelopment project area for the entire North Avenue/Westside area. At that time, the city attorney concluded that Councilmember Monahan had a conflict because of his property holdings on Ventura Avenue and could not vote. When it came time to decide whether to put the Canada Larga floor into the plan area, the vote was 3-3 with Mr. Monahan sitting out it. Under our rules, the proposal failed, but it was obvious at that time that there were 4 votes on the council to include Canada Larga in the plan.

More recently the Fair Political Practices Commission and our city attorney determined that Mr. Monahan did not have a conflict and could vote on the matter. Not wanting to hold things up, I scheduled the item for last night.

We heard 40 speakers, but the truth of the matter is that we didn’t really have to. When we took the vote at 11 p.m. it was 4-3. Nobody had changed their mind based on listening to the speakers. To her credit, Councilmember Christy Weir said that, while she is conceptually in favor of executive housing in Canada Larga, she will be open-minded about whether the cost of infrastructure and police and fire service would be too high for the city. While Deputy Mayor Mike Tracy did not make quite the same comment, I think he’s somewhat open-minded too.

I was opposed to including Canada Larga before and I am even more opposed now – not only because I think homes up there are a bad idea, but because I believe the Canada Larga issue will be divisive and a huge distraction over the next couple of years as we move forward with the North Avenue/Westside efforts. Here are a few things that will now happen as a result of last night’s vote:

-- The environmental impact report for the North Avenue plan, which the City is paying for, will become far more time-consuming, complicated, and expensive than before. This will, at the very least, show things down.

-- The inevitable lawsuits from environmental groups will become much harder to defend. I think some environmental groups might sue anyway – they don’t like the tentative inclusion of agricultural land and some other parcels owned by the Bonsall family along the Ventura Avenue – but those lawsuits would be much simpler and easier to resolve if we did not include Canada Larga in the discussion.

-- It will become much harder to get Ventura County to sign off of the whole thing, especially the redevelopment project area. The redevelopment component is important because redevelopment funds from the Brooks/Petrochem project could be used for improvements down on the Avenue. But the County may oppose redevelopment and could even sue us. With Canada Large in, it’s much more likely that the County will hold up the redevelopment effort.

-- I don’t think we’re going to get this annexation past the Local Agency Formation Commission – the county agency that approves boundary changes. If LAFCO doesn’t approve this, then we’ll have to sue them to get it, and I can’t see us winning that lawsuit.

-- I’m pretty sure that our local environmentalists will run a ballot measure to make development of Canada Larga subject to a vote.

There you go: All kinds of costs, delays, lawsuits, and maybe ballot measures that will make it much more difficult – maybe impossible – for us to move forward with all the things we unanimously agree on in revitalizing the Westside and the North Avenue. All those those good things we all agree on are being held hostage in order to try to force through a Canada Larga development that we are deeply divided on and have never in the past allowed to move forward. Not a good idea.

Beyond that, I fear that that the whole Canada Larga thing will take us back to the “bad old days” of the growth wars in Ventura – where developers engage in game-playing to try to get four votes, people on either side of an issue call each other names, and everything comes to a halt because it’s so contentious.

Ventura was riven by this stuff for 30 years. Recently, all of us on the city council have worked hard to put those days behind us. We passed our infill-first General Plan in 2005, we eliminated the dysfunctional Residential Growth Management Program, and we cleaned up the development review process.

This is real progress, and I thank all six of my colleagues for working collaboratively to make that progress happen. Do we really want to go back to the bad old days?

I certainly don’t, but last night I already felt that we were back in the bad old days. Three examples:

-- Landowner Buzz Bonsall and one of his allies withheld their speaker cards for two hours and put them in at the last minute, at 10 o’clock, after all the other 40 speakers had spoken. Buzz discussed his proposed project a little – but only after everybody else had spoken when they had no opportunity to respond. Buzz had the right to do this, but, I’m sorry, that just seems like pointless game-playing to me. If this is any indication of how the relationship between the city and the property owner is going to go here, I’m not optimistic.

-- Councilmembers Monahan and Morehouse got into a heated debate on the dais about why Cal State had not been built here in Ventura on Taylor Ranch -- something that happened, I think, when Ronald Reagan was president. Can we finally get over that one?

-- Councilmember Monahan and former Mayor Richard Francis, who spoke as a member of the public, got into a heated back-and-forth as well, with Mr. Monahan accusing Mr. Francis (semi-jokingly, I think) of having a hand in the earlier decision to rule that he was conflicted out of the vote. (Mr. Francis brought the house down by responding that if it was up to him, Mr. Monahan would never get to vote.)

The back-and-forth between Monahan and Francis was wonderful political theater 20 years ago, when they served consecutively as mayor, the town was deeply divided over growth, and I used watch the council meetings sitting on my sofa. But we’ve made great progress in the last few years – generally speaking, we’ve left those days behind and moved forward together as a community.

I, for one, don’t want to see the bad old days come back again. It may be good political theater, but it’s only going to tear our town apart.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why We Have To Make Tough Choices on Pensions

As you may have noticed, things are not going well between the city and our unions.

We have not reached agreement with our labor unions on new contracts, even though for most of the unions (including the police union and the Service Employees International Union) the contracts ran out last summer. Last week, all of our unions crowded the City Council chambers to speak about the value of their work and their concern about our negotiating position; and on Monday, SEIU plans a march on City Hall before the council meeting.

While I can’t speak publicly to the specifics of the labor negotiations going on right now, I can talk about what is on the public record – the changes in the compensation policy that the City Council approved last spring. I’d also like to take some time in this blog to explain why I supported those changes – and why I think those changes are important in order to actual protect our ability to pay out good wages, benefits and pensions to our city employees in the long run.

I know that our city employees are very unhappy with the City Council’s bargaining position right now. Our city employees feel like they are being asked to bear an unfair portion of the burden of the financial downturn. They don’t feel as though we value them. And they feel we are being inflexible at the bargaining table. Under the circumstances, these are all understandable feelings and I respect those feelings, probably more than our employees know. I am sure that if I were a full-time city employee I would feel the same way.

But I do want to explain publicly why I supported the changes in the Council’s compensation policy. Frankly, I don’t expect that what I say in this blog will change how any our city employees feel about what’s going on. I totally understand that and I respect it. But I would like both our city employees and the rest of our constituents – many city employees are constituents – to understand where I’m coming from. It would be a disservice to all these constituents, city employees included, not to do so.

I am not interested in placing the burden on the employees just because I think they should pay more. Rather, my goal to make sure that our employees’ pensions are not at risk in the long run – and to make sure that we will have the money to pay competitive wages to our current employees even as pension costs go up.

Last spring, the City Council voted to change its official compensation policy to add two components – first, to ask our employees to once again pay their legally defined “share” of pension contributions (9% of salaries for public safety officers, 7% for everybody else); and, second, to seek a second, lower “tier” of pension benefits for future employees.

