ventura water

Ventura Water Has A Wonderful Opportunity To Be More Transparent

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

— George Bernard Shaw

 

In Ventura, the city staff uses the Brown Act to do precisely the opposite of what lawmakers created it to do.

The California Brown Act guarantees the public’s right to attend and take part in meetings of local legislative bodies. Legislators designed it to end “back room” deals and bring local government out into the open. Ventura Water uses it to throttle the flow of information instead.

Oversight By The Water Commission

Ventura established a Water Commission to advise Ventura Water.  The Commission is to review and make recommendations about:

  • Water rates
  • Water resources infrastructure projects
  • The integrated water resources management plan
  • Water supply options
  • The Urban Water Management Plan approval process
  • A water dedication and in-lieu fee requirement
  • Other water resource issues

Before the Commission, Ventura Water operated with little oversight. Even with the Water Commission, it continues to control all meeting agendas and minutes. At best, this restricts the flow of information to the City Council. At worst, information flow is non-existent. The City Council doesn’t receive any meaningful information that may help with their future choices.

Here is how Ventura Water does things today:

  • Ventura Water’s General Manager and the City Attorney make and approve all agendas. The Commission can only discuss agenda items at the meeting. Any deviation may violate the Brown Act.
  • The General Manager controls all minutes for all sessions. Minutes reports only action items, eliminating the record of any discussion.

Circumventing The Water Commission

Ventura Water forces the City Council to get their information from the General Manager. Thus bypassing the entire reason the city established the Water Commission.

Rarely does Ventura Water share the discussion on relevant topics—if ever. Debates over issues are not reviewed or scrutinized. Important issues never enter the public record such as water quality, testing quality results, fees, costs, timelines, water capacity, water usage, what other agencies are proposing, and deposit account balances.

Because minutes show only action items, all discussions of issues are as though they never happened. So, when the City Council looks to the minutes for any records of problems or concerns, the minutes are no help. Nor are they sufficiently transparent to Ventura’s citizens.

Communicating Clean Water Safety Violations

Ventura Water deals with a water system that impacts all Ventura citizens directly. In August 2018, the department violated the Federal Clean Water Safety standards. Ventura Water breached the Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) drinking water standard in August. The U.S. EPA regulates TTHM at a maximum allowable, annual, average level of 80 parts per billion. Any amount above 80 ppb results in harmful health effects over time. Ailments such as cancer and adverse reproductive outcomes can happen. Ventura Water has corrected the problem, but that’s not the issue.

At issue is how the utility communicated the problem and the solution.

Why You May Not Have Heard Of This

You may not have heard about the incident. It’s not because Ventura Water didn’t announce it. They did. Ventura Water fulfilled the letter of the law, but it may have missed the intent behind it. Meeting the legal requirement seems to be the minimum standard.  Yet setting the bar at the lowest level may place everyone’s health at risk in the future.

What wasn’t said is as important as what was said. Bathing in or cooking with the TTHM water was not mentioned, for instance.

Open communication is what builds trust with a public utility during a crisis. The TTHM violation happened in the Pierpont Area. Unless you live in the affected area, Ventura Water would not have contacted you by mail. Ventura Water notified the schools and nursing homes in the area. Schools and nursing homes informed the parents or residents at their discretion.

Ventura Water obeyed the “letter of the law,” but failed to respect the spirit of the law. They reported the incident to residents in the affected area by mail, posted it on their website, and took out an ad in the Ventura County Star.

Not The Only Incident In 2018

In July, Ventura Water withheld information from the Water Commission. A panel of experts examined Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) of treated wastewater. There are no quality standards or guidelines today. The experts found DPR (for drinking purposes) was a threat to public safety. The City Council did not know that. They were only alerted to that fact after private citizens brought it to their attention. The result was, the City Council decided not to use DPR as an alternative for now. Still, the staff soldiers on asking for large sums to build projects for DPR.

There are many laws to protect citizens and keep them informed about what happens in city government. When a government agency does the bare minimum but goes no further than the law requires, regardless of the impact and financial consequences, citizens mistrust it.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water needs to be more transparent. The City Council allows it to operate in secrecy and subterfuge. Stop. Ventura’s citizens deserve and expect open communication. Here’s what the Council should do:

First, make hiring the next General Manager a priority. Insist City Manager Alex McIntyre interview the Water Commissioners. He should do this without Water Department staff present. The goal is to get the knowledge and details of Ventura Water over the past fifteen years. He’ll gain the perspective to understand what lies ahead in the next six years.

Second, have the Water Commission’s Chairman set the meeting agendas, with input from all commissioners.

Third, ensure all Water Commission’s minutes reflect topics and discussions from all meetings.

Fourth, have the Water Commission Chairman provide a written report to the City Council on a quarterly basis.

Fifth, expand the communication channels Ventura Water uses to inform the public. Set the standard higher than the minimum legal standard.

Insist The City Council Makes Ventura Water More Transparent

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It Was The Best And Worst Of Times For Ventura In 2018

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”— Winston Churchill

Last year was a most transformational year in Ventura’s history. Every aspect of life in Ventura was affected. The city was in the national spotlight, twice. Leadership changed but at a high price. Old ways of doing business didn’t change, though. Overall, it was a year to remember.

December 2017

To understand 2018, you must appreciate December 2017 and the Thomas Fire. The fire destroyed 535 houses in Ventura. The city was the epicenter of the national news.

Thirteen months later, Ventura had the opportunity for the most significant economic stimulus since the oil boom but failed to capitalize on it. Rebuilding the homes will stimulate the local economy by $350 million. The only thing standing in the way of that economic windfall is the city.

What are the lessons we learned from the Thomas Fire? Good question. Thirteen months later we still don’t know that answer. The city has yet to produce a report on its findings. [Read More]

January 2018

The Montecito mudslides closed off transportation into and out of Santa Barbara along the 101. Many Venturans that work in Santa Barbara were unable to commute.

March 2018

The City Council waffles on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding Thomas Fire victims’ homes, delaying the rebuilding process and adding costs for many. [Read More]

April 2018

Jamal Jackson slays Anthony Mele, Jr. on Ventura’s promenade. Once again, the city was thrust into the national news.

Ventura Police increased patrols along the promenade. The City Council approved funds to continue the patrols. Arrests increased after the incident.

Post-incident, the Police department reviewed its procedures. There have been changes to the security camera monitoring as a result. The review also concluded the call was not improperly prioritized when it came in two and a half hours before the murder.

Since May, the community has returned to business as usual. [Read More]

June 2018

Ventura Police officers sign a new contract with a 5% pay increase. The timing of the announcement was questionable, but the contract was a fair one. [Read More]

July 2018

The City Council instructs Ventura Water to focus on connecting to State Water over Direct Potable Reuse (DPR). DPR takes recycled wastewater and injects it back into the drinking supply.

The City Council approves a $600,000 per year “roving” fire engine and three paramedics over the objections of Interim City Manager Dan Paranick. Ventura Fire hired two of the three paramedics before the Council approved the funding. [Read More]

September 2018

Ventura Water hires eight new positions. The City Council approved the department’s budget that included these positions. Ventura Water based that budget on Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) projects being the city’s top priority. When the Council realigned Ventura Water’s priorities in July, the department didn’t adjust its manpower requirements.

