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Scrutinizing Travel Expenses From Conferences

Do You Know The Truth About Ventura’s Spending On Conferences?

Conference spending

Three groups spend other people’s money:  children, thieves and politicians.  All three need supervision.”

—Dick Armey

Examing Conferences Expense

The cost and benefit of every spending decision by Ventura’s City Council is magnified as the city faces budgetary losses for the next five years. The city is projecting to have a $10-$25 million shortfall during that time, so the City Council should be more careful how it spends tax dollars. Are we getting our money’s worth from our Councilmembers’ travel to conferences and seminars?

The City Councilmembers don’t think anyone is watching their spending or cares what they do. They believe voters gave them the mandate to be concerned with the details of how and where the city spends money. And, they’re right—to a degree. While citizens fret over the large expenditures on pensions, water, public safety, and staffing, it’s easy to overlook the spending habits of our elected officials.

Conference Boondoggles

The city publishes the expenditures by each sitting Councilmember quarterly. Here’s a summary of the expenses for the past three full fiscal years of the active members of Council:

Councilmember Spending On Conferences

It’s immediately clear that the spending by the active Councilmembers is rising year-over-year. It jumped 32% to $15,964 from $12,039 from Fiscal Year 2016-2017 to Fiscal Year 2017-2018. It increased 76% to $28,098 from $15,964 from Fiscal Year 2017-2018 to Fiscal Year 2018-2019.

Highlighted in yellow is the amount spent each year to attend the National League of Cities (NLC) Conferences. The NLC holds regional conferences and a national conference in Washington, DC.

Where’s The Value From The Conferences?

Ventura taxpayers get little information about the benefits the city derives from these conferences. There are no written reports of what the attendees accomplished. Sometimes, there is a verbal report made to the Economic Development Committee of what happened, as we see in the Agenda for the April 2nd meeting.

No Value for Attending Conferences

There are no meeting minutes posted for the public of the Economic Development Committee meetings. Nor are the sessions videotaped. There is no permanent record of what happened. There are no archives to refer to in the future. What’s more, the entire City Council doesn’t hear about the findings.

If all the value we receive is a report on the “relevant legislative issues from the NLC,” do we need to send representatives to Washington, D.C.? Couldn’t we get the same information by email or in written form? If we did, there would be a permanent record of the discussions for others to review.

The Value Is In The Connections

The attending City Councilmembers may claim the value of attending these meetings is in the contacts Ventura nurtures with other politicians throughout the country. That’s a specious argument. The relationships are personal between our serving Councilmembers and the people they meet. Those relationships break whenever our Councilmember or his/her contact leaves the office. What’s more, the value in a relationship with a politician in another city has a small direct impact on Ventura.

Auditing ConferencesThe justification may be to learn the “best practices” from other cities attending the conferences. What best practices did we learn on homelessness from representatives from Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle? Homelessness in those cities is worse than it is in Ventura, and it’s not improving. Or did we learn something about water from Sacramento? Except, the California River Tunnel isn’t working out so well. Or did the reps from Washington, D.C., or Sacramento teach us about budgeting? The fact is, our reps need to convey any best practices we learned at those conferences need to city staff. The staff are the ones to put in place new ideas in City Hall. And without written guidelines, implementing the changes is nearly impossible.

The truth is any networking with others at these conferences is nothing more than socializing. Should we pay the expenses for two Councilmembers to hobnob with politicians? No.

Next Conference

Attending Conferences

Mayor Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor Sofia Rubalcava, and Councilmember Brown are attending the National League of Cities Regional Meeting in Long Beach, CA, on October 16-18, 2019. What value will Ventura get from sending three Councilmembers to this meeting?

Editor’s Comments

In the best of times, these conferences may benefit Ventura, but these are not the best of times. The city faces a multimillion-dollar shortfall over the next five years. Frivolous spending of any kind must not happen, regardless of the dollar amount spent. Spending taxpayer money on these seminars and conferences may appear to be harmless at first. Still, scrutinize each trip to decide whether it’s a necessity. And if it is determined to be necessary, the value must outweigh the expense.

