Sunday, March 7, 2010

Talking To The Folks About Making Tough Choices

If you've lived in Ventura long enough, you know that we love to talk about things forever. In some towns, the City Council just moves forward and does things with little interaction with or involvement from the community. But don't ever try that in Ventura. You won't get community buy-in for whatever you're doing, and you'll get pasted by the people.

That's why, as the City Council tries to figure out our budget priorities for next year, we tried something a little different on Saturday -- a kind of round-robin, small-group discussion between councilmembers and the people. It's the first of several public events we're going to have in order to take the public's temperature as we enter another tough budget period. Consider it a community version of a family kitchen-table conversation about how to trim things back to balance the household budget.

Put this on your calendar: We'll have another event, a kind of a "drop-in and talk" thing, at ArtWalk on April 17th.

Next year's budget is going to involve a bunch of tough choices. We had to cut $11 mlilion out of this year's budget -- going from $96 million for a "business as usual" budget to $85 million -- and next year it's going to be more like $15 million, going down to $81 million. So there's no getting around those tough choices.

And the message I'm getting from our folks -- if Saturday is any indication -- is pretty simple: Make the tough choices.

If you've been following our approach to this, you know we've been looking at how to prioritize four different approaches in order to balance the budgetL

1. Eliminate low-priority services.
2. Continue reductions in employee compensation.
3. Reinvent city services so that we can deliver the same services more efficiently.
4. "Muddle through," by continuing to provide services in a way that is probably unsustainable in the long run and wait for the economy to get better.

To this list we recently added the approach of generating new revenue through economic development -- always a priority, but one that is unlikely to yield real results in time to build next year's budget.

On Saturday, we tried to take the community's temperature in an informal way. We set up a round-robin discussion where the folks sat in small groups and the councilmembers -- each of whom took a different approach on the list above -- moved from table to table for 15-minute conversations.

The truth is, we had no idea how this was going to turn out. The whole thing was put together in less than two weeks and weren't sure how many people would show up.

We wound up getting close to 200 people at Poinsettia Pavilion -- so many that we had to vastly expand the number of tables and draft quite a few city staff members to augment the councilmembers as facilitators. Wow! I love the way Venturans get involved.

Early in the week, the city staff will post the notes and themes that emerged from the workshop. But here's a little about what I experienced in the five tables I facilitated.

The approach I drew was "muddling through" -- the idea of trimming a little here, cutting a little there, postponing this or that, and hoping for the best till the economy comes back and revenue goes up. Frankly, muddling through is what most government agencies do in hard times (my joke was that we were discussing the one approach our City Council is good at) -- and both the pro and the con for this approach have to do with the fact that it allows you to avoid hard choices.

On the plus side, if you muddle through you can try to hang on to your institutions and infrastructure at a reduced level until things go back to normal.

On the minus side is the fact that things never go back to normal, and so it's almost impossible to simply go on doing business as usual when the economy comes back.

Not surprisingly, then, the conclusion of most of the folks I spoke with was that we shouldn't muddle through. Instead, we should do what we got elected to do: Make the tough choices in consultation with our community. Given the budget situation, we probably don't have much choice.

But along the way, the folks I talked to threw out some terrific ideas about how we can stretch our dollars farther. There were two that I heard over and over again:

-- Use more volunteers and use them more effectively. The volunteer power we have in Ventura is amazing, and we ought to be able to make tremendous strides by using them as well as we can. Volunteers clean up the beaches, help out the police, assist even in refilling the dog bags in the parks. I agree: Let's keep going in this direction.

-- Crosstrain city employees. Our city employees do a great job. But to stretch our resources in this economy, we ought crosstrain them more so that they are capable of doing more different jobs and working more flexibly. Obviously there are limits to this (you might not want an office worker working as a police officer -- or vice versa!) but it's still a great idea for "reinventing government" that's worth exploring.

It's always hard to get everybody involved, and it's never easy to reach consensus, especially when we have to make tough choices. But Saturday's event was a great start to this year's budget discussion. Thanks to everybody who came.

A Saturday in Ventura: History and Community

In addition to the round-robin budget workshop, I attended three other community events on Saturday. They ranged the gamut from delightful to sad, but all were reminders of what a wonderful city Ventura is – and how lucky we are to have such a rich history.

Before the budget workshop, I was honored to throw out the first ball at opening day for the Montalvo Little League As with the Tri-Valley Girls Softball League, it was great to see more than 300 boys and their parents all excited about opening day. But this opening day was special – because it was the 50th anniversary of the Montalvo Little League, and some of the folks who were there at the beginning were present on Saturday.

Montalvo Little League began in 1960 when Montalvo resident Mickey McLean got it going and worked to construct a field on Bristol Road next to the packing plant. On Saturday, not only were 300+ Little Leaguers present – so was Mickey’s widow Pat and their two boys, Mike and Mark. The boys are now in their fifties, but Mike was the first Little Leaguer in Montalvo.

I warned the 10-year-old catcher that I’m a lefty and he did a great job. The ump generously called a strike, giving me far more benefit of the doubt than most of my constituents usually do.

After the budget workshop, I traveled – along with most of the other councilmembers – to Community Presbyterian Church for a memorial service for the beloved Hank Brokaw, who with his wife Ellen founded Brokaw Nursery at just about the same time as the Montalvo Little League was founded.

Around City Hall, Hank was best known as the father of our community services director, Elena Brokaw. So it’s a little easy for us to forget that Hank – who grew up in Whittier, went to Harvard, and studied cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago – was one of the true pioneers in the Southern California avocado business. Among other things, Brokaw Nursery revolutionized the avocado rootstock business in the 1970s, helping the industry to grow. Hank and Ellen have truly been mainstays in the agricultural community here in Ventura County, and Ellen continues to have more dedication and energy to agriculture and its people than anyone I know.

My heart goes out to Ellen and her children and grandchildren, but this sad event was also a kind of a celebration of one man’s wonderful life and also the industry that is so deeply rooted, one might say, in our community.

Finally I stopped by Barnes & Noble to pick up Glenda Jackson’s new book, Ventura Then and Now, which has just come up from Arcadia Publishing.

I’m sure many of you have purchased some of Glenda’s previous books about the history of Ventura. This one’s got terrific photographs comparing historic and current buildings and locations throughout Ventura. I really like flipping through the book to see not only the contrast between then and now, but also the change and growth in our community over the decades. Thanks to Glenda for continuing to care about our history.

All in all, a pretty wonderful Saturday afternoon in Ventura.