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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Closing the Circle: Examining City Employee Contributions in 2008 City Council Elections

In my field of study, Political Science, researchers often work with intricate and complex mathematical models to determine the link between campaign contributions and public policy. The search for influence was often muddled by preexisting partisan and philosophical ties between interest groups and public policy makers. Part of the complexity also arises from the large number of contrary interests pressing policy makers in seemingly opposite directions. In some ways, the pattern in local politics seems much more simple.

As Rich Rifkin pointed out in several columns leading up to the 2008 city council election, there is really only one group of public employees that was active in the council elections--the firefighters. Indeed in our examination of the Form 460 (Campaign Statements from the City Council Candidates), we find only a few very small contributions from city employees who are not firefighters. A Davis Police Officer and head of the Davis Police Officer Association made small contributions to incumbents Stephen Souza and Don Saylor, and the union itself made only a $100 contribution to candidate Sydney Vergis.

Compare that to the enormity of the contributions from the Davis Professional Firefighters Local 3494 and you see any influence is quickly dwarfed.

In the chart below you will see contributions by Local 3494 members cross-referenced with their 100K Club ranking. In the image below you only see top 20 members of the 100K Club. If you click on the link below you can see the entire list along with their city of residence. Thanks to Rich Rifkin for help with some of the data, along with yet another public records request from the city of Davis.

The direct contributions total $12,000 to exactly three candidates--Incumbents Stephen Souza and Don Saylor and challenger Sydney Vergis. They are contributed in increments of $100 per Davis campaign finance regulations that limit individual contributions to $100 per person, per campaign cycle. The members of the Local 3494 union have found a way to bundle the money in an effort to increase their influence. This is part of the complaint against them in the Yolo County Grand Jury report.

As we know however from the campaign, direct contributions are not the end of the story. Independent Expenditure Committees in Davis must report their activity in the California Form 496 and their committee is required to fill out Form 450. Unlike direct contributions, there is no limitation in terms of their spending activities. Thus as we know, the Davis Firefighters launched two different IEs in favor of their preferred candidates. According to their filing from May 12, 2008, the Davis Firefighters spent $6070.46 on the Print and Design of the brochure featured in the link above. For the entire six month period ending on June 30, 2008, they report $8245.63 which includes expenditures on a door hanger they report as $373.03 per candidate.

The combination of direct contributions and independent expenditures totals over $20,000 for the period. A reported spending that actually seems a bit on the low side.

Nevertheless, this expenditure is in fact unique for city employees in Davis. No other group of employees have organized in this manner to attempt to influence the city council election outcome. And from past elections, we know that this is not unique.

The question now comes to what exactly this influence buys the Davis Professional Firefighters. Here we revisit our findings from the 100K Club of Davis article.

As we see from these charts, the Davis Firefighters emerge as the "top dawgs" in terms of both base salary and salary plus overtime...

The first chart shows that the Davis Fire Department makes the highest average base salary of any Davis city department outpacing the City Manager's Office by a good $15,000 and outpacing their fellow public safety department, the police, by over $20,000.

However, that advantage increases tremendously when overtime salaries are factored in. Even, given the fact that roughly 17% of the overtime salaries are reimbursed by the state of California, these statistics show that by far, the Davis Firefighters are the best paid workers in the city. And again, it is not even close.

Here you can see their overall slice of the pie, just looking at base salaries.

And what we discovered yesterday is that even with respect to other locales in the county, the city of Davis' employee scales are skewed.

Where does that leave us? Unfortunately it leaves us right where we started--an unsustainable situation for the city of Davis where the rising cost of employee salaries are threatening to throw the city's budget out of whack.

So we end this circle where we began--the Davis tax revenue has not kept up with the rising cost of employee salaries. We spent a good deal of time this spring talking about pensions--the cost of pensions for the city of Davis was just $900,000 in 2000-01, this year it's almost $6 million. And the bubble of retirements with the current 3% at 50 arrangement have not hit yet.

What is the cost of these rising expenditures, one needs to look no further than the front page of yesterday's Davis Enterprise for the answer. In there was an article about the inability to repair some of the Davis bikeways because the city lacks the funding. This by itself is a safety hazard. People talk about the fact that the fire department is responsible for protecting lives--there is no doubt that is true, even if the actual number of fires is fairly low compared to other service calls. However, as I have stated before it is unclear to me that we are less safe paying folks a strong wage of say $70,000 compared to a wage of $109K. It is less clear to me that we are more safe now, unable to pay for crucial road and other infrastructure repairs than we would be paying the firefighters a bit less, and keeping the overtime under control.

What the city calls unmet needs is really a budget deficit. It is a deficit between what the city needs to spend and what it can spend. And unmet needs are insidious. Failure to make repairs now, means more expensive repairs later. Failure to make repairs now means possible safety concerns down the line. The pattern here is quite clear. The residents of Davis who are concerned about taxation, need to watch this much more closely. The residents here concerned about quality of services need to watch this more closely as well. At some point, the city will need to figure out a way to finance this and it means taxation, development, and possibly cutback on services.

Stay tuned to future Vanguard articles as we explore other aspects of the city council finance records.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting