Posts

The Decade Of The 2010s

This Is Why The Decade Of The 2010s Is Important

Do not suffer your good nature…to say yes when you ought to say no.”

—George Washington

As the 21st century teeters between the 2010s and the 2020s, it’s a perfect time to take stock of an eventful decade. Over the last ten years, several key events changed Ventura forever.  Let’s look at what happened and the effect these incidents had.

How We’ll Remember The 2010s

We’ll remember the 2010s as a decade that began with the city struggling to get out of a recession, followed by ten years of decisions made with good intentions gone wrong. Bureaucrats and politicians pushed their agendas on the city. And like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill, we kept falling backward.

Leadership circus of the 2010sIt’s remarkable that the city accomplished anything in the 2010s. We had three City Managers and three Interim City Managers. No one person was in the role for more than three years. Turnover created a leadership vacuum that minimized any chance for meaningful change.

Key Events In The Decade Of The 2010s

The 2010s started as “business as usual.” Then the Thomas Fire happened. Citizens quickly became interested in how the Ventura would handle two issues: public safety during and after the fire, and rebuilding. After twelve months of intense interest, citizens have returned to “business as usual.”

Here are the key events of the decade: the Thomas Fire, December 2017; the Wishtoyo Consent Decree, 2012; Pension Inflation, 2010-2019; Homelessness, 2010-2019; the Anthony Mele, Jr. murder, April 2018; Brooks Institute’s failure, 2016; the WAV Building, 2012; Ventura’s Grand Jury Finding against Ventura’s building & safety inspectors, 2013; and district elections. Let’s look at what happened in each case and how it affects you.

The Thomas Fire

Thomas Fire was the biggest event of the 2010s

The biggest misfortune in Ventura’s history was the Thomas Fire, which began on December 4, 2017. The fire destroyed 535 structures in the city, displacing hundreds of residents and impacting everyone’s lives.

During the fire, Ventura’s public safety performed admirably. Despite the widespread devastation, police and fire protected the lives of everyone living in the city. Evacuations were orderly, albeit slow. There were many stories of heroic efforts by police and fire going beyond the call of duty.

Other aspects of the city’s performance didn’t go so well. Several groups pilloried Ventura Water for inadequate water supply to fire hydrants in the affected areas. An investigation is on-going. So are lawsuits.

The City Council added to the misery of the victims in an example of good intentions gone bad. The Council waffled on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding victims’ homes. Indecisiveness delayed the rebuilding process for many. They attempted to please fire victims wanting to improve their homes and doing so delayed rebuilding for everyone.

After two years, only 80 families have returned to their rebuilt homes.

The Wishtoyo Consent Decree

Wishtoyo Decree in the 2010sThe Consent Decree stems from a federal complaint filed by Whistoya Foundation [WISHTOYA VS. CITY OF SAN BUENAVENTURA, CASE NO. CV 10-02072]. The Consent Decree requires Ventura to stop putting 100% of its treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary. The city must divert a percentage of the 7.5 million gallons-per-day starting in 2025. The balance must be redirected by 2030. That decree is silent on how and where Ventura diverts the wastewater.

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

Ventura Water has confused the City Council by combining two different ideas to falsely heighten the urgency to drink wastewater.

VenturaWaterPure will cost $1 billion over 30 years. That’s a considerable sum of money for the community to absorb. Expect your water bill to double to pay for VenturaWaterPure’s infrastructure alone. Remember, water costs already went up by $220 million with water and wastewater increases in 2012-13.

The Wishtoyo Consent Decree is a fiscal calamity for the city. More cost-effective options exist, but the City Council and Ventura Water fail to consider them. Times change. Circumstances change. Now is the time to reconsider options to be sure we’re making the best choice available.

Pension Inflation Throughout The 2010s

Pensions in the 2010sRetirement pensions are the city’s number one problem. Ventura currently has a $215.1 million unfunded pension liability, and that number continues to grow. CalPERS (the California Public Employees retirement fund) demands rapidly increasing contributions from Ventura. We will have permanent increases of at least $2 million per year for five to six consecutive years.

We respect the work city employees do. There is no denying that fire and police preform a vital job that is both dangerous and requires a high level of training and responsibility. Our concern is not about their work. It’s about the structure by which their retirement is accumulated and paid after retirement.

It is undeniable that city employees’ retirement pensions are crowding out the city’s ability to provide the service itself. Moreover, chronic underfunding of pensions will eventually hit a breaking point jeopardizing the employees’ benefits too. Expect your taxes to increase (á la Measure O) and the services the city provides to decrease.