Tell City Council, “Spend Better On Conferences!”

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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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

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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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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New construction after Thomas Fire

Ventura Has Opportunity To Improve After The Thomas Fire

Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council waffled on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding victims’ homes. Indecisiveness delayed the rebuilding process for many. Councilmembers exhibited big hearts and small brains settling on the new height ordinance. They attempted to please fire victims wanting to improve their homes. Doing so delayed rebuilding for everyone. It was clear that many of the burned houses would have to come up to existing building codes. Many of the homes were built decades ago when the codes weren’t as strict. Plus, setbacks from the street had also changed. For fire victims to rebuild their houses “as is” would cost more. The new home would have a different footprint on the lot and impede neighbors’ views.

What’s more, some homeowners wanted to change the design of their new home since they were rebuilding. To please those homeowners, the Council created exceptions. They decreed restoring a home could include as much as 10% increase in the size of the structure. While well-meaning, this decision meant every house was a custom-built home. The decision put added pressure on city staff when reviewing and approving plans. And it further delayed homeowners receiving building permits.

There was another consequence of the Council’s lack of urgency. Most homeowners’ insurance provides 18-24 months of living expenses while rebuilding. The Council’s delay will force rebuilding beyond 24 months for many homeowners. As a result, those homeowners will have an added financial burden. They will pay for temporary living expenses when their insurance runs out. Plus, they will also be paying their mortgage on a destroyed home.

Don’t Miss This Chance To Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council’s inaction delayed a significant economic stimulus for Ventura. It reinforced the perception that Ventura lacks urgency and is bureaucratic. Now, there is a new City Council. We hope they’ll look at this process with a fresh perspective. If they do, they’ll see the need for change. We want them to force the city staff to streamline and simplify the building and permitting process.

Powerful VFD Union Exerts Its Strength On The Council

The City Council approves a $600,000 per year “roving” fire engine and three paramedics in June 2018. Ventura Fire insisted they needed the engine because response times “were especially high.” He gave no information on what’s driving the increased calls for help. Nor did he offer any cost-effective alternatives to deliver the services.

Uncertainty Over The Fire Engine

Interim City Manager Paranick did not recommend funding the roving engine in 2018. 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 demand. That’s why I did not recommend it.”

Ventura Fire Chief David Endaya wasn’t sure what targets the roving engine could hit, or by how much response times could fall.

Even so, Councilmembers Cheryl Heitmann, Matt LaVere, Jim Monahan and Erik Nasarenko voted for it. Councilmembers Mike Tracy and Christy Weir voted against it.

The Reason VFD Got Its Fire Engine

What motivated four Councilmembers to override the City Manager’s recommendation? Why did they believe the city needed to spend $600,000 in 2018? Simple. In late May, Union Leader Battalion Chief Doug Miser requested a meeting with each Councilmember. He wrote, “As you are hopefully aware, every single member of the Ventura Fire Management group dedicated a significant amount of time in call banks and walking districts to pass Measure O. We believe we are way past due in staffing another fire station in the city.” Two months later, the Ventura Fire Department had a new engine and three new paramedics.

The Councilmembers heard Miser’s message loud and clear. Ventura Fire contributed during their campaigns. Ventura Fire helped deliver Measure O money to the city’s General Fund. Now, it’s time for quid-pro-quo.

What’s more, Chief Endaya announced a hiring decision. He hired two of the three paramedics before they approved the roving fire engine. He said they’d been “over-hired” in anticipation of adding City Fire positions.

Councilmembers

How To Connect To Your 2019 Ventura City Councilmembers

Louis L'Amour

To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.
—Louis L’Amour

Our federalist system gives us many opportunities to participate in our democracy. Some forms of participation are more common than others. And some citizens participate more than others, but almost everyone has a voice in government.

Meet Your 2019 City Councilmembers

We have a new Ventura City Council for 2019. We have three new Councilmember sand four incumbents. Each of them has an email account with the city. Not everyone knows how to contact them, though.

