Friday, September 23, 2011

The Realities of Ventura's Compensation

A couple of weeks ago in a letter to the VC Reporter, Ventura resident Meryl Wamhoff lambasted the City for a variety of supposed fiscal sins, including overcompensating executives, saddling Ventura taxpayers with the cost of Bell's egregious fiscal shenanigans, and not looking at ways to cut compensation in order to balance the budget. Unfortunately, Mr. Wamhoff's letter was incorrect on many counts. Here's the letter I wrote to the VCeporter (published this week) in response:

To The Editor:

Meryl Wamhoff’s letter lambasting reporter Shane Cohn for his perspective on government and taxes (“Just another liberal reporter…,” Letters, Sept. 1) certainly brought a provocative viewpoint to your pages. Unfortunately, Wamhoff was inaccurate in the claims he made about the city of Ventura. (“Tale of two taxes,” News, 8/11)

First, Wamhoff claims the taxpayers in Ventura will be footing part of the bill for the outrageous pensions of two top city of Bell employees, each of whom worked in Ventura early in their careers. This is not true, partly because of a proactive approach by the city of Ventura.

Ventura, along with other cities the pair subsequently worked for, supported a bill in the Legislature — almost certain to be signed by the governor in the next few weeks — that will force Bell, not Ventura or other cities, to foot the bill for their inflated pensions.

As it turns out, CalPERS, the state retirement agency, has already taken action to slash the pensions that were estimated in early press accounts. Instead of getting $411,000 a year, former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams will receive $268,000 — admitted, still a huge number but far less than it otherwise would be. Former Bell Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, who worked for Ventura in the 1980s, had her pension reduced from an estimated $250,000 per year to $43,000 per year.

Secondly, Wamhoff asserts that Ventura “overcompensates its public employees.” In fact, however, Ventura’s pay scales are much lower than surrounding jurisdictions, such as the cities of Oxnard and Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara County. City Manager Rick Cole makes $172,000 a year in base salary, which is about $60,000 less than his counterparts in Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, and $100,000 less than the city manager of Oxnard. City Attorney Ariel Calonne makes about $190,000 a year, which his $30,000-$40,000 less than most of his counterparts around the county. Both recently took a 7 percent pay cut to contribute to their pension costs. So Wamhoff is wrong in asserting that we “never once considered that the compensation packages for these bureaucrats are too generous.” It was the first thing we considered and we acted on it.

This same pay difference is true up and down the organization. I really appreciate the loyalty and dedication of our city employees, but we frequently lose them to Thousand Oaks, Oxnard and Santa Barbara County, all of which pay 10-20 percent more than Ventura does. Over time, this could cause Ventura to become a “farm team” for these other jurisdictions — something that will surely harm our city government’s ability to get the job done, and something I believe no one in Ventura wants.

Wamhoff is right to be concerned about the compensation and retirement obligations of government agencies these days. It is a major concern to all of us in public life. And I understand that if Wamhoff believes the compensation of all government employees generally is too high, then he’s likely to think that Ventura pays too much no matter what the pay scale is.

It is wrong, however, to single out Ventura as an example of government’s financial problems, when we have worked much harder than other jurisdictions to be both moderate and fair in our approach to compensation and retirement.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

City Council Candidate Forums Coming Up!

Here's information about all the City Council candidate forums:

1.Thursday, September 22: Social Services Task Force, 6:30 pm, Ventura Church of Christ, 5401 Bryn Mawr.

2. Wednesday, September 28: Mobile Homeowners, 2 pm. Marina Mobile Home Park, 1215 Anchors Way Clubhouse

3. Wednesday, September 28: Westside Community Council, 7 pm. EP Foster School, 20 Pleasant Place.

4. Tuesday, October 4: VCCOOL, 6 pm., WAV Gallery, 175 S. Ventura Ave.

5. Wednesday, October 5: San Buenaventura Foundation for the Arts, 6:30 pm., Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St.

6. Tuesday, October 11: League of Women Voters, 7 pm, Poinsettia Pavilion, 3451 Foothill Road

7. Thursday, October 13: Midtown Community Council, 7 pm, Grace Church (Cooper Hall) 65 s. Macmillan Ave.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The New CMH: Key To Our Quality of Life -- And Our Prosperity

A few weeks ago I came into the mayor’s office on a Monday morning and found a huge stack of pretty intimidating documents to sign. They were, of course, the papers authorizing the city to work with Community Memorial Hospital to sell $350 million in bonds – to be paid back by CMH’s revenues, not by the city’s taxpayers -- in order to finance the enormous expansion and upgrade now underway at the hospital’s site in Midtown.