This move came as something of a surprise to a lot of our employees. Many were more than surprised; they were hurt. Oftentimes this summer and fall, they have sought me out to ask why we have chosen this path. Don’t we value them? Aren’t we worried about falling so far behind “the market” that it will be hard to recruit and retain talented employees? What’s going on?

I do value our employees – and I never say so often enough. Our city employees work hard serving the public, and most of them could make more money working for another city or public agency. Our public safety officers put their lives on the line for us, and most of the rest of our employees work hard during long careers for relatively modest pensions. And yes, I am worried that Ventura – a venerable city that prides itself on providing excellent service to the public – won’t be able to recruit great new employees nor keep talented ones we already have.

But I’m also worried about the long-term future of our City’s ability to pay pensions to our employees. As a member of the City Council, I am one of seven stewards of the employees’ retirement funds. One of my goals is to make sure that when they retire, 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, the money will be there to pay them the pensions they have earned. And that we won’t have to “short” our current employees in order to pay the pension bills.

This is something that is almost never discussed openly by the City Council or our employees. In our day-to-day conversations and our labor negotiations, we all assume that the money will be there when it needs to be. But as we have learned in the auto industry and other “mature” business sectors, this isn’t always the case.

Part of the reason I am worried is that the world of California public pensions used to be very simple, but now it has become very complicated in a way that places our ability to pay pensions at risk in the long run. At the very least, paying the pensions our current and recently retired employees employees have earned will become much more expensive – and that will make it much more difficult for us to pay our current employees competitive wages and, in fact, to provide public services of any kind.

In the old days, cities contributed money to a system such as CalPERS, the California Public Employment Retirement System, on a regular basis. PERS invested the money in safe things like bonds and averaged an investment return of about 4%.

Virtually all employees received a guaranteed pension, which was pegged to some variation of the 2% formula – you’d get 2% of your annual salary in retirement times the number of years you worked. Most employees retired at 60, though police officers and firefighters tended to retire earlier – at 55 or sometimes even 50 – because you didn’t really want those folks out on the streets at an advanced age. Somehow it all worked out – just like, somehow or other, Social Security always worked out.

But, like Social Security and most other things associated with finance, the world of public pensions has gotten a lot more complicated in the last 30 years.

At cities and other agencies that belong to PERS, salaries have gone up, retirement ages have gone down, retirees are living longer, and, in the case of public safety officers, the old 2% formula has been increased to 3%. Obviously, all these changes have increased the pressure for PERS to deliver greater investment returns – and turned PERS into a very different kind of investor than it used to be.

The whole PERS story is probably best laid out by Ed Mendel, an old friend of mine from my journalist days, who is now a blogger specializing in California pensions. In one recent blog, Ed noted that the world changed dramatically in 1984, when the voters passed Proposition 21, which repealed a law limiting PERS to investing only 25% of its portfolio in stocks. That opened the way for PERS to increase its investment returns by participating in the boom stock market of the ‘80s and ‘90s – which, in turn, increased the pressure to improve retirement benefits for California’s public employees.

As Ed points out in his blog, in 1980 PERS received twice as much revenue from member and employer contributions ($1.6 billion) than from investment returns ($800 million). In 1983, when the stock market started going up, that flipped; PERS got $1.8 billion from contributions and $2 billion from the portfolio.

PERS then rode the exploding stock market all through the ‘80s and ‘90s. By 1998, PERS got $3.7 billion in contributions and $23 billion in investment returns. To reiterate: In 1980, PERS got two-thirds of its funds from member contributations. Less than 20 years later, PERS got 85% of its funds from investment returns.

It was about this time that the state first permitted the 3% formula for public safety officers and also lowered the allowable retirement age for non-public safety personnel from 60 to 55. Most cities in the state quickly adopted both of these options, including Ventura (though Ventura adopted the 3% rule more gradually than most). However, because the stock market continued to skyrocket, cities did not have to pay any “price” at all for these increases – at least not right away. During the Internet boom of the early 2000s, investment returns were so high that PERS actually didn’t require cities to make contributions – at the exact same time that pension benefits were going up and retirement ages were going down.

Then, of course, came the Internet crash and the whole rocky period of the ‘00s, when everybody got caught in the housing bubble. The net result of this is that CalPERS has not been getting the same return it used to – even though costs are now much higher, based mostly on the assumption that returns will remain high.

According to Ed Mendel, CalPERS returns have averaged only 3.1% for the last decade. Yet PERS continues to operate on the assumption that its long-term rate of return will be 7.75%.

Even if investment returns do total 7.75% from now on – extremely unlikely, in my view – our PERS cost is going to go up, because PERS has to cover the cost of investment losses the last couple of years. My best guess for what’s going to happen in the next few years is this: Even if our city revenue starts going up again in a couple of years, those revenue increases will be completely eaten up by increased PERS costs.

Under the circumstances, I think the only responsible position to take is that, whether we like it or not, we will have less money available for salaries and pensions over the next few years – not more, or not even the same amount we have now, but less.

And if investment returns are lower – say, 3% or 4% or 5%? Then the bill from PERS goes way, way up – far more than our revenue. This will affect not only our ability to pay pensions to those who are retired, but also our ability to pay competitive wages to those who still work for us because more and more of our money will go to pay pensions.

If you’re a taxpayer advocate, this is probably a satisfying “I told you so” moment. But even if you believe – as I do – that public employees do important work and deserve a good pension, you’ve got to be really worried.

What happens in, say, 2030, when many of our current employees will be expecting their hard-earned pension checks? When we have 1,000 or 1,200 retirees instead of 600? When we may have to balance the cost of those increased pensions on the backs of people working for the city at that time? And when PERS investment returns have not come anywhere close to 7.75% for years or maybe decades?

How big will the bill be then? Will we be able to afford to pay that bill – and still also provide police and fire service, and pave the streets, and run the parks, and everything else? And provide good wages and benefits to the dedicated employees who do the work?

I don’t know the answer to that question. The fact that I don’t know the answer to that question worries me a lot. And I believe it should worry our city employees a lot as well.

I know that the current labor negotiation is an extremely emotional issue for everybody. I know that many city employees are worried about how they’re going to pay their mortgages or their rent in the future. I know they do not feel valued and they fear we will lose good employees to other cities. All these things concern me too -- a lot. Our employees do great work and everyone in town needs them to continue doing so. And most of our employees are great citizens of our community and we want to continue that too.

But the one thing, I have noticed, that the employees do not seem to be worried about is whether the money will actually be there to pay their pensions in 2020 or 2030 or 2040. Our employees tend simply to assume that they will receive what they are legally entitled to.

But in my opinion, there is no guarantee the money will be there and there is considerable risk that it won’t be. Furthermore, for younger employees, providing those pension benefits to retirees in the future will mean we probably won't be able to provide wage and benefit increases for those still working. This is something that should concern all of us just as much as taking a pay cut now – maybe more. And as one of the seven stewards of the city’s pension system, I believe we must pay attention to this festering problem.