Governing By Districts

For the first time in Ventura’s history, our Councilmembers were elected by districts. While each Councilmember was elected by constituents in their district, they serve the entire city. You should feel free to contact any Councilmember regardless of the district in which you live.

Click On A Councilmembers Photo To Email

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 what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. No matter what you write, however, share your opinion. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Councilmembers Councilmembers
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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.

How To Connect To Your 2018 Ventura City Councilmembers

Louis L'Amour

To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.
—Louis L’Amour

Our federalist system gives us many opportunities to participate in our democracy. Some forms of participation are more common than others. And some citizens participate more than others, but almost everyone has a voice in government.

Meet Your 2018 City Councilmembers

We have a new Ventura City Council for 2018. We have one new Councilmember and six incumbents. Each of them has an email account with the city. Not everyone knows how to contact them, though.

Click On A Councilmembers Photo To Email

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 what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. No matter what you write, however, share your opinion. Not participating in government makes us worse 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 spends tax money

You Have Reasons To Be Concerned How Ventura Spends Your Tax Money

“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example”—Mark Twain

Complaining about how Ventura spends our tax money is like complaining about the weather. Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

When Ventura spends money on projects, you trust and hope city officials would spend it as though it was coming out of their own pockets. However, many believe that City officials view tax revenue as an endless faucet spewing out money.

So, we rely on our elected officials to oversee the expenditures and question them when necessary. The following example illustrates how dysfunctional the oversight has become.

There Is No One Paying Attention To The Details

The City of Ventura Finance Committee considered a “small-dollar” expenditure at a recent meeting. Councilmember Christy Weir chairs the committee. Councilmember Cheryl Heitmann is the committee’s vice-chair. Deputy Mayor Neal Andrews also serves. Their job is to provide oversight to the city’s Director of Finance, Gil Garcia, and his staff in the Finance Department. Here is where the dysfunction begins.

Ventura spends tax money carelessly

The Finance Department wanted to spend $29,600 per year on outsourcing the opening of payment envelopes and processing of water bills.   This dollar amount fell within Mr. Garcia’s spending authority and did not need the three City Councilmembers’ approval. He presented the item for discussion nonetheless.

Currently, Ventura Water sends water bills every two months and when payment is made city personnel open the envelopes and process the payments through the bank. The City now wants to send out water bills monthly. Since Ventura will change to monthly billing, the outsourcing costs would double to $59,200.

The city’s finance staff justified outsourcing this service to purportedly to improve cash flow and increase efficiency. The staff did not discuss or offer any evidence on just how they would be more efficient if their proposal were adopted.

Where’s The Oversight?

Only two City Councilmembers attended the committee meeting.  Councilwoman Heitmann was absent. Neither Councilwoman Weir nor Councilman Andrews asked how much Ventura would save in real dollars by paying an outside company to perform this task, or how the city would adjust or reduce staffing after the change.  The presenters assumed that handling thousands of checks and running them through the city’s bank account apparently would save money and reduce staff time.

City employees don't care how Ventura spends tax money

A citizen attending the meeting spoke up and asked how much money we would save and how many staff people would be reduced or redeployed. The initial reply was the cost savings would be “minuscule.” When pressed to define what she meant by minuscule, the staff member was unprepared to provide any numbers. When pressed about changes in staffing, the answer was “none.”

Worrisome Questions Arise

That should cause every tax payer in this city to express concerns about the issues surrounding this spending proposal and by extension any plans to spend tax money regardless of the amount:

  1. Why would any staff member ask for $29,600 per year and not support the request with time and cost savings? If this were a private business, the owner would insist on knowing. Shouldn’t we expect the same of our government?
  2. Why didn’t the City Council members ask the hard questions about time and cost savings? Their job is to oversee the city finances.
  3. If the city wasn’t planning to reduce staff, what would these staff people do instead of opening envelopes and processing payments? How would they be more productive in their new duties than they currently are
  4. If $29,200 is within Mr. Garcia’s spending authority, why wouldn’t he know the cost and productivity savings?
  5. While this item was within Mr. Garcia’s authorization and did not need to come to the Financed Committees’ attention, it was commendable that he brought the new procedure to the Committee’s attention. However, it also requires having all the available facts to support the decision. Therefore, why was neither Mr. Garcia nor his staff prepared to justify the reason for the change?