October 2018

Ventura Water begins installing new digital water meters. It is a $9 million project that will take three years to complete. The new meters allow more precise leak protection. The new meters also measure water usage more precisely. You can expect your water bill to be more accurate, too.

November 2018

Ventura held its first City Council elections by voting district. Lorrie Brown (District 6), Jim Friedman (District 5), Erik Nasarenko (District 4) and Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) won. The candidates raised a record amount of money, despite campaigning in districts instead of citywide. The cost-per-vote skyrocketed to win a seat from $2.75 per vote in the last election with an open position to a record-high $26.42. [Read More]

City Council Election

December 2018

Alex McIntyre starts as City Manager. He replaces Mark Watkins who resigned in November 2017. The city had operated with an interim-City Manager since January 2018. McIntyre comes to Ventura from Menlo Park where he was City Manager for six years.

Ventura’s new City Councilmembers are sworn in. The Council has four female members: Lorrie Brown (District 6), Cheryl Heitmann (District 7), Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) and Christy Weir (District 2). Ventura has its first female-majority City Council in history. It’s also the most diverse set of Councilmembers the city has ever had.

Wish The Councilmembers Good Luck In 2019

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program ready to write directly to that Councilmember.

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Proposition 218 Is The Fastest Way To Raise Money, But Is It Right?

 

“I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you’ve earned, but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Proposition 218

Ventura Water will push the boundaries of the law as it tries to use Proposition 218 to raise money to meet the Wishtoya Foundation Consent Decree.

In the next 12 months, Ventura Water will ask the City Council to increase water rates for 30 wastewater projects and 28 water projects by 2024. These costly projects will benefit some property owners. Other projects will help the community at large.

As of June 30, 2018, Ventura Water accumulated $115,000,000 for projects they planned to build between 2012-2018. Still, they need $449,586,000 more before 2024. How did we commit to spending almost $450 million, and why weren’t you asked to vote on it?

WHAT WILL THIS COST YOU?

These new rate increases will come on top of the increases imposed over the last six years. In 2012, Ventura Water wanted to increase rates to:

  1. Replacing aging pipelines and facilities
  2. Building projects to improve water quality
  3. Constructing new groundwater wells

In 2012 the average homeowner and family of 4, received a bi-monthly bill of $73.27 and sewer charges of $72.45 for a total of $145.72. That same family is paying $105.03 for water in 2018.  Add sewer charges of $104.64 and their total bill is $209.67.  This is a 43% increase over the 2012 rates.

From 2018-2024, expect a similar rate of growth. Your new water bill may look like this:Proposition 218

HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS SITUATION?

Propoosition 218In March 2012, the Ventura City Council signed a Consent Decree that requires Ventura Water to stop putting 100% of its treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary by January 2025. The decree stems from a Federal complaint filed by Wishtoya Foundation. Former City Manager, Rick Cole and Ventura Water General Manager, Shana Epstein, signed the consent decree on behalf of the city. The city no longer employs either of them.

Keep in mind that voters had no voice in the City Council consenting to the decree in 2012. Now, Ventura Water wants to deny voters the chance to say how we spend the money to meet the order, too. It plans to use Proposition 218 to get those funds.

HOW AND WHY CAN VENTURA INCREASE MY RATES?

So how can Ventura Water impose such large fees against its citizens without the traditional right to vote on such matters? The answer lies in how Ventura implements Proposition 218. Approved by the voters in 1996, Proposition 218 allows Ventura to raise money in one of three ways:

  1. General taxes. Those taxes used for general governmental purposes. Prop 218 requires the traditional voting procedure, notice, a ballot and an election measure. 51% of the voters must approve it. Ventura’s Measure O sales tax was one such example.
  2. Special Taxes. Any tax imposed for specific purposes and placed in a general fund. A Special Tax requires a 2/3 (66.67%) majority vote. The City sought this type of tax in 2009. It was Measure A on the ballot. It was a 1/2 cent sales tax for public safety and other specific projects. Monies would have been placed in the city’s General Fund. It failed.
  3. Special Assessments, Fees and Charges. Fees or charges means an assessment imposed as an incident of owning property which receives a unique benefit. The city can only impose such fees by affirmative voter approval. The exception being that prior voter approval is not required for “any assessment imposed exclusively to finance capital costs or maintenance and operation expenses for sidewalks, streets, sewers, water…”

VENTURA WATER TURNS A NON-VOTE INTO A YES VOTE

Ventura wants to use option C, Special Assessments, Fees and Charges to impose higher water rates.

Here’s how they’ll do it. Instead of putting it on the ballot, Ventura Water sends a water bill. Somewhere in the body of that bill, it tells you why the rate increase is necessary. You may dispute the rate increase by voting “NO” within 45 days, but the process is cumbersome. To disagree, you must download a protest form, complete and mail it or take it to City Hall by a specific date. Fail to jump over those hurdles and the City doesn’t care what you think or want. If 51% of the ratepayers have not voted ‘NO,’ that is the end of the matter. There are 32,000 ratepayers. Sixteen thousand one must vote NO to defeat an increase.

Proposition 218, now Article XIII C and D of the California Constitution, made the following findings:

         “The people of the State of California hereby find and declare that Proposition 13 was intended to provide effective tax relief and to require voter approval of tax increases.  However, local governments have subjected taxpayers to excessive tax, assessment, fee and charge increases that not only frustrate the purposes of voter approval for tax increases but also threaten the economic security of all Californians…This measure protects taxpayers by limiting the methods by which local governments exact revenue from taxpayers without their consent.”

When the City sought the last rate increase they took the position that they had the right to raise the rates without prior voter approval. They believed the procedures they followed were consistent with Prop 218 language, as interpreted by the California Supreme Court.  They maintain that they “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval” for anything they chose to label a water or wastewater project.

But it doesn’t end with this interpretation alone. A California Supreme Court challenge goes further.

TESTED IN THE COURTS

The California Supreme Court in Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil (2006)39 Cal.4th 205, at page 205, addressed the question of whether voters had the right to put an initiative on the ballot to reduce water rates. The court ruled in favor of the water agency and interpreted Prop 218’s language to mean a city “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval.”  The Court’s decision was specific. It didn’t involve the question of whether imposing fees to deal with a Consent Decree are valid.

Notwithstanding the protective measures of Prop 218, the City of Ventura conveniently interprets Prop 218 to still impose fees and charges beyond the simple costs of service to the homeowner. However, the court never went that far.

The City of Ventura’s interpretation of Proposition 218 is overreaching when it comes to any matter about water, wastewater and related environmental projects.

That decision by the Supreme Court only involved the issue of water delivery through a pipeline and whether voters could use an initiative process to require prior voter approval for the costs of that delivery.   It did not involve a question of whether fees imposed to deal with a $500 million water and wastewater projects together with environmental costs, expert studies, attorneys fees and a plethora of expenses arising out of a ConsentDecree decided by a City Council in 2012, and in which the voters had no voice.

What if the costs are not exclusively operational costs? What if the expenditures benefit the entire community, not just ratepayers? Does Proposition 218 apply in those circumstances? Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil does not answer these questions.

No Precedent For What They Plan To Do

In determining whether to seek prior voter approval, we hope that the new City Council will keep in mind the following the language from the Supreme Court in Bighorn case:

            “…the agency’s governing board may … raise fees or impose other fees and new fees without prior voter approval.  Although this power-sharing arrangement has the potential for conflict, we must presume that both sides will act reasonably and in good faith, and that the political process will eventually lead to compromises that are mutually acceptable and both financially and legally sound.”        (Emphasis added).