If you’ve ever bought a house or a car, you know that nothing focuses the mind like signing your name to a bunch of documents. But when the bonds went on the market, they were sold in a matter of minutes and – as the mounds of dirt near the hospital attest – construction has begun. Last Wednesday night, I was proud to participate in a moving groundbreaking featuring 14 speakers – patients, doctors, nurses, volunteers, construction workers – whose lives have been changed by their association with CMH. The whole experience has reinforced for me the notion that CMH is a cornerstone of our community – not only our qualify of life but our prosperity as well.

The CMH expansion is probably the biggest construction project we will ever see in Ventura. (By contrast, the Pacific View Mall expansion back in 2000 was about $100 million.) It may also be the most important. Although the expansion was driven by state law requiring hospitals to retrofit their buildings for seismic safety, CMH has gone far beyond that goal. The expansion will actually allow CMH to serve as one of the most important drivers of our community’s prosperity and well-being for decades to come, in three different ways.

  1. High-quality medical care

Between CMH and Ventura County Medical Center, we in Ventura already have extraordinarily high-quality medical care already. These two institutions have strong connections to great medical schools at UCLA and USC, and each specializes in different aspects of medical care. But the new CMH will be a huge leap beyond the status quo – private rooms, a 35-bed emergency room, a serene garden in which to walk and heal, and a state-of-the-art medical facility that will be as good as any of its size in the United States. Thanks to this expansion, all of us in Ventura can be assured of great medical care for the rest of our lives.

2. High-quality jobs

Obviously, CMH currently provides hundreds of good-paying jobs for people who live and work in Ventura – doctors, nurses, technicians of all kinds, and on and on. But the new CMH creates a whole net set of opportunities that hold the potential to create spinoff businesses and great jobs for decades to come. Over the past few years in Ventura, we have put a great deal of effort into pinpointing and focusing on growth sectors of the economy – most of which have an important technology components. For example, our Ventura Ventures Technology Center has focused on emerging web-oriented businesses spilling out of Santa Barbara. Another sector we must focus on is biotechnology, and the new CMH can help us become more competitive. The biotech sector in Ventura County is strong – after all, Amgen is the largest private company in the county and one of the largest biotech companies in the world – and we in Ventura are currently missing out on important spinoff opportunities there. By using part of the old hospital building to create wet lab space and other facilities for startups, CMH can help Ventura kickstart our biotech sector. CMH can also serve as a testbed for clinical trials – thus combining the best of research and clinical work, which are both required to develop and test new products, build companies, and create good jobs. This opportunity is often overlooked in talking about the CMH expansion, but I can’t emphasize how important it is to our community’s long-term prosperity.

  1. Midtown revitalization

CMH has long been an anchor in Midtown’s “Five Points” neighborhood, as the hospital’s employees and visitors have patronized businesses and thus helped the neighborhood economy. In planning for the new hospital, CMH has done an amazing job of collaborating with the city and the neighborhood to create an expansion that is sensitive to the neighborhood (there was no neighborhood opposition) and will strengthen Midtown’s business base. A new parking garage will be created collaboratively by the hospital to serve both CMH and businesses on Main Street. Most important, CMH will now serve not just as the economic anchor. . The new hospital will be oriented toward Main Street with a lovely plaza. CMH will surrender its Brent Street address and replace it with a Main Street address. A plaza and new pedestrian connections will link the hospital to Main Street. CMH has worked hard to help make Five Points in Ventura’s “Second Downtown” – a well-planned and pleasant employment district that will have strong retail businesses benefiting everyone in town.

I have to admit that when I was first elected to the City Council eight years ago, I didn’t think much about the importance of Community Memorial Hospital. Like most people, I thought about the effect it has had on my lives – the many emergency room visits, the times my mother was treated there (and eventually she passed away there), and so forth. But in world where competition for prosperity is tough, every community has to identify its greatest assets and learn how to make the most of them. CMH is one of our greatest assets – and I am very grateful to CEO Gary Wilde and everyone else for all the hard work they have put in. I wouldn’t have missed the groundbreaking for the world. And I hope to be there for the grand opening in a couple of years – so we can see just how much a better CMH means a better Ventura.