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Friday, February 27, 2009

Heystek Joins Vanguard's Call Against New Taxes without Reform

Back on February 3, the Vanguard made a bit of splash by invoking the spirit of Bush I circa 1988, saying "Read My Lips... No New Taxes."

In truth, despite how it sounded, it was not a declaration against taxes, or even new taxes. It was suggestion that Davis gets its fiscal house in order.

The city of Davis faces both a rare crisis and a rare opportunity. Right now, the city faces in the short term an economic downturn which has led to a loss of tax revenue. This situation calls for short-term budget cuts. However, the city has longer term structural deficit problems, it's facing a crisis of unmet needs, it's facing a problem of runaway top employee salaries, a pension problem, and an unfunded liability problem.

Those problems existed before the current economic crisis, but ironically the current economic crisis gives us a glimmer of an opportunity to get our fiscal house in order.

This economic crisis has already caused the city of Davis to scale back on its original plans to fix the longer term problem with new taxation. Instead, they are looking to manage the economic situation by renewing the current taxes.

As the Vanguard wrote on February 3, it has become
"clear that neither the council nor city staff wanted to raise or impose any new taxes in the near future to solve the city's growing problem of unmet needs. While I agree with that approach, it does not solve the city's problems either in the short term or the long term.

Instead they have suggested that they will simply place the current taxes back on the ballot. That would include an extension of the Parks Tax, which is a parcel tax requiring two-thirds vote and an extension of the half-cent sales tax."
The Vanguard took the position that even this renewal of taxes would be opposed unless the city gets their fiscal house in order in part through restructuring employee contracts and pensions.

At Tuesday night's Davis City Council Townhall Meeting, the Vanguard's call was heeded by Councilmember Lamar Heystek. In January, a similar townhall meeting drew 30 members of the public, at least. This time the meeting was poorly attended. Just three members of the public attended as opposed to huge amounts of city staff including all of the department heads.

Councilmember Heystek told the council and city staff that he would oppose the renewal of the new taxes unless the city dealt with the fiscal problem and new employee contracts in a responsible manner.

His announcement seemed to stun city staff who immediately took notice. The City Council is not directly involved in employee negotiations, although they do approve the final contracts. However, Mr. Heystek believed it was the only leverage he had.

Two of his concerns are asking city employees to take more responsibility for their post-employment benefits. In addition, the city should re-examine the method by which we deliver services such as fire.

The Vanguard earlier this week demonstrated that the city's costs for fire are disproportionate to our service calls. A situation the begs for a restructuring of fire staffing. The Vanguard is fully committed to insure that there is no loss of service or response time, but believes alternative and less costly models can and should be applied to improve our fiscal responsibility.

Right now that appears to be several changes the city can make to the structure of contracts that would contain city costs:
  1. Hold the line on top employee salaries
  2. Short term hold the line on all employee salaries during the economic crisis, in the future bring them up only as far as inflation takes us.
  3. Restructure the pension system by increasing employee contributions especially at the top end and moving it from "pay as you go" to full funding.
  4. Look into cost containment for health coverage
All of these would need to be done with collective bargaining agreement. The alternative to restructuring the pension system would be to create a two-tiered system. The bargaining units could make the decision as to which is more beneficial.

Now that Councilmember Heystek has pressed for the city to engage in strong negotiations, hopefully other members of council will follow. Councilmember Sue Greenwald has long been outspoken in terms of wanting to reign in the contracts and pensions of the highest paid employees and upper-management.

Once again it is important to emphasize that this is not an effort to put down either the average city employee or employee unions. The job of an employee union is to get the best possible contract for their respective bargaining unit. It is the job of the city however to be an effective counter to that weight. They represent the interests of the voters and the taxpayers. When one particular unit uses their political muscle and resources to elect favorable councilmembers while the other units do not engage in overt politicking the system begins to breakdown.

As we saw with the Grand Jury report in January, the impact of throwing $30,000 or more into a political race can be decisive in the actions a council is willing to take. Even the Mayor who has been outspoken in favor of fiscal responsibility wilted under the pressure of her backers back in January.

This will thus be a long and difficult fight, but Councilmember Heystek's actions on Tuesday put the city staff on notice that business as usual will result in a less than unanimous endorsement of their current policies.

The Vanguard urges other members of the council particularly Mayor Asmundson to quickly follow suit.

---David M. Greenwald reporting