THE CITY MAY FACE A SERIOUS LEGAL CHALLENGE

If the City is considering rate increase of this magnitude without prior voter approval they should be mindful of the language in Prop 218. It provides that “in any legal action contesting the validity of an assessment, the burden is on the agency (Ventura Water) to demonstrate that the …properties in question receive a special benefit over the benefits conferred on the public at large…”

Complying with the Consent Decree by not putting wastewater into the Santa Clara River benefits all citizens, not just ratepayers.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water is proposing a mix of costly projects. Some will benefit property owners, and some will help the community at large. Building a pipeline and related infrastructure to import state water at the cost of $50 million benefits all property owners. Ratepayers generally accept this. Spending beyond that to build projects to satisfy a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology of the estuary is a problem.

Proposition 218 may not cover projects to meet a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology. We recommend a vote of the citizens in that instance.

Warn The City Council Of Ventura Water’s Potential Error

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program ready to write directly to that Councilmember.

Let then know that Venturans must vote on a water rate increase to pay for the consent decree. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

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Keeping an eye on the City Manager

Take Notice Of The New City Manager In The First 100 Days

“…Great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.”
—Voltaire

What’s next for Ventura with a new City Council and a new City Manager? Is Ventura better prepared to meet the challenges of 2019 and beyond? At the inception, the answer may be no. It takes time for city government to change course even if danger signals abound. Given time, however, there are many things to be hopeful about.

Ventura Welcomes A New City Manager

As of this week, Ventura’s new City Manager, Alex McIntyre, started his new position and will begin getting acquainted with staff, community leaders and the city at large.

New City ManagerMr. McIntyre is no stranger to managing municipalities so it goes without saying that he will become intricately familiar with Ventura’s budget and various legal agreements over the next few months. He begins his working relationship with a seven–member city council, two of which will be new and inexperienced.  He also will meet a notoriously entrenched bureaucracy.

Because the former City Manager, Mark Watkins, left the City Manager position in December 2017, Ventura has operated with interim city managers for 11 months. During that time, city employee turnover and vacancies has become problematic. One job site showed 55 City of Ventura job openings alone.

The first priority will be filling positions critical to providing departmental leadership, and in turn quality public services. Key positions, such as Public Works Director and Finance and Technology Director, will likely be filled by one of Mr. McIntyre’s own team members. Other key positions and new direction are badly needed in a community that is still struggling with the Thomas Fire rebuilding programs.

New City Manager can help with Thomas Fire rebuildingNotwithstanding assurances from the Community Director, after the Thomas fire disaster, the rebuilding process has not been smooth. Hundreds of citizens have been presented with inconsistences in building, planning and permits for Thomas Fire victims trying to rebuild and repair their homes. Then there are some homeowners who are concerned that any form of complaining will further delay the process but these same homeowners share many horror stories outside of City Hall.

As an example, while one planning checklist says that a Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing services report (MEP) is not required for homes under 3,000 sq. ft., Building and Safety has been known to request an MEP anyway. While maybe this request is made as an abundance of caution, it places long delays and huge costs and angst upon the fire victims. Another homeowner, who lost their home in Clear Point, remained upset that after the height allowance for 2 story homes was increased because of complains by homeowners, the height allowance for single story homes was decreased.

While these types of arbitrary decision can be appealed, an appeal process may take months or longer. For folks who just want to get past the nightmare and get back into their home, this is a cruel and harsh procedure. It is strongly suggested that the process be reviewed and a streamline. It is recommended that a 5 day appeal process be implemented to eliminate any bottlenecks in the building & safety and permit process.  This would be a good first step for our new City Manager.  Building confidence in his leadership is very important for the community.

A New City Council And A New City Manager

The next priority will be the education and training needed to help the new city council become fully familiar with city budgets, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), finances, the Casitas Water Agreement and various other legal agreements, protocols and procedures so future decisions will be based upon a good understanding of past city council actions.

Finally, getting a realistic handle on whether to now spend another $536 million on the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) projects, for new water and wastewater plants, within the timeframe mandated by the Wishtoya Foundation Consent Legal Decree, or extend the date for compliance of that agreement is extremely important.

Compliance with the current deadline of January 1, 2025, is likely improbable.   That 2025 deadline for compliance is looming, yet after 6 years of numerous biological studies, the State Water Board has still not made any decision on how much of the 9 million gallons per day of treated wastewater can continue to be released into the Santa Clara Estuary, or how much of that wastewater must be pumped and used for other purposes.

State experts have reported that Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) of wastewater is not safe for human consumption and further studies on the safe use of that water are not planned for another 3 years. Even if approved, the State of California will then have to develop and approve statewide standards.  When and if that happens, this would be followed by a complex EIR and State Water Board hearing process to determine specific standards for Ventura.

Nowhere in the U.S. have regulatory standards been approved for DPR.   Notwithstanding these hurdles, the majority of this past City Council has continued to march toward compliance by 2025, and continue to plan to raise water and wastewater rates to build projects for DPR.  It is obvious that the City of Ventura must take further action available through the Wishtoya Agreement.  Read the Consent Decree here.

In 2017, Ventura experienced one of the worst disasters in its history with the Thomas Fire. The city’s financial and human resources have been extended beyond its limits.  Add that to the burdens of a Federal Consent Decree agreed to in “private session” by the City Council in 2012, and our community faces real financial distress.  It is imperative that the City of Ventura take the legal steps now and direct the City attorney to petition the court to extend the implementation deadline until 2030 -2035.  The Consent Decree recognizes and permits that process in article 26.   Why the immediate past City Council has been dragging their feet on this issue is perplexing.  If there is a good reason, nobody is sharing it with those who matter – the citizens and rate payers.

Editors’ Comments

With great power comes great responsibility. The new City Council and City Manager bear the burden of facing daunting challenges. We hope they will be powerful enough to meet those challenges.

council candidates

Latest Exclusive Insider Advice For Council Candidates

 

council candidates“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

—Lewis Carroll

Details filling in for Council Candidates

Ask anyone what the pressing issues are facing Ventura; you’ll get a variety of answers. With the unprecedented departure of three serving City Councilmembers, this is an excellent time to get the perspectives of those who have served. Having interviewed the retiring Councilmembers and some former Council candidates, all point to several significant issues facing Ventura’s next City Council in the next few years.

For the first time in Ventura’s history, voting districts divide the city. The districting forced Mayor Neal Andrews and Councilmember Mike Tracy to retire. Councilmember Jim Monahan decided to retire after forty years of service. New Councilmembers will bring fresh perspective and energy to the Council. They also will face a steep learning curve to be effective.

Governing By Districts

City Council Candidates will serve by district

As citizens expect their elected officials to represent their district’s interests, concern for the city as a whole may take a backseat to districtwide issues. That can be a problem when the demands regarding traffic, housing, crime and services of the districts don’t mesh with the other districts’ views.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the first forum for District 1 candidates. Citizens expressed concern for a Westside pool, learning how governing by districts will work, affordable housing and labor force opportunities. Very few of these issues aligned with what the outgoing politicians thought was most important: 1) growth 2) water 3)homelessness and 4) staff accountability.