Homelessness In Ventura In The 2010s

You may remember Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Speech when he described the Military-Industrial Complex. Now, we have something new, the Homelessness-Industrial Complex. Today’s Homelessness-Industrial Complex shares some of the same characteristics as the Military-Industrial Complex. There is an alliance of special interests. It includes government bureaucracies, homeless advocacy groups operating through nonprofit entities, and large government contractors, especially construction companies and land development firms.

Here’s how the process works: Developers accept public money to build projects to house the homeless – either “bridge housing,” or “permanent supportive housing.” Cities and counties collect building fees and hire bureaucrats for oversight. The projects are then handed off to nonprofits with long term contracts to run them.

Homelessness mushroomed in the 2010sSounds good, right? That is until you see the price tag. Developers don’t just build housing projects; they construct ridiculously overpriced, overbuilt housing projects. (Keep in mind Ventura’s permitting fees and stringent building codes). Cities and counties create massive bureaucracies. The nonprofits don’t just run these projects; they operate vast bureaucratic empires. These fiefdoms have overhead, marketing budgets, and executive salaries that do nothing for the homeless. They do not overpay the workers in the shelter.

Set Up For Failure

Ventura selected Mercy House from Orange County to run its homeless shelter. Larry Haynes, Marcy House’s president, said in a speech in Ventura, “Housing is, ‘An inalienable right.’”

Mr. Haynes believes a cornerstone to Mercy House’s success in Ventura depends on developing affordable housing. Herein lies the rub. If Ventura doesn’t build affordable housing, how does that impact Mercy House’s performance? Affordable housing isn’t something Ventura has been able to do historically. “It makes it harder,” he said.

The City of Ventura has 555 homeless people. Of those, 387 are unsheltered. The Homeless Shelter will house 55 people from Ventura, leaving 332 people vulnerable.

Ventura will spend $712,000 each year for its 55 beds in the new homeless shelter. That equates to $12,945 per bed per year. And if what Mr. Haynes says is true, expect the city to pay more and more on homelessness and less on other services.

Anthony Mele, Jr. Murder

Jamal Jackson stabbed Anthony Mele, Jr. to death on Ventura’s Promenade in April 2018, thrusting the city into the national news.

Jackson was a repeat offender and was homeless. Many citizens jumbled his criminal act and his impoverished state. Of Ventura’s 555 homeless, 85 (32.7%) have mental health problems, and 93 (35.8%) have substance abuse problems.

The crime prompted an immediate reaction by Ventura Police. First, patrols along the promenade increased. At first, two officers patrolled the boardwalk 20 hours per day. Shortly after that, police expanded the patrol radius to include downtown. In July 2018, the City Council approved funds to continue the patrols. Now two officers patrol 12 hours per day. Arrest data increased since the incident. Ventura Police still deal with a significant number of recidivist criminal homeless.

Following the incident, the Police department reviewed its procedures. Chief Ken Corney admitted poor judgment. Substituting video monitoring for an officer responding was not the right choice.

Since then, there have been changes to the security camera monitoring. The changes include:

Extra cameras, active surveillance, more training, changes in monitoring policy, and re-prioritization of Calls for Service response. The review also concluded that the police adequately prioritized the call when it came in.

Public outcry diminished, but the problem of criminal vagrancy continues beyond the 2010s.

Real Estate Blunders Throughout The 2010s

2010s

The city mismanages taxpayer money on real estate deal routinely. In the past decade, there have been several notable instances: Brooks Institute, the WAV Building, the Harbor Church and the city parking garage. In each case, the mistakes have cost taxpayers’ money.

Brooks Institute

With Brooks Institute, the City Council believed relocating the school downtown would benefit the city. The City Council’s good intention went wrong. Brooks Institute was financially insolvent. It pulled out of town contractors and the city money.

The folks at City Hall tried hard to put on a brave and jubilant face in trying to explain why their decision to accept $71,000 to settle a lawsuit against Brooks Institute is a victory. Readers of this letter know better. The settlement does not even cover the rents and security deposit that Brooks was to have paid in the first six months of their lease. Nor does it account for the future lost rents and property damages. By our best estimate, the city lost well over $261,000 in this settlement.

The WAV Building

Ventura completed construction on the WAV (Working Artists of Ventura) Building at the beginning of the decade. The building included 82 low income and subsidized housing units, commercial spaces and 13 condos for sale at market rate.

What did the WAV Building cost? $55 million according to the city.  That figure is too low, however. It doesn’t consider the cost of the 1.7 acres of city-owned property Ventura sold to the developer for $1. It also doesn’t include the $1.5 million in deferred permit fees. A reasonable estimate put this at $65 million.

