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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

City Now Facing Crisis of "Unmet Needs"

The Davis Enterprise on Monday ran a story entitled, "When to tax?" The general thrust of the story is two-fold. First, the city has a growing deficit of $1.2 million followed by as much as $3 million the next year.

On the other hand, the city has a long list of "unmet needs."

The city staff report for tonight's budget workshop says:
"While the growing list of unmet needs – both one-time and recurring – remains a significant concern, current economic and budgetary realities suggest that emphasis should be placed on securing existing revenues over seeking new revenue sources that could, potentially, jeopardize revenues relied upon to provide existing City services."
The general idea at this point, and it was shared by Finance Director and Assistant City Manager Paul Navazio, is that the city recognizes at this time that hey cannot ask for additional revenues. Last year they were proposing and exploring a number of new taxes to deal with some of the growing list of unmet needs. However, that is largely off the table now.

The staff report reads:

"At this time, staff is suggesting that the highest priority related to future ballot measures should be the renewal of the ½ Sales Tax (Measure P), approved by the voters in June 2004, with a 6-year sunset provision. This measure currently provides roughly $3 million in General Fund revenues to the City.

Secondly, priority should be given to options for renewing or replacing the Parks
Maintenance Tax (Measure G), which was re-authorized by the voters in June 2006, with a 6-year sunset provision. This measure provides roughly $1.3 million in dedicated funding in support of park maintenance activities. In the past, some concerns have been expressed over the appropriateness of assessing this tax on the basis of a flat $49 tax on parcels within the City. Staff has previously been directed to explore alternative funding mechanisms, to the point where the text of Measure G provides that the measure would be repealed in the event that the City secures an alternative means of funding parks maintenance activities."
In other words, right now the city will be focusing on renewing rather than expanding the existing revenue base. That puts a tremendous strain on city resources and city services. One of the keys will be the round of negotiations that the city has to engage in this year with most of the city employees' bargaining units.

There will be a tremendous pressure on the city and the bargaining units to simply punt on these negotiations. Meaning that they would simply negotiate the same agreement as before and extend the current contract. The hope by the employees would be that in a year or two the economy will have improved and then they can negotiate a better contract.

However, many recognize that the current trajectory is not sustainable. At some point we will have fuller discussion of the retirement system, but the strain on PERS may necessitate changes in who funds the retirement pensions and the breakdown of employee payments to employer payments into PERS.

The city at this time would be better holding fast to the negotiations and go to the mat for changes even if that process takes two years and requires a de facto rather than a de jure extension of the current contract.

From our standpoint the biggest problem right now are the growing list of unmet needs. The growing list was concerning last year. The fact at that point was that the city separated this list of needs from the budget, meaning that it appeared we had a fund balance with a reserve. But that fund balance was an illusion. It belied the fact that the city lacked the resources to meet these needs.

These needs include infrastructure upgrade and repair, basic road maintenance, and a whole host of other short and long term needs. Allowing these to go unaddressed means more cost down the line.

Now the city finds itself in an operating budget deficit that will grow to large proportions in the next two fiscal years. The city cannot rely on the taxpayers to pay more during these very difficult economic times. So the city is in a real jam.

The city has really put itself into a tight place by being overly generous with salary increases and retirement pensions that occurred during better economic times. The city lacks the revenue now to be able to address serious needs and they also recognize that the taxpayers lack the resources and probably the inclination to vote for tax increases during these challenging fiscal times.

Where does that leave the city? We will have to watch as the council tries to grapple with these kinds of issues. It would have helped if a year ago, the council had been more upfront about the tenuous nature of the city's fiscal situation it was touting during the council elections of 2008.

The Vanguard has been warning about this impending problem for some time. The council is just now considering looking into it.

---David M. Greenwald reporting