Governing by districts means inexperienced new Councilmembers will lead the city. Inexperience means two things. First, existing Councilmembers and city staff may marginalize them until they gain experience and knowledge. Second, the new City Manager and the city staff may take more control without voter accountability. Neither of these is good.

More distressing may be the loss of a citywide perspective on the Council. Wrangling for projects will probably intensify. It is likely that Westside swimming pool proponents will battle the Kimball Park proponents over who gets funding, for instance.

Re: Growth

council candidates

Growth meant different things to each interviewee. All agreed Ventura needed to grow. They also concurred that growth and water availability are inseparable. Each acknowledged the need for affordable housing but recognized the opposition to more houses (the NIMBYs). Forward progress on growth means accommodating, integrating and compromise.

The Solution is Sensible Growth

Growth and water are inseparable—you can’t have one without the other. The next City Council must forge a reasonable growth plan. The new Council will also have to convince the “no-growth” citizens that the city needs to grow to be vital. The Council should also call for the city staff to streamline current fees and permits practices.

Re: Water

Everyone acknowledged water was a concern. The specifics on how to address the issue varied widely, however. The solutions offered by those interviewed included the Heal the Bay Consent Decree, state water, direct and indirect potable reuse and drilling new wells. There was no clear direction.

Solutions for Better Water Management

water, council candidatesThe new City Council can take three steps to address water. First, they must request a modification to the Heal the Bay Consent Decree to extend the deadline for extracting wastewater from the estuary. Extending the deadline requires the Council to direct the City Attorney to act if Ventura is to avoid penalties for not complying.

Second, The Council must force Ventura Water to table Direct Potable Reuse (DPR). It is an expensive gamble. No State approved testing exists for DPR today and may not for 4-8 years. California anticipates establishing safe drinking water standards for DPR in 2024, but there are no guarantees they will meet that deadline. There’s no reason to proceed with an untested and unproven method that risks the public’s health.

Third, the Council must make Ventura Water more transparent. The goal is two-fold. Increase accountability within the department and increase communication to the public. As an example of poor communications, most of Ventura did not know of September’s safe drinking water breach. Ventura Water exceeded the Federal Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) levels. Bear in mind that elevated TTHM levels were the cause of the water issues in Flint, MI. Ventura Water met the minimum requirements for reporting the violation. They contacted the residents in the affected area but did not explain it to the rest of the city. They fulfilled the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. To date, they have not notified the public whether the TTHM levels have returned to acceptable levels.

Re: Homelessness

council candidatesHousing Ventura’s homeless was a high priority. Some thought affordable housing was the solution. Others mentioned the homeless shelter. Some interviewees distinguished between the mentally ill living on the streets and the vagrants. Each saw it as a countywide problem with Ventura as its nexus. The county jail and the psychiatric hospital are in Ventura, making the city a natural final destination for the homeless to stay. One interviewee described it as a “catch and release” program by the other cities into Ventura.

Consideration Toward Addressing Homelessness

The new Council should distinguish between criminal vagrants and those willing to accept help. We should be willing to help those who help themselves.

Re: City Staff Accountability

All the interviewees wanted more accountability from the city employees. Often the City Council gives the staff too much power to drive the dialog about, and the outcomes of, important issues. Several pointed to the lack of a City Manager contributing to the problem. Incoming City Manager, Alex MacIntyre, will need to address this issue.

Improving City Staff Accountability

council candidatesThe new Council needs to apply critical thinking and be willing to question all city staff reports and recommendations. To do so requires financial literacy. Each Councilmember must study the city budget and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).

Second, the Council should stop accepting mediocre performance from the staff. Stop praising the employees even when they don’t perform. In private, two of the three outgoing Councilmembers say low staff morale is the reason for the gratuitous praise. False praise is not an antidote for low morale, in any case. It may be detrimental to the top performers by cheapening the value of the kudos. The new City Manager should confront the staff morale issue.

Third, the new Council should scrutinize the expenditures on outside contractors. Last year, Ventura spent $30 million. They should be fiscally responsible and look for ways to cut these costs.

What Was Not On the List of Issues?

Pensions were surprisingly not on the list by any of those interviewed. Either they don’t understand the issue, or they feel it is a problem they cannot change, or the fallout from ignoring it is too far into the future.

How to Address Pensions

Pensions are the ticking time bomb nobody wants to discuss. They’re the political third rail issue that candidates ignore. Two years into this new administration, the CalPERS payments are going to balloon. It’s time for the city to acknowledge and admit that pensions will consume the Measure O tax increase by 2023. Forecast the anticipated CalPERS increases objectively. Provide the Council with the necessary information to make financial decisions.

Editors’ Comments

Pensions, council candidatesMany complex issues face Ventura. All City Council candidates need to be aware of the problems and have a plan to address them. We can’t rely on the candidates alone to be knowledgeable. It’s each person’s responsibility to be aware of the challenges before us. It’s equally important that each voter be confident that the candidates understand them. Only then do our elected officials represent us

Even though voting districts divide the city, our elected Councilmembers must represent the entire community. When deciding on issues, they must think about the city at large. The tendency will be to think about each Councilmember’s district first and the city second. Such a practice is unacceptable to a town of only 109,000 people. We must always remind our elected officials to think of the city before his or her district.

Keep these points in mind as you go to the polls in November

New Council Candidates Will Replace Departing Councilmembers

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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You Have Reasons To Be Concerned About Ventura’s Pensions

“Courage Cannot Be Counterfeited. It Is One Virtue That Escapes Hypocrisy”

—Napoleon Bonaparte

Pensions

The City of Ventura has a spending problem, and it’s time for an intervention. The fiscal crisis is not widely understood. At its core are the promised unfunded pensions for public employees.

Ventura’s pension contributions for 2018 are $17,410,000. The annual contributions will balloon to $32,630,000 by 2025. That’s a compound annual growth of 9.4%. No other expense item in the US economy is growing that fast. As of 6-30-15, the entire unfunded liability for the City of Ventura is over $169.2 Million ($169,292,212). It is not possible to get out of the CalPERS retirement plan. As of 6-30-15, to terminate the CalPERS plan would costs $1.2 Billion ($1,197,537,902).

Ventura is not alone. Cities up and down the state must face up to the problem. However, Ventura’s pensions are a debt time bomb.

PensionsVentura is already paying 34 cents to CalPERS for every dollar it pays its active employees. In six years, that amount will go up to an unsustainable 51 cents for every dollar of payroll—more than any city in Ventura County. Pensions are already crowding out other essential city services like filling potholes, fixing infrastructure and even hiring more police officers and firefighters.

How Pensions Affect You Directly

Pensions

Pensions Will Crowd Out Needed City Services

Expect senior programs and after-school activities to disappear first. Next, the city will defer maintenance and capital

expenditures. The city will extend service contracts for police cruisers, city vehicles, and equipment. These things represent only a fraction of Ventura’s budget. Reductions in services will never be enough to stop the detonation of the pension debt bomb.

Ventura can only fix the problem by raising taxes, cutting needed services, or both. There is a direct correlation between the money Ventura spends on pensions and the city’s ability to pave streets and repair sewers.

Reckless Spending Continues

Despite knowing this, Ventura’s City Councilmembers increase spending without regard to the long-term consequences.