That’s why I believe it’s necessary to take steps to restrain long-term pension costs now – in order to make sure that our current and future retirees will get their pension checks far into the future and our current city employees will not have to pay the price for increased retirement costs. Yes, there are costs and risks to this approach. In the short run, our employees will have to give something up and it will be that much harder to pay the mortgage or the rent. But I believe it is equally important to make the tough choices now to ensure that our employees actually receive their pensions decades from now. And to make sure that we will be able to pay our current employees good wages and benefits, instead of sacrificing their well-being to pay the PERS pension costs for those who are already retired.

One of the things I hear most often from our employees is why we in Ventura seem to be worried about this when nobody else is. After all, most public employee labor contracts negotiated in the last year have had something between a 0% raise and a 3% giveback. If we cut compensation more than that, they say, we will become less competitive and we will lose good employees. So why are we seeking higher compensation cuts when nobody else is?

This is a good question. My answer, frankly, is that I don’t think the other agencies are looking at these issues straight-up – or they’re not being straight-up with the employees.

At Ventura County (which has its own separate retirement system), most employees agreed to start paying 3% of their retirement cost. That’s great. But the county retirement system’s investment portfolio has lost something like 25% of its value, and with lots of retirements in the offing, county pension costs are estimated to increase 50% in the next five years. Clearly, more givebacks will be necessary.

Another tactic we often see is for a city to promise future increases in salary -- say, 2-3-4% in the "out years" of a five-year contract -- in exchange for zero increase or a giveback in the early years. But this doesn't really solve the problem, because other cities are going to be facing huge increases in PERS costs just as we are. When you ask the elected officials in these cities how they are going to pay for the future salary increases, they'll say: “We don’t know.”

In such a situation, the price of short-term labor peace is to kick the can down the road, assume that somehow or other more money will be available in the future, and ignore the fact that there are looming long-term risks.

I cannot, in good conscience, do the same. Our employees are entitled to these pensions and they deserve them. But they also deserve straight talk about the future from their City Council.

It would be very easy for me to pretend there is no long-term problem and therefore no reason to make tough choices now, just as our neighboring city did. Even though this would make me more popular with the unions, it would be fiscally irresponsible of me – and, frankly, pretty unfair to our hard-working employees. Because, in the end, I won’t pay the price for that fiscal irresponsibility. That cost will be borne by our employees, both current and retired.

Simply put, it would be wrong of me to reap the short-term political benefit of pretending there’s no problem, and then dump the problem on my successors and on our employees themselves in the decades ahead.

As I said, I know our city employees are unhappy with what’s going on and angry at me and my fellow councilmembers. I don’t expect my explanation here to change that. But I do hope both our employees and our other constituents recognize that making tougher choices now will create a more solvent city – and a more stable retirement system – in the future, and that everyone – most of all employees – will benefit from that stability.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Give Me Plastic Bags Or Give Me Death?

Our split decision on Monday night to pursue ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura apparently struck a cord with some folks. The email responses I’ve gotten since then have ranged from “I’m disappointed in you” to “Don’t you have anything better to do?” to “You’re friggin’ nuts” to “Give me plastic bags or give me death!” As the last comment would suggest, many of these comments seem to have come from self-described Tea Party activists. A lot of the comments were very thoughtful and clearly deserve a response.

First, here’s what happened Monday night: After a proposed statewide law on the issue fell apart, Councilmembers Morehouse and Brennan asked us to approve the idea of having the staff prepare a ban on single-use plastic bags in Ventura. I indicated my support (which I will explain below). Councilmembers Andrews and Monahan and Deputy Mayor Tracy indicated their opposition. Councilmember Weir said she would not support a ban, but would support directing the staff to talk to other cities and agencies and return with some options for how we might reduce single-use plastic bags here in Ventura. That motion passed 4-3. So we didn’t ban plastic bags, nor did we – as many emailers seem to think – approve spending money on some kind of study or other. We asked the staff to come back with options.

A lot of emailers have expressed concern about having their personal freedom taken away through a ban on plastic bags – sort of implying that it is the manifestation of an intrusive “nanny state” approach by the City Council and basically just the latest left-wing enviro-nazi fad.

Let me first say that I’m usually pretty skeptical about buying into the latest environmental fad. Remember a few years ago when the entertainment industry was in a tizzy over the supposedly wasteful long CD covers? I thought that was pretty amusing – here are Hollywood musicians, who consume enormous amounts of electricity recording and playing their music and still use lots of plastic to manufacture and shrink-wrap the CDs, thinking that if only they make shorter boxes the environment will be saved. So I’m not easily taken in by this stuff.

Second, I don’t take imposing regulation on our constituents lightly. A lot of emailers have said that we should allow the consumer and the market to prevail. I agree that the market is a great thing – most of the time the market is right, and we should use the market to deal with our problems whenever we can. But sometimes, the market has a hard time recognizing other, non-economic issues. That’s when the government creates regulation – to protect other things that are important to the common good but that the market isn’t good at dealing with. This might be something as simple as a stop sign or a speed limit (both of which are examples of government regulations that take away our personal freedom) or something as complicated as environmental protection.

There’s no question that plastic bags are cheap and useful. But if they are floating around our town – and, especially, landing in our rivers and our oceans – they can be harmful. Just as important, their presence in our rivers and watercourses can expose our community – and our taxpayers – to the possibility of significant financial fines from the Regional Water Quality Control Board. And that’s the most important reason to think about ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura.

The regional water board oversees the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act. Because Ventura is located in a beautiful but environmentally fragile place – along the beach and between two environmentally sensitive rivers – the board keeps a very close eye on us. This costs us a lot of time and it also costs us a lot of money.

Here’s an example: Our wastewater treatment plant discharges water – very clean water – into the estuary at the mouth of the Santa Clara River, near Ventura Harbor. But discharging treated wastewater into an estuary is not typically something that is permitted under the Clean Water Act. So we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year – money that comes from the water and sewer payments you make every other month – proving to the regional board that the water we discharge is really, really clean. Whenever we do have a minor blip and polluted water is accidentally discharged into the estuary, we pay a big fine – thousands of dollars a day. And now, a group of environmental organizations have sued us in an effort to get us to find some other way to discharge the water rather than putting it in the estuary. This lawsuit will cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend and most likely millions to settle.

As I say, this kind of thing is just a fact of life. It’s part of the “cost of doing business” of being Ventura.

Now, the regional water board has instituted a new set of regulations implementing the federal Clean Water Act that seeks to reduce the amount of trash and other pollution in the Ventura River -- to zero. Under the new stormwater permit that affects Ventura and neighboring cities, we are expected to take all reasonable measures necessary to eliminate all trash in the river. If there’s trash in the river, we have to pay fines – with money that will come from our General Fund, meaning we will have less money for police officers and firefighters and park maintenance workers.

And just to give you an example, a couple of weeks ago when volunteers from California Lutheran did the big river-bottom trash cleanout, they came up with more than 12 tons of trash.

