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Monday, December 15, 2008

Analysis: Further Examining Davis' Financial Situation

One of the issues came up last week with regards to the Budget discussion, was that of sales tax revenue. As a result, I wanted to look at total revenue for Davis per capita in comparison to other cities in region.

Assistant City Manager Paul Navazio provided me with that data, the only downside to it is that it is 2006 data from the State Controller's report. The upside is that it has a pretty good list of comparison cities, so it provides a pretty good picture and frankly I am not certain that much has changed in terms of rank order.

As one can see from the first slide here, the city of Davis is near the bottom in general fund revenue of the comparison cities. What is interesting is that cities like Vacaville, Chico, and Fairfield that have tremendously expanded their sales tax base in recent years by building a number of strip malls with big box stores, are almost identical in terms of general fund revenue (granted we are not looking at sales tax alone). Councilmember Greenwald's point is not far off that Vacaville does not have a tremendous difference.

Some have suggested that if we simply had a larger tax base, we would be in better financial shape right now. The problem is that larger tax base would mean more expenditures by the city. And once the economy reduces the revenue, the cities have found themselves in a deficit. And yes, I understand that cities should exercise greater degrees of fiscal responsibility, but the fact is they do not. Cities with greater revenue in fact are facing larger problems with the economic downturn.

The second point is really what I was trying to get at last week. Yes, Davis has lower sales tax revenues that other locales, but Davis is actually in a lot better shape that many other cities in terms of budget deficit.

Part of the reason for that is that more general fund revenue also means more general fund expenditures.

Now the expenditure data comes with a large caveat as Paul Navazio explained in his email to me. Basically no two cities are identical for purposes of this type of comparison. Some cities, for example, provide library services, paramedic transport, public health, etc. Very few cities operate there own water and sewer utility, whereas Roseville operates its own electric utility, some cities operate their own Housing Authority, etc. Navazio removed capital program expenditures, that will reduce the expenditures for some cities, for some reason Roseville is coming to mind, but it enables us to better gauge spending on comparable terms.

Based on these data, I make two more general points. First, with regards to city employee salaries--and the biggest concern there is going to be both retirement and rising health costs. Davis has seen as we have presented in the past a meteoric rise in employee salaries over just the eight years in this decade. Total compensation to city employees rose from just over $27 million in 2000-01 to just under $50 million in 2007-08, which is an increase of $21.7 million over an eight year period.

At the same time, tax revenues have not kept up. That is a big concern.

Part of that has been driven by the need to compete with neighboring communities for quality employees. That is indeed a concern and it is one that we need to take into consideration. In fact, as Paul Navazio showed in October, Davis is in fact in better condition than it's neighbors in terms of city salaries. The problem is that we have still seen a large rise.

Last week the Davis Enterprise surprisingly called for greater transparency in the salary contract process. They in fact, questioned the practice of using recent labor agreements from other nearby communities as benchmarks to help determine Davis' wages and benefits in an effort to remain competitive.
"Unfortunately, some of our neighbors have been overly generous and, like lemmings, we have followed them over the cliff's edge."
That's actually a pretty good description and so I respectfully have to disagree with the conclusions the city made back in October that simply because we are somewhat better off than our neighbors is not a rationale to continue the same policies that will lead more cities to bankruptcy such as Vallejo has faced.

A final point, I want to make here is that I actually agree that we should expand our sales tax revenue. I see that as a longer term solution to the city's budget. That is a prime reason I now oppose residential development on a 100 acre parcel of land that is currently zone for light industrial uses. It is the largest remaining parcel within the city limits so zoned and it would be a mistake to take that out of the market.

One of the things we are learning is that the Lewis Properties much like the owners of Westlake, never really marketed the property for business uses. The result is that while they claim there has been no interest, they have not actually tested that theory, and in fact, if that site were to be marketed there seems to evidence that there is some considerable interest just as there are grocers who apparently want to come to Westlake.

While there are considerable differences between Davis and San Luis Obispo, one of the things I have looked at is their model for economic development. In terms of residential development, San Luis Obispo has almost not grown since 1990. I think the population in 1990 was around 42,000 and now it's around 44,000. What they have done is develop their economic base. I would like to see some of that in Davis.

As I have stated in the past, I am generally opposed to the kind of big box retail companies like Target or Wal Mart. In part, I think they are inefficient producers of tax revenue, often taking more resources out of a location than they bring in. Moreover, from a long term perspective, their policies are not sustainable. We need to move in a different direction.

I think as Councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza expressed pretty eloquently at the previous council meeting during the discussion on Lewis-Cannery, there is a huge and growing green technology industry. Davis is primly situated to take advantage of that. As Councilmember Greenwald suggested, we have missed out on past booms such as the one. We should not miss out on the green technology boom.

I would also like to see us expand some into retail, but I would prefer smaller and more sustainable types of business other than big box.

If we are smart and innovative, we can make a lot of the kinds of changes that we want without sacrificing the character of our community. Obviously there are some on this blog who do not give a darn about that and in fact want to get rid of that. One wonders why they have chosen to live if here if they dispise it so much. However, I think these people are in the very small minority of the populace in Davis who have repeatedly voted to continue relatively slow growth and strongly environmental principles. Many of these people are the same who derided Measure W and we found out that those people were in the very small minority of Davis residents. For much of Davis, the challenge is how to expand our base without sacrificing what makes Davis, Davis. How do we grow without becoming like Fairfield and Vacaville.

---David M. Greenwald reporting