Pensions

The Roving Fire Truck Crew Adds To Ventura’s Pensions

Last month, the Council voted 4-2 to give the fire department $600,000 for a roving paramedic fire engine. City staff, the fire department and the fire union proudly pointed out grants and budget manipulation will pay the first year expense. No one on the Council asked what happens in year two and beyond. Fire Chief David Endaya asserted Ventura needs the engine because of an increase in calls. Yet he lacked specifics about whether there are more cost-effective ways to deliver the services.

To their credit, Councilmembers Mike Tracy and Christy Weir voted “No.” They wanted more details. Nonetheless, the Ventura Fire Department got its new engine, even though no one gave adequate data to support the decision.

Interim City Manager Dan Paranick did not recommend funding the roving engine for this year. Paranick worked with Fire Chief Endaya, but in the end, he said, “I haven’t gotten myself to a place where I’ve been comfortable yet, where I could sit here and justify the need based on the demand. That’s why I did not recommend it.”

Days later, he announced his resignation to accept a position closer to his home in Simi Valley.

The Fire Department isn’t the only group benefiting from the spendthrift City Council. Earlier this year, the police received pay increases of 5% adding to the city’s future pension liability.

In 2017, 90 of the top 100 salaries on the city payroll are police officers and firefighters. Every one of the Top 100 earns more than $198,800 in pay and benefits. For perspective, the average family in Ventura earns $66,000 per year with two wage earners.

Pensions

In reality, Ventura pays pensions for 3.3 retired police and fire employees for every two public safety employees on the job. That’s untenable.

So how is the Ventura City Council managing spending, and considering the long-term financial effect of their decisions? In short, they’re not.

Elected officials first believed the extra $10.8 million collected from Measure O would afford them the ability to meet new programs. But, Measure O is now a supplement to existing projects. Councilmembers frequently discuss the need for tax increases.

Moreover, it is not only about pensions.

  • According to the Capital Improvement Plan (CPI), Ventura Water Department insists on spending $538 million to convert wastewater into drinkable tap water. There remains the probability that water rates will increase by 200%.
  • Ventura’s golf courses lose $1.7 million annually on the debt they incurred.

When the money runs out, it has forced other cities to find solutions. They turn to the only tools they have at their disposal: raising taxes, cutting needed services, or both. Some even filed bankruptcy.

Economist Herbert Stein once said, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” Ventura is on a trajectory that cannot go on forever.

Your Chance To Make Ventura Better

PensionsThis November, Ventura has an unprecedented opportunity to tell the City Council, “No more new spending.” There are three open seats on the Council in this November’s election.

Past financial overspending must stop. New Council Members with an economic understanding of operating a city must prevail. Voters need to look past the individual candidates’ popularity to carefully consider their ability to understand and manage city finances.

Desirable candidates will:

  • Treat city money as if it was coming out of their pocket, which it is
  • Understand the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) before taking office
  • Understand the city budget and capital expenditure projects
  • Hold city staff accountable to present successful projects to the Council
  • Hold the City Manager accountable for results
  • Make difficult decisions knowing their decisions will anger some constituents
  • Do the right thing, not the same old, easier thing
  • Represent of the citizens of Ventura, not be a cheerleader for city staff recommendations

Editors Comments

You have the opportunity to make Ventura better this November. Voter turnout needs to be high for this crucial City Council election if Ventura is to improve. Decisions these new Councilmembers make will immediately impact the city’s economic vitality. We mustn’t leave this election to chance.

Encourage people to vote. Educate everyone on the grave crises facing the city today. Ask candidates how they plan to address these crises. Listen to their answers. Hold them accountable after they’re elected. If we do all these things, we’ll improve the chances Ventura will remain fiscally sound now and in the future.

Hold These Councilmembers Accountable For Their Past Spending

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.

Ways Ventura Lost In The Harbor Church Deal

“You’ll Never Reach Your Destination If You Stop And Throw Stones At Every Dog That Barks” —Winston Churchill

Harbor Church in midtown Ventura

When it comes to real estate, Ventura’s City Council is, at best, inconsistent. At worst, they are reckless with our money. Their latest decision costs taxpayers over $1,000,000.

On June 16th, the Council accepted the city staff’s recommendations for the Harbor Church. Like some other real estate recommendations, it loses money.

How We Got Here

The Harbor Church—located in midtown Ventura—was feeding the homeless as part of their outreach program. Nearby residents were upset with the homeless. They asked the city to get Harbor Church to stop. The city said, “Stop it.” The church cried, “You’re violating our religious freedoms,” and threatened to sue.

The city is weak-kneed and folds at the hint of a lawsuit. Their solution was to buy out the Harbor Church to get them to move. City officials will claim this solution was less expensive than the legal costs of a suit but, at the heart of it, this is still a real estate transaction.

Nothing About This Deal Adds Up

 

2016 was a year of financial mistakes for the city.

The city paid church officials $2,300,000 to buy the Harbor Church property in 2016. City Hall and Harbor Church agreed the value of both the land and the church building was $1.6 million. The actual sales price included an additional $700,000 to pay the Church to move. By any measure, Ventura overpaid for the property.

City staff proposes to demolish the church, subdivide the property and sell the lots. Total cost to the taxpayers to clear the lot will be $2,670,000.

 

Purchase Harbor Church Building                     $1,600,000

Moving Expense                                                        $700,000

Demolish Church Building                                     $350,000

Remove Hazardous Material                                   $20,000

Total                                                                         $2,670,000

The city staff enthusiastically reported the value of the property on which the Harbor Church sits increased by 66% since 2016. We see that factored into their optimistic projections. They believe we can get four lots on the existing site. They estimate each lot will sell for between $250,000 and $375,000.

The arithmetic didn’t add up from the beginning. A staff report lists the property and building appraisal at $1,350,000 in July 2017. A year earlier, the city paid $1,600,000 for the church and the lot—$250,000 more than the appraised value. This transaction lost money from the very start and doesn’t begin to realize the gains from the purported 66% increase in land value.

Something Else Doesn’t Add Up Either

The city staff used an optimistically over-valued selling price for the lots.

We pulled data from a local title company for homes sold in zip code 93003 for the past two years. What we discovered was shocking.

 

Average Median Avg SF $/SF # Sales
2016 $         628,321  $         595,000 1619 388 184
2017 $         633,269  $         599,000 1700 372 322
2018 $         593,415  $         594,000 1747 340 179

According to the data, lots on Harbor Church’s corner should sell for between $215,000 and $233,000. We derived those figures using the standard property developer’s rule-of-thumb. The land is worth 1/3 of a home’s selling price. The market values the lots are well below the $250,000 to $375,000 the city staff believes they’re worth.

A More Realistic Calculation Of The Transaction

Using this realistic data from the title company and giving the city the higher anticipated value, the sale of the property would actually look something like this:

 

Sell Four Lots ($233,000 each)                                 $932,000

Lease Payments From Harbor

Church For 12 months                                               $36,000

Realtor’s Fee (6%)                                                      ($55,920)

Total Revenue                                                            $912,080

Total Costs (from above)                                     ($2,670,000)

Total Loss on Transaction                                  ($1,757,920)

 

Is The City Looking Out For Your Money In These Real Estate Transactions?

In April, the City Council sought outside experts for a real estate decision on the property at 505 Poli. The city staff made a recommendation that made the City Council uneasy. The Council instructed city staff to seek advice from a licensed commercial realtor. The Council wants to determine the actual value of the property. As far as we know, city staff has not reported the findings to the City Council in the last 90 days.