In order to cut down on the trash, the City will spend close to $1 million over the next few years putting “trash excluders” on the storm drains – essentially, traps that keep the trash from flowing down the storm drains into the ocean and the river. But trash excluders don’t stop plastic bags from floating around until they land in the river. And plastic bags that get stuck in the trash excluders can interfere with the entire storm drain system by blocking the water from flowing.

In other words, we will face major financial penalties – penalties we would have to pay for with taxpayer funds -- if we don’t eliminate trash in the river. And plastic bags are big part of the problem that are especially difficult to deal with in other ways. That’s why we have to look at ways to reduce their use – including the possibility of banning them.

Now, critics might say that the regional water quality regulators shouldn’t be so hard on us; or shouldn’t focus on trash in the river; or should find other ways to clean up the water. This may be true, but that’s not something we at the city level can do a whole lot about. If we fight or try to ignore these regulations, that’s probably going to cost us far more of your tax money than complying. (This is a lesson the Casitas Municipal Water District has learned the hard way in fighting federal regulators over the installation of a fish ladder farther up the Ventura River to accommodate the now-endangered steelhead trout.)

So, to those who say they are disappointed in me, I say: How disappointed will you be when I come and ask to raise taxes so we can afford to pay all these fines to the Regional Water Quality board? To those who ask if I don’t have anything better to do, I say: I don’t have anything better to do than clean up our environment and conserve our taxpayers’ money in the process. To those who say I’m friggin’ nuts, I say: It would be nuts to pretend that we do not have lots of potential financial liability here.

To those who say, Give me plastic bags or give me death, I say: At least tie your plastic bags up before you throw them into the river so nobody else chokes to death on them. Because if you don’t want regulation, then you’ve got to take individual responsibility for your actions.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Parking Management That Actually Manages Parking

At about 10:30 this morning, I step out of my office at the corner of Poli and Oak and walk down Oak Street to get a cup of coffee at Palermo. Almost immediately, I notice something different.

The parking lot on Oak Street, usually two-thirds empty in the morning, is mostly full. And the on-street parking spaces along Oak and Main Street, which are mostly occupied on a typical morning at this time, are mostly vacant.

It takes me a moment before I realized why: The paid parking portion of our downtown parking management program had gone into effect at 10 a.m., and it was already showing results. People who park all day downtown have moved into the lots and the upper levels of the parking garage. Spaces on the street are now available for shoppers, diners, and others who were running short-term errands. In other words, only 30 minutes after we instituted the parking management program, it is working.

In all the discussions around town this summer about paid parking, the emphasis has always been on the "paid" part. Why is the city charging for parking downtown? Are we just being greedy? Where will the money go? Why would anyone go downtown if they have to pay to park?
These are all fair questions. (And they all have good answers -- for example, all the parking revenue money is going to benefit downtown and not being spent elsewhere in the city.) But the questions have obscured an important goal of the paid parking, which has nothing to do with revenue. The goal is to encourage employees and other long-term parkers downtown in order to free up space on the street for shoppers. And I was stunned at how quickly our "parking management" goal was achieved.

All day, we have a dozen or so police officers, public works officials, police cadets, and police volunteers downtown assisting people. When I go out again at lunchtime, the street spaces are beginning to fill up -- and everywhere I look, somebody from the city is helping a downtown shopper figure out how to use the new machines. But the point is still clear: The on-street spaces are gradually filling up with people who had come downtown to shop.

In the months leading up to the inauguration of paid parking, I kept hearing stories about how downtown employees were hogging the onstreet spaces. I heard that some merchants told their employees to park on the street -- but a block away, so as not to take up parking in front of the store. I heard that some businesses and employees erase the chalk marks that our parking enforcement folks put on their tires. I heard that some business owners give their employees a few minutes off every two hours to move their cars.

Frankly, I wasn't sure if I believed all these stories. After all, why would any merchant park in front of their own store? Why would you deal with all the hassles to park on the street -- erasing chalk, moving cars -- when there's free parking in city lots a half-block away? It seemed ridiculous to me. But the lesson from today is that it's not ridiculous. Obviously, what's been happening is that employees have been parking on the street and now they are parking in the lots.

At about 3 pm, I decide it is time for another cup of coffee at Palermo, partly just to see what was going on. By now most of the onstreet spaces are taken -- but the police volunteers and cadets are still around. A woman wanderes past Palermo and asks me if I know how to use the machines. I start to help her (she seems tickled pink that the mayor is helping her) when a fresh-faced police cadet comes up and does a better job of explaining it.

Anybody's first impulse, I think, is that paying for parking is a bad thing. But upon reflection, a lot of folks -- merchants and shoppers alike -- have come around to the idea that it can be a good thing.

Some shoppers have complained over the past few months that parking at the mall is free, so why should they pay to park downtown? The answer -- provided by Downtown Ventura Organization board chair Dave Armstrong -- is that you're paying for access to a few hundred premium spaces. And he's right. After all, all the mall parking spaces are far away from the stores -- farther than even the most remote free lot downtown. If it was possible to drive right inside the mall and park in front of your favorite store, don't you think the mall would charge for that space? And don't you think some people who think it's worth it would pay the price? Obviously, the answer to both these questions is yes.

Similarly, Main Street merchants have come to see that paid parking can help them too by opening up short-term spaces close to their store. As the owner of Jersey Mike's told me today, her customers used to have to circle the block three times looking for a space or park in a faraway parking lot. Now they can park right in front of her shop for a quarter -- or a dime -- or a nickel -- while they pick up their order. Because even though it's $1 for the first hour, you can buy less time with coins. And there's less traffic on the street because there's less "cruising" for a parking space.

6 pm: I head out to one our local establishments. Now it's very busy downtown -- the younger crowd is beginning to head out to downtown -- and the onstreet spaces are still mostly full. Prime time downtown.

Some people who grumbled about this idea pointed to the experience this summer at Ventura Harbor: Paid parking was instituted in the prime lot near the Village on weekends. But, the complainers pointed out, the Harbor ended the program early because they didn't achieve their revenue goals. True enough, but it was a gloomy summer and tourist business was off generally. And what the complainers tend to overlook is the fact that the Harbor actually did meet the parking management goals. Employees and all-day parkers going to the Channel Islands parked elsewhere, freeing up plenty of space for peope shopping at the Village. In that sense, it was a success.

9:15 pm. I take one final swing through downtown. Parking on the street is fairly light now -- especially on California between Santa Clara and Thompson (near the garage) and on other side streets such as Oak. And it's a fairly quiet Tuesday night -- most places. I peek into Anacapa Brewing to talk to owner Danny Saldana -- and, to my amazement, the place is completely full. Danny is happy with the situation and, like many other downtown business owners, says he is providing one-hour parking coupons to his regular customers for free. It's well worth it, he says, to keep them coming.

I walk back up Oak Street toward the office. The spaces on the street are mostly empty. And the parking lot across from office -- usually almost empty by now -- is completely full. Eleven hours later and it's still working.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Safe Housing in Ventura

Yesterday I attended the Safe Housing Collaborative's open house and workshop at Cabrillo Middle School. Safe housing and code enforcement has been a significant issue here in Ventura over the last year or two -- not surprising considering we are an older city with an older housing stock.

The meeting yesterday was terrific. I would say about 80 people showed up. The Safe Housing Collaborative -- a City Council-appointed group chaired by Jill Martinez -- did a terrific job of pulling things together and organizing the event. At the workshop, the participants were broken down into small tables and they discussed housing and code enforcement issues at length.

I'm looking forward to hearing what the Safe Housing Collaborative took away from the day. There were a lot of comments -- some angry, but most constructive. I tried to move from table to table to get a broad understanding of what people were saying, and here's what I heard most frequently:

1. Our permit fees are too high. (We have been increasing some fees in order to ensure that taxpayers don't subsidize building fees and code enforcement fines.)

2. To bring costs down, we should allow permit applicants or contractors to "self-certify" that the code has been met. (This is one of several options we've been discussing.)

3. We should focus on safety issues and not worry so much about other things that are technically substandard. ("Substandard" is defined in the state code and is pretty expansive.)

4. Our building inspectors and code enforcement officers sometimes have an attitude and/or don't demonstrate evenhandedness. (As I have no personal experience with this, I don't know if this is true or not.)

Anyway, these were the four things I heard pretty consistently.

You can get involved in the Safe Housing Collaborative discussion by joining the Safe Housing Ventura Yahoo group.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Will Ventura Pay For Bell's Bad Deeds?

The Bell compensation scandal is coming “home to roost” in lots of ways – but I’d like to talk about one in particular: The question of whether Ventura will get dragged into the Bell situation – and be required to foot part of the bill for Bell’s spiked pensions.

The latest issue is not how much Bell’s overpaid top employees will make, but who foots the bill. Ventura may be on the hook to pay a good portion of Bell Police Chief Randy Adams’s vastly increased pension because Adams spent 20 years working for the Ventura Police Department. We may be in the same situation with Angela Spaccia, Bell’s assistant city manager, who also worked for Ventura – but not for nearly as many years. (A bill now pending in the state legislature may get us off the hook, however.)

Adams doubled his annual pension – from something like $200,000 to $400,000 – by working at a very high salary in Bell for one year. But under the rules governing the California Public Employee Retirement System, previous employers are apparently on the hook for a pro-rata share of Adams’ pension. Adams worked in Ventura longer than anywhere else, so under one interpretation of PERS rules, we’ll have to pay about 60% of Adams’ pension spike.

This is ridiculous, of course. An irresponsible city council 80 miles away makes a sweetheart deal with a guy who left our employ 15 years ago and all of a sudden we’re on the hook for many tens of thousand of dollars a year. PERS has put Adams' pension on hold for now (along with Spaccia’s and Bell City Manager Richard Rizzo’s) while Attorney General Jerry Brown investigates the situation. We have joined with Simi Valley and Glendale, Adams’s other previous employers, in fighting against the increased price of Adams’ pension – and we’re committed to continuing the fight.

The whole Bell situation, however, has begun to shine a light on PERS’s policies regarding who actually pays for pensions, which have traditionally been anything but transparent. In many ways, these policies make sense. But it may be time for a change, especially if the good times of skyrocketing stock market and real estate values that we have experienced over the last 20 years have come to an end.

PERS is the largest pension system in the world. It provides pensions for over 1 million people and has assets worth more than $200 billion, including huge investments in both stocks and real estate. PERS tries to pay as much of its pension costs from return on investment as possible, but if investment returns fall short, the member agencies – such as Ventura – must pay the difference.

Conceptually, then, here’s what happens:

-- We give money to PERS for every employees’ pension.

-- PERS invests that money and gets a return.

-- If that’s not enough to cover pensions for our employees (which are of course guaranteed at a certain level – that’s the “defined benefit” approach), PERS asks us for more money to cover the difference.

Right now, the city’s retirement assets at PERS total something like $360 million, which is about 85% of the amount of money required to cover the pension costs, according to PERS’ projections.

We don’t, however, receive an itemized bill from PERS that says, here’s how much you have to sock away for each current employee’s pension and here’s how much additional you have to pay because we missed our goals for investment return. So, for example, there will be no line item for “Paying Randy Adams’ pension because of what Bell did”.

Instead PERS calculates all of our obligations and translates that into a formula – expressed as the percentage of overall employee compensation required to cover the PERS bill. I think this number is currently something like 40% for public safety employees and 28% for non-safety employees.

This sounds like a lot. But remember, this isn’t just the amount of money we’re socking away for current employees. It also includes whatever we must pay to cover the cost of retiree pensions if PERS misses its investment targets (which obviously it has been doing lately). And we recently crossed an important threshold – we now have more retirees than current employees.

PERS does the calculation this way because, like Social Security, it is not an investment fund where you park your money and hope for a return. Rather, it is an enormous investment pool that seeks to spread risk as much as possible – usually the risk of low stock market returns but, as we have now seen, the risk of elected officials acting irresponsibly as well. PERS spreads risk in many ways. It spreads investment risk over hundreds of agencies. It spreads the risk of unusually high pensions, as we now know, among all of that retiree’s employers. Among smaller cities, PERS spreads this same risk among many cities. Bell City Manager Rizzo’s pension (reputed to be in excess of $600,000 a year) will be borne in part by 140 smaller cities in the PERS system, including Bell. (Apparently, Adams’ pension will not be covered by this small-city pool because he worked mostly for bigger cities).

In addition, PERS spreads the risk of low investment returns out over time through a process called “smoothing”. If PERS investment returns do not meet the targets – as has been the case the last couple of years – obviously PERS’s member agencies have to pay more money to cover pension costs. Instead of sending us that increased bill all at once, however, PERS spreads the increase out over time so we don’t feel the blow all at once.

Usually this is not a big problem, because most cities have pay scales that are more or less in line with one another. (I would guess that virtually all public sector salaries in California are within plus-or-minus 20% for the equivalent job.) But Bell’s misdeeds throw this equilibrium out of whack, which is why I think we hang tough on not paying the pensions of Randy Adams and Angie Spaccia.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

We Really Don't Do It For The Money

In the wake of the City of Bell compensation scandal, I suggested that the best way for public officials to be accountable to the voters on compensation is simply to reveal everything in public. I began my professional life as a journalist and I know that “sunshine” is often the best remedy for back-room deals.

Many others, including Gov. Schwarzenegger and the League of California Cities, have reached the same conclusion. And so has our city. I’m proud to say that Ventura has now posted an entire package of material about our own city compensation online. Much of this information was already public – we approve our salary schedules, our union contracts, and our contracts with the city manager and city attorney in public session – but it wasn’t readily available. Now it is. So please take a look if you’d like. As I say, sunshine is often the best medicine.