The city acquired tax money from many sources to pay for construction, but it was not enough. Then city officials did something devious to finance completing construction. They took $1 million from the Ventura Water funds, transferred it to the Public Art Fund, then loaned the money to the project. Even worse, the city subordinated the loan to a $4.5 million mortgage from Chase. Selling the 13 condos for between $725,000 to $850,000 each would repay the city’s inter-department loan.

2010sThe concept flopped. The condos finally sold in 2018 for a fraction of what the city hoped to get. Buyers paid $413,000-$470,000 for the units. Once the sale completed, the mortgage holder, Chase, was repaid both principal and interest. Ventura Water was left holding the bag, however, for the $1 million “loaned” to the city. The city received only $105,893 from the sale of the condos after paying the Construction Loan, sales commissions, sales expenses, the City Deferred Impact Fee Loan and the developer.

What’s more, the city loaned $2 million to the Regional Development Agency (RDA) to build the WAV project. The city expected to be repaid $1 million before the California Assembly eliminated RDAs statewide. Ventura wrote off $1 million when the RDA disappeared. Ventura is pursuing the outstanding principal and interest through the Recognized Obligation Payment Schedule (ROPS), but has received nothing so far.

All totaled, Ventura lost $1,894,107 on the sale of the condos.

Former Mayor Bill Fulton projected the project would “produce 25,000 visitors a year and would stimulate the local economy, resulting in $75,000,000 in new investments.” He also said the city used no local tax dollars to build the WAV Building.

The reality is that most of the money came from Federal and State taxes. But the funds noted above came from the city, plus another $334,176 to offset various construction fees.

As for the $75 million in new investment, we will never know because the estimator, Bill Fulton, left town.

At the time, we noted our elected representatives lack the understanding, the capacity to ask the more profound questions or political will to stop these types of actions.

Harbor Church

The city paid church officials $2.3 million 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 extra $700,000 to pay the Church to move. By any measure, Ventura overpaid for the property.

Downtown Parking Garage

And there was a mistake with the city parking garage—the city grants private, reserved parking spaces to select businesses downtown as an incentive to operate. The city approved ten parking spaces to entice Cinemark Theaters to remain downtown. The trouble was when Lure Restaurant opened at 66 California, and the city staff provided them the same ten spots. This may not seem like a big blunder, but it shows that the city is inept at managing real estate, or the staff lacks good leadership to make sure mistakes don’t occur.

We’ve believed the city should get out of the real estate business throughout the 2010s. The litany of poor decisions grows. Ventura owns commercial real estate throughout the city. As these examples demonstrate, the city has not made responsible decisions regarding these properties. At the very least, the city should seek advice from licensed realtors and experts whenever making a real estate decision.

Grand Jury Finding

The 2011-2012 Ventura County Grand Jury opened an inquiry and issued a report condemning the City of Ventura’s Code Enforcement practices. The report addresses the aggressive collection of fees by Code Enforcement, motivated by the need to raise more revenue.

Ventura's Code Enforcement Scrutinized in the 2010sCity government and Code Enforcement officers serve a valuable and essential service to our community until they start acting like bullies with their use of force, intimidation, abuse of power and excessive punishment of the citizenry.

At the time, the city’s response to this report demonstrated their lack of understanding or constituted a brazen and irresponsible attempt to obfuscate the truth when they dismissed the report as vague. It was not.

For much of the 2010s, citizens overlooked or forgot the Grand Jury’s report until we had the Thomas Fire. Suddenly, city permitting and inspection of new buildings was of paramount importance. Sadly, stories from the fire’s victims indicate nothing has changed at City Hall.

District Elections

City Council Candidates will serve by district after the 2010s

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 are bringing fresh perspective and energy to the Council. They also are facing a steep learning curve to be effective.

Governing by districts means inexperienced new Councilmembers will lead the city. Inexperience leads to two possible outcomes. 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.

Citizens will now expect their elected officials to represent their district’s interests. As a result, concern for the city as a whole may take a backseat to districtwide issues. The loss of a citywide perspective on the Council is distressing.

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 City Councilmembers thought was most important: 1) growth 2) water 3) homelessness and 4) staff accountability.

Editor’s Comments

We will remember the 2010s as one of the most significant decades in Ventura’s history. It was a decade that saw our city leaders allow uninformed good intentions to overrule good governing. As a result, the city finds itself with budget deficits for the next five years. This is due, in part, to a growing pension debt obligation. The city is poised to pass along the most substantial rate increase for water in its history. The money the city spends on homelessness will grow. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city will have to raise taxes, cut services or a combination of the two.