The Council was cautious with 505 Poli. They appeared skeptical of the city staff’s recommendations. They were willing to await the findings of an independent appraiser. So, why was the City Council so willing to accept staff’s opinion on the Harbor Church property?

The Council voted 6-0 to proceed based on city staff’s recommendation. Councilmember Jim Monahan was absent at the meeting. The City Council was uneasy with staff’s 505 Poli valuation and recommendations. One would think the Council should be cautious with the Harbor Church property, too.

The City Council’s inconsistent real estate decisions should concern citizens. It causes taxpayers to doubt their financial acumen. The Council trusted the city staff again, with the same disastrous, money-losing results. Decisions that lose over $1,000,000 makes one question whether they are good custodians of our tax money.

Editor’s Comments

We’ve believed the city should get out of the real estate business for a long time. The litany of poor decisions grows—the WAV Building, Brooks Institute lease, 505 Poli and the Harbor Church property.

Ventura owns commercial real estate throughout the city. As these examples demonstrate, the city has not made financially responsible decisions regarding these properties. We recommend the city to seek an independent appraisal of its property, and then to sell it to private enterprise. The city could then take the proceeds and invest them to cover the huge unfunded pension liabilities we face in the coming years.

At the very least, the city should seek advice from licensed realtors and experts whenever making a real estate decision.

Large financial decisions deserve scrutiny. When stewarding taxpayer money, it’s best to proceed with caution and with thought. It’s too easy for city staff to recommend spending taxpayer money on losing projects. We urge the City Council to approach each real estate transaction with skepticism. Treat the money as if it was coming out of their own pockets.

Insist Ventura Gets Out Of Commercial Real Estate

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.

Ventura needs a Water Commission to oversee the water and wastewater processing.

With Water, The Simplest Solution Is Best

“Water is life, and clean water means health.” —Audrey Hepburn

with waterVentura needs to get its priorities straight about water—and fast. On July 9th, Ventura Water will ask the City Council to approve direct potable reuse (DPR). Ventura Water views DRP as a primary alternative source for increased drinking water. The project will cost $538 million of taxpayer dollars. The trouble is, it’s an untested, unproven and unregulated solution to our water needs. Why would the City Council gamble with the health of its citizens?

Ventura Water already gave a similar presentation to the Ventura Water Commission in May, when they asked the commission to approve the 2018 Annual Water Report. Ventura Water’s priorities were to add DPR as an additional water source. State water would only act as a backup supply to the recycled water program.

The Ventura Water Commission rejected the idea. They made it clear that the city should look to State water as a primary resource to supplement our existing water sources and reconsider DRP only as a backup when it is perfected.

How We Got Here

with waterTwo legal agreements jeopardize Ventura’s water supply. The first was a Consent Decree requiring Ventura to cease putting 100% of its treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary. It needs to be diverted somewhere else by January 2025.

The Consent Decree stems from a Federal complaint filed by Whistoya Foundation [WISHTOYA VS. CITY OF SAN BUENAVENTURA, CASE NO. CV 10-02072]. The City Council consented in March 2012. Rick Cole and Shana Epstein signed the consent decree on behalf of the city. The city no longer employs either of them.

The second was a new contract between the City of Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District executed by the City Council in May 2017. The new contract obligates Ventura to reach Water Balance by 2020 to maintain its current water rights. To achieve water balance, Ventura must find an additional source of water.

Both agreements are disturbingly vague. The Consent Decree requires Ventura to cease putting treated wastewater into the estuary. It doesn’t specify where to place treated water or how to use it. It only states it cannot go into the estuary.

There is one exception. If a scientific panel, based on biological studies, decides the environmental health of the fish and wildlife in the estuary need that water, Ventura may release 50% into the inlet. There have been four studies in the last six years. The findings indicate the risks are unacceptable. We’ve noted some of them below.

with waterThe new Casitas Water contract entitles Ventura an amount of water based on projected needs and adjusted for drought staging conditions. Ventura Water anticipates our water needs at 5,669 acre-feet per year by 2025. By then, they expect we’ll be out of our current drought conditions. Under the1995 contract, Ventura was allowed a minimum of 6,000 acre-feet of water per year. That water could be used in the western part of Ventura (everything west of Mills Road) and the eastern part of the city, if necessary. The new contract changes that and puts East Ventura at a disadvantage. The old agreement allowed Ventura to blend Casitas water with the East End to achieve better quality. The new contract does not allow any use for the East End of Ventura.

The Race To Make Ventura First

Ventura Water seized the opportunity to make the city the first to used recycled wastewater to drink. No cities in the world have used recycled water except Windhoek, Namibia and a small town in Texas. Neither place had other water options.

Since 2012, employees at City Hall and the Ventura Water Department have been actively publicized and pushed VenturaWaterPure. They view the project (toilet-to-tap) as the primary source to supplement our drinking water resources. They believe State Water should only be used as a backup in case something went wrong with the recycled water.

Ventura Water says we need the project:

(1) To augment our water supply from a reliable source

(2) As beneficial reuse of wastewater effluent

(3) To improve our water quality.

They assure us that VenturaWaterPure will meet these goals. Their assurances are misleading and just not right.

What We Know Now

We’ve learned a lot since 2012 when this began. For instance, in February 2018, Stillwater Sciences issued a final report on releasing treated water into the Santa Clara River estuary. It recommended diverting 40%-60% of the wastewater, not 100% as initially presented to the City Council. Stillwater Sciences filed the report with the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). The SWRCB has not decided on the amount to be released yet.

with waterIn August 2016, a report by a state-appointed panel of experts concluded it was “technically” feasible to use DPR, but there are serious health risks. Here are some fundamental problems outlined:

  1. Guidance and regulations currently do not exist for DPR
  2. Of specific concern are chemicals adversely affecting the development of fetuses and children, plus any as-yet-undiscovered compounds.
  3. There are no standards to guard against Cryptosporidium, and Giardia to maintain a risk of infection equal to one in 10,000.
  4. Reverse osmosis is unable to detect and remove low molecular weight compounds such as halogenated solvents, formaldehyde, and 1,4-dioxane.
  5. The inability to identify solvents on the Proposition 65 list that reverse osmosis membranes cannot remove.

Notwithstanding this new information, the City of Ventura continues in its pursuit to be the first to use recycled wastewater for drinking. The water department soldiers on and plans to spend many millions of dollars starting in July 2018 for consultants and a project that may never see the light of day.

The Cost Comparison

with waterThe cost of DPR wastewater is high. According to the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), the wastewater and water costs will total approximately $538 million once financing costs are added. Included in those costs are advanced purification facilities to treat the wastewater that will cost $77.7 million. Also included is another $170 million to pump the water north to the desalination/Reverse Osmosis plant. Other infrastructure improvements comprise the remaining costs—including a brine line to carry away contaminants from the new RO plant.

By comparison, the pipeline for State Water is estimated by the Ventura Water Department to cost $27 million. That does not include the annual fee for the State Water Pipeline (SWP) entitlement. The city currently pays $1.2 million per year for that option (which the city never used). Over $50 million has been cumulatively paid in annual installments to the SWP since 1972 and will continue until 2035. Every citizen’s water bill includes a portion of that payment. Nor does it cover the additional cost of water pumped through the water line.   Keep in mind that State water can be injected directly into the Ventura water system. The water is reliable and used throughout Southern California.