After all, with authority comes responsibility. It is not a blind trust. Maybe Ventura needs to review the policy for decisions made within a manager’s authority. All such decisions must be reviewed and supported by documentation.

You may be asking, “Why so focused on one instance such as this?” After all, it’s a small expense. It’s only $29,600 today. But soon, it’s going to double to $59,200. We must remind ourselves of Benjamin Franklin’s admonition — “Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

“Watch the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves”

In this case $29,600 doubles within the year. No City Councilmember noted or questioned the expense. Why?  Is it that our elected City Council members have become complacent?  They trust staff recommendations unquestionably?  They view this as so trivial it is not worth their time or effort? Or, are they no longer concerned about how they spend our tax dollars?

Editors’ Comment

Ventura spends like a faucetNo matter what the reason is, the City Council has to stop looking at taxpayers as an endless faucet from which money flows. It’s time they started spending our tax money as if it was coming out of their own pockets, not some faceless person.

When the costs in pennies turn to dollars then turn to thousands then turn to millions, and they run short again, who do YOU think they will look to for more money?

Concerned By This? Write A Councilmember.

Click on the photo of a Councilmember to send him or her a direct email.

Erik Nasarenko,
Mayor

Neal Andrews,
Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere

Jim Monahan

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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

Politicians Expect You To Pay A Little Bit More

The Ventura County Star reports on Ventura’s Pension situation and mentions VREG.

The Ventura County Star Mentions VREG

We’re proud the Ventura County Star mentioned us in an article on pensions. The Star article lists VREG as a watchdog group.

Click here to go to the article.

We believe pensions and unfunded liabilities are ticking time bombs for the city. The Star joins us in pointing this out to Ventura citizens.

In Ventura’s budget starting July 1, the city will pay CalPERS almost $11 million. That’s the amount Ventura owes in unfunded liability. CalPERS projects that to at least double five years later, to over $22 million. That doesn’t include normal, ongoing costs.

That increase almost equals the revenue the half-cent sales tax will generate. The City Council supported the tax to pay for needs other than pensions. Taxpayers believed it was for infrastructure, public safety, homeless services, water quality and other priorities.

Taxpayer and watchdog groups accuse city leaders of misleading the voters. They knew Ventura needed the revenue to offset growing retirement costs.

The Star writes, “Venturans for Responsible and Efficient Government has made similar claims.”

How Bad The Situation Is Depends On Who You Talk To

City Finance Director, Gilbert Garcia, disagrees. He says the city will separate new sales tax revenue from the General Fund. It will be overseen by a soon-to-be-created citizen oversight board.

The state will pay money from Measure O to Ventura beginning in April. The oversight committee is not formed yet. That means no citizens won’t know if the money is separate until months after the fact. The city has had since November 9, 2016 to organize the citizens’ oversight committee. Yet, four months later citizens don’t have any safeguards in place.

The article notes. “How dire the situation is—or isn’t—depends on who you talk to.”

The article notes. “How dire the situation is—or isn’t—depends on who you talk to.” How true.

The Ventura County Star reports on the burden city employee pensions are placing on City Hall.

If you ask a public employee they think the whole thing is way overblown and there is no problem. The public employee does not care that they impose a real burden on their neighbors. They have theirs. They worked for those benefits.  The taxpayers owe them.

The Council members give the public employees what they want. They give little regard to the economic consequences on the rest of the citizens. It’s the hard working men and women who they will always expect to  “pay a little bit more.”

IF THIS UPSETS YOU, WRITE YOUR COUNCILMEMBER

Click on the photo of a Councilmember to send him or her a direct email.

Erik Nasarenko,
Mayor

Neal Andrews,
Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere

Jim Monahan

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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