Given the controversy in Bell – where City Councilmembers made upwards of $100,000 per year by serving on various commissions that did nothing – many people have been asking how much we on the City Council make. The answer is simple: As mayor, I bring home about $12,000 per year, all in. That’s down about $2,400 from the last fiscal year. And that’s a lot less than what our colleagues in the other large Ventura County cities (Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Oxnard, and Camarillo) make. It’s a little hard to compare apples-to-apples, but all of them seem to make somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 per year.

Here’s how it breaks down:

-- The Mayor makes $700 a month, or $8,400 per year. This is established in the City Charter and it has been the same for about 40 years. (Councilmembers make $600.) These amounts can’t be changed without a vote to change the charter.

-- All councilmembers also get a $100 per month local travel allowance. This used to be $300 for the mayor and $200 for councilmembers, but we cut it back to $100 starting on July 1 to help meet the City Council’s budget reduction goal of 10%.

-- I am on two boards for which I receive a stipend. Both have to do with transportation – the Ventura County Transportation Commission and Gold Coast Transit. For each, I receive $100 per meeting and there are 10-11 meetings per year of each, so that’s another $2,000-$2,200 per year.

I’m also on the county Library Services Commission, but there’s no stipend associated with that (just a lot of headache!). And although some cities compensate their councilmembers additionally for serving as Redevelopment Agency commissioners and so forth, we get no additional compensation for things like that.

So that’s about $12,000. As for travel beyond the $100 per month for local travel, the council’s overall travel budget for travel outside of Ventura County is $17,500, which is about half of what it was three years ago. Each councilmember gets $2,750 and can choose their travel, though they can trade back and forth if they want.

Councilmembers also participate in either Social Security or the California Public Employment Retirement System, whichever they choose. In either case, the city’s share of the contribution is a pittance. And we are permitted to participate in the city’s health insurance program, but we must pay 100% of the cost. I choose to participate in the dental and vision insurance programs at my own expense, but I get medical insurance through my day job.

We recently checked around with the other cities in the County to see how we stack up. We were actually a little surprised to discover how poorly we are compensated compared to our peers.

In most larger cities in Ventura County, the Mayor and City Councilmembers get paid between $1,000 and $1,750 per month -- essentially, double to triple what we get. In almost all these cities, they also get additional compensation – things like city-paid medical insurance that they can cash out or flexible spending accounts, bigger travel allowances, and sometimes even contributions to a 457 retirement program (the public-sector equivalent of a 401k) or a deferred compensation program. As I mentioned above, as near as I can figure it’s between $20,000 and $30,000 per year, compared to $10,000 to $12,000 per year for us in Ventura.

I won’t lie: I certainly wish we made more money. In addition to being mayor, I hold down a full-time job (which, fortunately, I also love). I think fair compensation for a councilmembers would be somewhere around $40,000 a year, which is about what our colleagues in Santa Barbara make.

But I’m not complaining. I knew what the pay was when I signed up for this job and I have certainly never asked for or expected more than that. I don’t know about Bell, but here in Ventura the mayor and the city council clearly don’t do it for the money.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Fallout From Bell

The controversy over high salaries of both staff and councilmembers in the City of Bell -- a controversy involving two former City of Ventura -- continues to reverberate. The staff members have resigned, the councilmembers have cut their pay 90%, and the state is investigating both the salaries themselves and the pension consequences they will have.

How could this happen? How can we avoid it happening in Ventura and other communities near us?

I'm pretty familiar with the cities in the Bell area from my past life as a journalist, so you can read a long blog I wrote here about what happened there and how we can be vigilant in making sure it doesn't happen again.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shop Ventura

Everybody should buy local. It's good for local businesses, it increases local tax revenue, and it makes people feel good about their community. Here in Ventura, we're working on putting together a comprehensive "buy local" campaign. There are many buy local campaigns already in place, and we're working with them, with the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Ventura Organization, and other groups. But there are many approaches to "buy local," and we want to make sure we get it right.

During the current recession, there's been a revival of "buy local" campaigns all over the country, especially as sales of big-ticket, big-tax items such as automobiles have been on the decline. Some cities have simply tried to raise awareness. If you shop in the next town, you're paying the salaries of their police officers, not ours. Others have taken more aggressive steps, giving gift cards or rebates for local car purchases. Yet there's one common theme: As retail sales has gone into steep decline in the last few years, jurisdictions nationwide have realized that they can't take sales tax for granted.

For the past 30 years, the favored approach of California cities to pursuing more sales tax has been to attract more retailers--often with deep subsidies. In some cases, property tax increment financing was used to subsidize auto dealerships and shopping malls, with the hope of generating a sales-tax payoff. In other cases, cities simply split the sales tax increases with the retailers.

The recent recession has rendered these models outdated, at least for the moment. No increment in property taxes has occurred because property values have been falling, and there has been no increase in sales tax to share.

Nevertheless, some localities continue to subsidize their big retailers to keep them afloat. In May, the Long Beach, Calif., City Council approved a loan to legendary Ford dealer Cal Worthington of $600,000 to keep him going--and stay in town. Other cities may face similarly difficult choices as the auto manufacturing industry contracts.

Other localities have taken a different but equally aggressive approach. Some cities have simply set aside a slug of money to give rebates to people who buy-in their town-big-ticket items like cars. Others have worked with their retailers to offer gift cards: Buy a car, get a gift card worth several hundred dollars for other retailers in town.

In general, these buy local campaigns--or as one wag has called them, "bribe local" campaigns--have had the same effect as the Obama administration's Cash For Clunkers program: A brief boom in sales, followed by a crash back to previous levels when the program ended.

Here in Ventura, we have come to realize that a buy local campaign that's truly effective is a sustained effort, not one based on gimmicks. This is hard to calibrate with retail thinking, since retailers are always focused, understandably, on the short term and often use gimmicks to boost sales. But all the evidence points to the idea that people will stop leaving town to buy things when two things happen: first, when the stuff they want to buy is available in their town; and second, when they realize that there's a relationship between where they buy stuff and how many police officers and firefighters their city can afford.

With the current retail market in flux, it's a little hard to know just exactly what stuff people are going to want to buy in the future (will they be buying cars or not). Therefore it is hard to know which retailers to go after. But the other half of it is easy: Rather than using short-term gimmicks, cities should use long-term public education efforts to ensure that their residents know where their sales tax dollars go--even when it means pointing to another city.

If you're interested in helping us with our buy local campaign, please contact Eric Wallner at

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Cliffhanger Budget

Last week, the City Council approved the 2010-11 budget by a vote of 6-0 with Councilmember Weir absent because of a longstanding commitment. It’s not a budget any of us are happy with or proud of.

In order to close yet another multimillion-dollar deficit, we voted in favor of significantly reducing the number of police officers and firefighters – this will result in the “closing” of Fire Station 4, at least for now – the possible closure of the Downtown Senior Recreation Center unless we can close a deal for somebody else to take over the building, the elimination of more than 40 positions citywide, further reductions in park and streetscape maintenance, and a general thinning of the ranks for the second year in a row.

Plain and simple, this is a cliffhanger budget, designed to help us squeeze through the third fiscal year in a row where revenue has declined, and still hang on to the basic infrastructure of our city services. I hope it’s the most draconian budget I ever have to vote on.