The Decision Facing The City Council With Water

The City Council will make a monumental decision on water July 9, 2018. They will set Ventura’s water priorities for decades to come.

They will be asked to decide between State Water and DPR as the first supplement to our existing water supply. Their decision will send a message whether Ventura wants to be first with an untested, unproven, unregulated water system with DPR or safe with State Water. We will also learn whether they will listen to the Water Commission or ignore their recommendations.

Finally, we’ll learn how the City Council plans to comply with the Consent Decree. Will they accept scientific findings to divert only 40%-60% of treated wastewater from the Santa Clara River? Or will they ignore the Decree’s exception and insist on diverting 100% at the cost of $400 million?

Editors’ Comments

with waterThe City Council must make a policy decision now and direct Ventura Water to concentrate on the importation of State Water immediately. The current effort to plan, finance and build a VenturaWaterPure treatment plant and RO plant to process recycled water for DPR by 2025 must stop or at the very least be delayed until further study.   We only hope that the City Council has the leadership and strength to change course and not feel bound by this misguided concept of past water leaders.

Protecting public health is paramount. Complying with the Consent Decree is also essential, but we can keep our part of the bargain and adhere to the decree by pumping the water into settling ponds for absorption into groundwater basins such as the Mound basin, then ultimately into our water system.

Lastly, we don’t need to build a desalination plant/RO facility now or in the next five years. However, it should not be forgotten. It will be required in the next 25 years to filter water pumped out of the Mound basin and to filter DPR.   We must prepare our community for that as our population continues to grow.

As for the Consent Decree, we suggest that the City Attorney get to work. Present the fact that the current project is infeasible due to technical infeasibility and lack of regulations and extend the term for compliance beyond January 2025—say 2030. If they do not agree, that is why we have a court that will listen to logic, and common sense hopefully will prevail.

Insist The City Council Makes State Water Ventura’s First Option

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.

Property Rental

The City Should Get Out of the Property Rental Business

“We need leadership. We don’t need a doubling down on the failed politics of the past.” —Paul Ryan

505 Poli building. Crime lab in the lower right corner.

City Council Makes The First Step Toward Dealing with Surplus Building

To get realistic information for the City Council to decide about 505 Poli, Councilmember Mike Tracy presented a motion to seek advice from a licensed commercial realtor. Councilmember Jim Monahan seconded the motion. The Council unanimously agreed after City Attorney evaluated the right to sell the property, to seek advice from a licensed commercial realtor. The goal is to “determine (the) value of 505 Poli Street including the Crime Lab (appraisal and parking analysis study). Then to decide on disposition (of the property).”

Good decision.

Why The City Should Get Out Of The Property Rental Business

The 505 Poli building adjacent to City Hall exemplifies why the City of Ventura should not be in the property rental business. The city owns several properties. Ventura needs some to house various city departments and needs others for future use. However, the city owns and operates some for the sole purpose of generating income — rental income property.

Property Rental

Citizens have a right to expect the city to manage 505 Poli wisely.

When public money is used to buy rental income property, citizens have a right to expect the city will manage the investment wisely. Acquiring and operating such property requires knowledge and expertise to protect the investment.   In the case of our city, the City Council makes the decisions. They rely on the City Manager and city personnel for sound advice.

Here’s the rub. Ventura city personnel have demonstrated historically—and continue to show, as we will later explain—that they do not have the knowledge or experience needed to assist the City Council in making decisions in such matters.

Why The City’s Bad At Property Rental

There are four major issues with city-owned rental income property:

First, the daily maintenance and management of these properties require constant attention. Buildings cost money to operate with or without a tenant and thus are a continual liability and drain on public resources.   Private owners use qualified property managers to manage their property. If those managers are not able to produce any income to the owner after expenses, the owner fires them.

Property rental

Should Ventura be in the property rental business at all?

Second, the city does not have a structured professional approach to operations and tenant management. It is merely an additional task for someone in some department to look at in and among all of their other daily tasks, which staffers usually place behind the immediate problem of the day. Income property must be monitored and requires constant professional attention. Fail in that task, and the supposed investment will fail. The Brooks Institute rental at 505 Poli was a debacle and is the perfect example of why the City Council should not rely on city staff for help in trying to operate such property. Still, they persist.

Third, properties are acquired and operated long past their usefulness to our city. Once the city uses taxpayer money to pay for the property, the City Council and city staff blot the investment out of their minds. If the property is not producing the expected income or outlived its purpose, it should be placed on the market and sold. To spend taxpayer’s funds without any concept to how much the city has already spent on past failed projects for the same property is wrong.

Finally, the City believes that it is acceptable to compete with private free enterprise and offer free rent or discounted rent for city-owned buildings and property acquired with taxpayer money. Private property owners are encouraged to invest in Ventura, but why would anyone make such an investment when the City is a major competitor? It is unfair competition and constitutes a misuse of taxpayer’s funds.

The City Council needs to address these problems.

505 Poli Confirms That Ventura Is Bad At The Property Rental Business

Appraised for $3.55 million in Sept. 2005, the City of Ventura acquired it in November 2006 for $4.03 million. Our then-City Manager pushed the acquisition. The Council followed his advice. To fund the purchase $1.23 million in General Funds were used together with another $2.8 million from a particular service fund — Workers Compensation Fund. The use of the Workers Comp funds should have been a warning to the City Council. That fund pays for future worker’s compensation claims. The interim City Manager, Johnnie Johnson, exposed that budget manipulation when he advised the City Council in 2012 of a $5 million deficit.

Just why the City Council thought “robbing Peter to pay Paul” was a good idea defies logic.

Property Rental

Questions remain as to how much the city has spent to acquire, improve and maintain 505 Poli.

Then there is the building itself. The City accepted the premise—and the adjacent old County crime laboratory which was part of the deal—knowing that asbestos filled this old Ferro-cement structure. The removal of asbestos and hazardous material remediation in the crime laboratory alone was estimated to cost $500,000-$700,000. The list of deficiencies abounded—seismic conditions, old air conditioning systems, old electrical systems and a 60-year-old elevator that hinders tenant usage.

In 2006, City staff advised the City Council that if they decided to buy the property, the city would get a return from the investment in 6.3 to 8.8 years. There was no return on the investment. The building was repurposed to provide free or low rent to new tech startup companies. City staff reckoned that if the startups succeeded they would do business in Ventura and bring jobs to the community. The City Council allocated another $5 million for that purpose. However, aside from the single success of Trade Desk, the project failed.

Six years later, in February 2012, the Ventura Chamber of Commerce agreed to pay $1,000 cash per month for the first floor. In March & April 2013, the Trade Desk leased the 4th and 5th floors for $6,025 a month at which time the City Council spent another $62,750 in improvements. Trade Desk left and in Feb. 2016, the city then tried to lease the two top floors to Brooks Institute. Demolition proceeded on those two floors, and since Brooks Institute defaulted, those floors have been vacant. They remain empty today.

By this simple accounting, the City of Ventura has spent or is obligated to pay an additional $4.6 to $5.0 million with no net rental income to justify the investment over the last 12 years.

Spending More Money Won’t Fix What’s Bad About Ventura’s Property Rental

The latest proposal put forward by the Public Works Department recommends the city sink more money into the building. On April 16, 2018, the city staff recommended the City Council spend another $2.0 million to build tenant improvements on the 4th and 5th floor of 505 Poli.   That report contained a lot of facts and figures but was notable for the lack of a feasibility study.

City staff suggested in the report were that if the City Council spends the money, 505 Poli would then be considered a Class A property rental property and would rent for $3 a square foot because of its downtown location. There was no rental comparison survey to support the plan. There was no vacancy survey included. The report also ignored the fact that vacancy is running at 25% citywide on commercial property. The entire argument assumes that if “we build it, they will come.” The recommendation also suggests our city would receive a monthly income of $53,413 after the improvements at 100% occupancy. Great promise, but it lacked facts and is unrealistic.

Property RentalThen something happened in the city staff presentation that further demonstrated how they lack the knowledge and experience to guide the City Council on rental properties. The Public Works presenter hinted a possible tenant would take the space and finance the tenant improvements in exchange for significantly reduced rent. Almost immediately, Jeff Lambert, the Community Development Director, corrected that information. The potential new tenant had pulled out earlier that week. There were no interested parties, at this time. It was apparent these two departments were not communicating, and the facts were not straight before asking the City Council to spend $2 million.

Editors Comments

We recommend several things about 505 Poli and city-owned real estate in general.

First, the City Council should follow up on how much taxpayers have spent to acquire, improve and maintain 505 Poli. The total amount may surprise some of them.

Second, the City Council should hold the city staff to a higher level of thoroughness and professionalism before recommending spending taxpayer money.

Third, and most importantly, city government should get out of the property rental income business and find a qualified, reputable real estate company to lease and manage all city-owned rental property.

Insist The City Council Heeds The Input Of Outside Consultants Before Deciding What To Do On 505 Poli

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.

What You Missed In The 2018 State-Of-The-City Speech

“We’re no longer a quaint little beach town.” —Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews

Mayor Neal Andrews’s State-of-the-City address was noteworthy more for what he didn’t say. The speech was a summary of last year’s events delivered by each of the major department managers with summary comments by Mr. Andrews.

What this year’s address lacked was a vision for Ventura’s future. Neither Mr. Andrews nor the city’s department heads mentioned job creation, new sources of revenue or business development. Instead, we heard how the city utilized Measure O’s $10.8M sales tax revenue.

The fact remains that Ventura faces significant challenges. The recovery from the devastating Thomas Fire has brought out the best in people but also exposed failures in systems and processes. We acknowledge the heroic efforts of citizens, police, fire and water personnel who fought to prevent further tragedy. But, we must temper those accomplishments with the systemic failures by the local government that contributed to this horror.

2018 Challenges Not Addressed In The State-of-the-City

Rebuilding After The Thomas Fire

Post-fire reconstruction is overwhelming the Building & Safety Department. Community Development Director Jeff Lambert put a brave face on it, but the stress was palpable.

City Manager

There is currently no City Manager. Assistant City Manager Dan Paranick stepped up to lead the city’s recovery efforts. From all indications, he is performing proficiently. Nonetheless, the search goes on for a permanent replacement.

Water Department’s New General Manager

New Ventura Water General Manager, Kevin Brown assumed leadership only weeks before the Thomas Fire. He now faces the double task of improving performance while he defends the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire.

Elections By District

The 2019 City Councilmembers will represent specific voting districts. Before 2018, voters elected Councilmembers “at large” to serve the entire city. This change will force Councilmember Mike Tracy and Mayor Neal Andrews to retire from City Council. New faces representing the Ventura Avenue and East Saticoy Districts will occupy their seats on the Council.

The Deafening Silence

In the closest thing to providing a vision of Ventura’s future, Mayor Andrews laid out his commitment to “focus on building prosperity.” He plans to support the business community, but he shared no specific policies or initiatives.

Another of Mayor Andrews’s commitments was to “radically increase the city’s technology.” He plans to do this through an improved broadband strategy. He revealed no further details or costs or how to pay for this plan.

Pragmatically Looking Ahead

What we know is Ventura faces specific, severe financial and budgetary challenges, even with the Measure O revenue. What we don’t know is from where the extra funding will come.

Other issues not commented on were:

  • Ventura will receive less property tax revenue from the 535 houses ravaged by the Thomas Fire.
  • Ventura can expect lower gasoline sales tax revenue because of trends towards less driving.
  • Unfunded pension costs will increase another 10%-20% next year.
  • The recent rains increased road damage on unrepaired streets. Telegraph, Victoria, Wells, and Thompson all show the effect of the storms.
  • Ventura Water needs an extra $500-$600 million over the next decade for water and wastewater infrastructure. Recent rate increases over the past four years will not cover this shortfall. Water rates will increase again.
  • Legal costs to defend the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire will come from the General Fund. The unbudgeted expense could result in higher fees.

Where Is The Vision?

There was one tiny glimmer of vision in Neal Andrews’s address. He said, “We [Ventura] are no longer a quaint little beach town. We’re among the top 10% of the largest cities in California.” Mayor Andrews recognizes a truth many of us have known for years. Ventura has urban issues, and we can’t solve urban problems with provincial solutions. We need fresh thinking.

However, Mayor Andrews and the city staff have not shared a future vision. Some may look to a new City Manager to provide a long-term plan. But experience indicates this is wishful thinking.

Rick Cole nearly ruined Ventura financially.

In 2004, the City Council hired Rick Cole. Mr. Cole had a grand urban development plan for Ventura. He spent millions planning to narrow Victoria and make Ventura a “walking community.” His unrealistic thinking nearly ruined Ventura financially. The economic impact will haunt Ventura for decades to come.

Mark Watkins inherited a mess from Rick Cole.

Following Mr. Cole, the City Council hired Mark Watkins. Mr. Watkins did not have the

grandiose vision of Mr. Cole. The City Council employed him as a caretaker. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to overcome the problems left by his predecessor. He inherited budget deficits. He managed those deficits by not hiring more employees. The remaining city staff he inherited stumbled executing his vision. As an example, Mr. Watkins lack of supervision surfaced when his team fumbled Brooks Institute. That mistake cost Ventura taxpayers over $261,000.

The two new members of the City Council may have a vision, but they are unknown and have no experience.

Editors’ Comments

Ventura is struggling. We’re struggling following the Thomas Fire. We’re struggling financially. We see the struggle in the faces of our neighbors. We see it in the faces of people on the street. We read it social media.

If the city is to move forward, it’s up to us to provide that vision. The government does not create jobs or develop business, nor do we want them to. Government (the City) is the last entity you want to create jobs. The government does better to stay out of the way so businesses may thrive.

What Government can do is create an environment that is favorable for business. They can do so by:

  1. Issuing permits faster
  2. Charging competitive fees (compared to other cities in the county)
  3. Creating acceptable zoning that encourages desirable companies to relocate to Ventura
  4. Identifying desirable industries with high paying jobs
  5. Bringing qualifying business owners to Ventura on a personalized tour of the city

Contact your City Councilmember. We need the revenue to offset our growing needs. Demand a plan to attract more business to the area; preferably ones with better than entry-level jobs. Insist the city assist property owners to fill all vacant commercial property. With jobs, revenues will increase. With jobs, crime will decrease. With jobs, Ventura will prosper.

 

Demand a Plan From City Council To Attract More Businesses with Better Than Entry-Level Jobs to Ventura

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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