Most of the attention in the last few weeks, of course, was focused on the question of whether we would continue to staff Fire Station No. 4, on Telephone Road near Montgomery, which City Manager Rick Cole and Fire Chief Kevin Rennie suggested was the station least likely to have a significant impact on our fire department response times if it were closed. Both the firefighters union and many of Station 4’s neighbors took us to task on that idea, saying it stretches the Fire Department too thin. The fact of the matter is that this budget stretches everything very thin. This includes not just the Fire Department but the Police Department as well, which won’t lose any beat cops but will see a reduction in all kinds of support services – detectives, the graffiti team – that help to keep our community safe.

At this point, it is not too much of a mystery to most people why we are having to make these cuts. We have lost more than $15 million in revenue in the last 2½ years. Our General Fund revenue is back down to the 2003 levels; our sales tax revenue has dipped down to the level we saw in around 1999. Property tax is stagnant and beginning to go down.

Just as there was last year, this year there was considerable interplay between our proposed budget on the one hand and our labor negotiations on the other. The reason is not surprising: When revenue is going down there are only a few ways to reduce expenses and most of them of them affect our employees. The options usually go like this:

1. “Go out of business” in some areas by simply ceasing to perform some low-priority functions, which usually means eliminating positions.

2. Reduce levels of service in at least some areas – if not all of them – another step that usually involves eliminating positions.

3. Reduce employee compensation.

And the hard truth of the matter is that there’s usually a tradeoff here. Either we reduce the number of positions – some vacant positions and some layoffs – or else everybody takes a pay cut.

Last year, we did all three things. For example, we no longer fund any public art out of the General Fund; and all of our bargaining units agreed to a 5% cut in 2009-10, much of which was taken in the form of things like less vacation. (We were one of the few cities in the state to successfully negotiate such a cut.)

This year, it has been harder to do anything of these things in a way that doesn’t really hurt. There are few low-priority activities that we have not ceased doing. Cuts in service are beginning to hurt because we have cut the back offices all we can. Most significant, it has been more difficult this year for us to reach agreement with our labor unions for pay cuts. We are asking for more than we did before – short-term and long-term – and they are pushing back.

Since we haven’t successfully negotiated any pay cuts, we didn’t put any savings from those pay cuts into the budget. We are currently in negotiations with the police union and with SEIU Local 721, which represents all of our non-public-safety workers. These contracts expire on July 1.

We also engaged in a lot of talks with the firefighers union, even though their contract doesn’t expire until December, because they were interested in keeping Station 4 open. (The real cost savings in Station 4 is not “closing” the station; it’s the $1.2 million in savings that comes from eliminating 9 of our 66 firefighter positions.)

The firefighters stuck with us, and came up with many creative ideas, and we made some progress. In the end, however, the reductions they offered were not enough to reopen Station 4; and the Council was unwilling to accept one of the conditions the firefighters asked for in return – a guaranteed number of firefighters on duty at any given time. This would be an unprecedented step for the city to take. No city union contract currently contains guaranteed staffing for any department. If we accepted this condition, we would essentially be earmarking a certain percentage of the budget for the firefighters – exactly the same kind of earmark that has made it impossible for the state to balance its budget year after year.

So in the end, we were unable to reach a deal with the firefighters and we adopted the budget without any wage concessions. On July 1, both our police force and our fire department will be reduced. Fire Station 4 will go unstaffed most of the time for now. We will further reduce park and landscape maintenance and we will shrink in many other ways as well.

I said at the beginning that this is not a budget to be proud of, and that’s certainly true considering service cuts it contains. But one thing I think we should be proud of here in Ventura is that, unlike so many other public agencies, we are facing the issues head-on and we’re not papering them over.

We’re balancing our budget, just as our City Charter requires, and we’re doing it honestly, even if honesty comes with pain.

We’re not using reserves or other “one-time money” to keep things going.

We’re not pretending we’re going to get more revenue than we are.

We’re not – as some cities are doing – reaching agreement with our labor unions by promising them raises in three or four years, when we have no idea what the future will bring.

But that doesn’t mean we will stop trying to figure out ways to restore the services we have lost. I view the “closure” of Station 4 as temporary – though I can’t tell you whether temporary means six months or five years.

Nor will we stop looking at ways to restrain future spending. We are going to have to restrain spending to accomplish three goals: (1) ensure our long-term solvency; (2) maintain our ability to provide services to our constituents; and (3) maintain our ability to meet our financial commitments to our loyal and hard-working employees. We will continue to negotiate with our labor unions for short-term pay cuts, which could help restore some service cuts in the short-term. We will also continue to work collaboratively with our unions on long-term pension reform.
But all this is not enough. We cannot achieve all these goals unless we also reinvent the way we deliver public services.

What do I mean by reinvention? Mostly what I mean is questioning how we do things. All too often in government, we desperately scramble to try to keep doing things the same way as we have always done them – without thinking about whether the current system is cost-effective, or even effective at all. Instead of trying to figure out how to maintain the current infrastructure as it exists, let’s focus instead on what the goal is.

So, for example, all through the debate about the Fire Department budget, the focus has been on how to keep Fire Station No. 4 open – a perspective that has been driven largely by the vocal involvement of the firefighters union and the people who live near Station 4. To me, however, the question is not how to keep Station 4 open, but how to make sure that our firefighter/paramedics can be at your home or your business, with the right equipment, when you need them. Once you make that shift, it liberates you to think differently about what the city does and how we do it.

In fact, we already stretch our resources in public safety by moving people and equipment around on an hour-by-hour basis. We think that if Station No. 4 is open, three firefighters are located there 24/7 waiting for your call. In fact, the Battalion Chief on duty is always redeploying our fire engines geographically depending on the circumstances.

So, if you're having a heart attack and call 911, Engine No. 4 may actually be sitting in Station No. 4. But, depending on what's going on, Engine No. 4 could be at a structure fire up in the hills, or at the training facility at Seaward and Allessandro, or sitting on Station 1 on the Avenue, backing up because Engine No. 1 is engaged somewhere. (It is typical practice in the Fire Department to move equipment around so that Stations 1 (Avenue), 2 (Seaward), and 3 (Buena) are always backed up, because these areas have the highest volume of calls.) In any of these circumstances, your call would be responded to by a different engine, including possibly the county engine in Saticoy. I cannot tell you how frequently this occurs now, but it's an everyday occurrence.

Similarly, after July 1, we will not have a crew permanently located at Fire Station 4, but that does not mean it will always be empty. In all probability, sometimes a crew (city or county) will be present there on occasion, again depending on how our Battalion Chief chooses to deploy resources.

So, already, the way we deploy are resources are very dynamic, even though we think they are static. But we have to move beyond the question of deployment to deeper questions of efficiency and effectiveness. If the job of most firefighters these days is to be paramedics, does every firefighter have to be attached to a fire station in a stationary location – or even to a fire engine that contains all kind of equipment not needed to rescue you while you’re having a heart attack? Reinventing things like fire and paramedic service takes time, effort, and commitment. And it’s an uphill battle against the natural inclination of practically everybody – constituents, politicians, and employees alike – to protect the status quo.

But let’s face it: We’ve spent the last three years cutting wages, cutting jobs, and cutting services. Now we’re at the bottom. It’s time to stop cutting and start reinventing

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Trains, Surfing, Baptisms, Soccer -- Spring Has Arrived in Ventura

Spring always makes you feel better. And here in Ventura – where the winter can be wet and chilly, and the summer can be foggy – spring usually means great weather. It’s warm and sunny, and if we’ve had some late rain, the hills are still green.

Because spring also means rebirth, it’s usually a time when people are out and about – doing things that enrich our community and remind us that we life in a great place. And that was certainly the case this Saturday – from morning till night.

My day began at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where I picked up the 9:35 a.m. Amtrak train to Santa Barbara for our regional National Train Day celebration. I was joined by a number of other public transit advocates, including K.K. Holland of ASERT, our local public transit advocacy group, Claudia Armann of the McCune Foundation and her son, my colleague Christy Weir and two of her grandchildren, and City Manager Rick Cole and his kids. We were met up in Carpinteria by a large contingent from Santa Barbara and Goleta and then went on to the Santa Barbara train depot, where a celebration of rail transit had been put together by the Coalition for Sustainable Transportatio.

It was a beautiful morning, and of course there is no more beautiful commute in the world than Ventura to Santa Barbara. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are several thousand commuters on that corridor every weekday morning from here to there.

Most of them are in their cars on the jammed Highway 101. A few hundred of them take the Coastal Express bus, which provides 20-minute headways in beautiful coaches at rush hour.

But hardly any of them take the train – the one form of transportation that can get commuters out of the traffic congestion on Highway 101. That’s because there are only five Pacific Surfliner trains a day between Ventura and Santa Barbara – and they’re not timed for commuters. In fact, that 9:35 a.m. train is the very first one of the day. As a member of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, I’ve been working with my colleagues to try to change the Amtrak schedule, but it’s not easy.

After a pleasant Coastal Express bus trip southbound along Highway 101, I was back in Ventura by 12:30. But it was such a beautiful day I couldn’t imagine going home. So I changed into my gym clothes and went for a run along the Promenade. Frankly, I’ve been afraid to go running since I have developed eye problems – especially because I now have blind spots along the bottom of my vision and often trip over things. But the day was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist. And everything went fine. I stayed upright the entire time.

But it was still so beautiful I couldn’t go home. So I bought a hot dog and a soda from the vendor on the beach in front of the craft fair and the Crowne Plaza. Not exactly one of my “locavore” meals, nor a particularly healthy one, but on such a beautiful day it was certainly one of the most enjoyable lunches I’ve had in some time.

Wandering around downtown, I couldn’t believe all the people and things I ran into that clearly indicated spring had arrived.

At Surfers Point, they were just giving away the awards for the surf competition in our Corporate Games , which annually attracts hundreds of companies to compete.

Strolling past Rocket Fizz, on the corner of Santa Clara and Oak, I ran into Marcos Vargas, the head of our local social equity group, CAUSE (and my UCLA urban planning classmate), taking his girls for a visit to the store – but they said they were just going to look at all the candy and sodas. Yeah, right.

In a parking lot at the corner of California and Thompson, I ran into a huge throng of kids – with a few adults thrown in – congregating to head out for the beach. Most of the kids had blue shirts on, but a few had red shirts on. It turned out that this was a group from Eastminster Presbyterian Church on Telephone Road. The red-shirted kids were getting baptized and the blue-shirted kids were part of the “river” in which they would be dunked at the ocean. Eastminster may be in East Ventura, but Downtown and the beach is important to them, as it is to everybody in town.

At the Museum of Ventura County’s temporary exhibit space on California Street, I checked out a juried exhibit of quilts. By the way, if you haven’t stopped by their Main Street location, you should take a look at how their expansion – the first in nearly 40 years – is coming along. It’s going to be a terrific addition to our community when it’s done. And thank goodness they’re keeping construction workers busy during this real estate bust!

Strolling down Main Street, I found the sidewalks crowded and all the restaurants busy. Since I still didn’t feel like going home, I stopped off at Palermo, where my gelato was lovingly scooped out by owner Rick Stewart’s father, Dick.

And although I spent a lot of my day using trains and buses and my feet, I couldn't help but enjoy the fact that a lot of folks have gotten their classic cars out now that it's spring, and are driving them around.

But the best part of the day was yet to come – and that was the home opener of our national champion Ventura County Fusion soccer team.

A lot of smaller cities have minor-league baseball teams. But we are lucky to have the Fusion -- which belongs to Premiere Development League, a kind of “minor league” for soccer players ages 18-23, many of whom go on to play for the L.A. Galaxy and other major teams. Last August, the Fusion won the league title at Buena High by defeating the Chicago Fire before 3,500 people – and a national television audience on Fox Soccer Channel.

Soccer is a great sport to watch in person, and the Fusion players are really good. They're from all over the world, but a lot of them are also local. For example, former Ventura High star Mike Enfield -- who played two years with the Galaxy and then in Australia -- is making a comeback with the team.

In case you missed it, the Star did a big story on the Fusion Saturday. And the Fusion is having a big impact on our community -- more than just a soccer game every once in a while. There's a women's team, and more than 20 youth teams associated with the Fusion. And the energetic general manager, Ranbir Shergill, is aggressively bringing over teams from Europe and elsewhere to train here. The result? Some 1,200 room nights per year sold at the Crowne Plaza. The Fusion is clearly part of our economic development strategy.

Before the game against the Ogden Outlaws began, I had the privilege of presenting a game ball from the championship game to Graham Smith , who coached the Fusion for the last three years. Then I was both humbled and surprised to be presented with another championship game ball -- signed by all the Fusion players. It's in the Mayor's Office now if you want to come and take a look at it.

By the way, the Fusion dispatched the Outlaws, 3-0.

At the end of my Saturday all over town, I couldn’t help but think that we are nearing the end of the long winter we have been experiencing here in Ventura and around the nation. Business is picking up a little for everybody. People I know who’ve been looking for jobs are beginning to find them; and businesses that have been teetering on the edge are beginning to stabilize. It’ll be a while before things turn around at the City, of course, because we’re highly dependent on the retail and property markets for our tax revenue. We’re going to have to make some very difficult cuts in the coming budget year, and it won’t be pretty. But we will find a way to get through it and move on to better times. After Saturday, I couldn’t help but be optimistic about that.

PS: This is my 100th blog as a member of the City Council, dating back to December 2006, when I wrote about the Wells-Saticoy Community Plan. I originally started blogging just to let you all know why I vote the way I do on Monday nights. But I have a really good time writing about all kinds of things in Ventura and staying in touch with you. Please feel free to comment or email me as much as you want.