The groundwork laid by city leaders in the 2010s provides a shaky foundation for the 2020s. The specter of higher taxes and reduced city services looms. Several things must happen to overcome the city’s current situation.

First, The City Council must have a cohesive, long-term vision. That vision must focus on the fundamentals of governing: public safety, maintained streets, safe neighborhoods, clean, affordable water, and business growth. In the early 2010s, the Council had a vision, but it didn’t concentrate on the fundamentals. As a result, the Council left the city with the Wishtoyo Consent Decree and the WAV Building. From 2013 on, the Council was divided and lacked any vision. The landmark accomplishment of those Councils was to push the Measure O sales tax increase. Yet, if you ask ordinary citizens how the extra money helps them, they’d be hard-pressed to answer.

Second, Ventura must retain a City Manager for more than three years. The City Manager leads the city staff to fulfill the City Council’s vision. Constant turnover disrupts that vision. A City Manager needs time to build a team and get them performing at a high level. We hope our current City Manager, Alex McIntyre, will have the opportunity to show the city what he’s capable of doing.

Third, voters must get involved. District voting means every vote is more important than it’s ever been. Your vote is one in 15,000 potential voters in your district. Your ballot carries more value than it did when we had citywide elections and your vote was one of 64,976. If the city is to overcome the current obstacles, we can’t have districts in which only 3,781 voters cast ballots.

Tell City Council, “Don’t Repeat The Mistakes Of The 2010s.”

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.

Councilmembers
Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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

 

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.

Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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

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.

What Prevents The Thomas Fire Findings From Being Public?

To understand 2018 begins by understanding December 2017 and the Thomas Fire. The fire destroyed 535 houses in Ventura. It scarred the hillside, displaced families, and created unprecedented demands for services. It was Ventura public safety’s finest hour. Police and firefighters performed heroic feats. As a result, no Ventura residents died in the fire.

Thomas Fire Findings Part Of A Mixed Recovery

Thirteen months later, the report card on Ventura city government is not as good. The city did not continue the success public safety exhibited during the fire. Ventura had the opportunity for a significant economic stimulus 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. In the intervening time, the city issued 165 building permits. The city staff beefed up with contractors to help with the workload for these results. The city staff wasn’t entirely to blame. The City Council waffled on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding victims’ homes. Indecisiveness delayed the rebuilding process for many.

Delayed Thomas Fire Findings

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. City Manager Alex McIntyre says, “We may get something in draft this month [December 2018].” More likely, it could be next year. Understandably the city must be cautious. A critical point under review is the subject of litigation against the city. Homeowners are suing Ventura for lack of water and pressure to fight the fire in its early stages. Still, the failure to produce a report makes Ventura appear plodding and bureaucratic.

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.

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.

Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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

 

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.

How To Make The Most Powerful Job In Ventura Government More Accountable.

Local Ventura Politics

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
—George Santayana

Here we go again. Ventura is hiring its fourth City Manager since 2000.

You’ve undoubtedly told our children or grandchildren, “Haste makes waste.” It’s sound advice; especially when you want to prevent them from making a mistake. The same advice holds true for Ventura’s City Council when hiring our next City Manager. A hasty decision now leads to adverse consequences in the future.

The City Manager is the most powerful role in Ventura’s city government. He controls millions of dollars and impacts Ventura for years to come. He does this with little oversight by a part-time City Council. And history shows the Council lacks sound financial judgment when overseeing him. Voters know even less about how the City Manager does his job.

A Chance For The Council To Start Fresh

This City Council faces its most important decision—selecting the next City Manager. It’s no easy task. The new manager will be responsible for healing Ventura after the Thomas Fire. No prior City Manager has faced such a daunting task.

The Council should act slowly, boldly and thoughtfully when hiring. They should think creatively and progressively as they make their selection.

Balancing these goals will not be easy. The Council will feel internal and external pressure to act quickly. They’ll want to fill the vacant position right away to provide leadership at City Hall. And, citizens will demand someone to manage the Thomas Fire recovery. The search firm Ventura hired will add to the external pressure, too. Ventura pays the search firm when the new City Manager accepts the job. Typically, the fee is three months of the City Manager’s starting salary. In this case, it’s $60,500. The search firm will want the City Council to act quickly, so it gets paid.

The Council must resist the urge to succumb to the pressure.

We Know Poor Choices Lead To Financial Disaster

 

The tenure of the past three city managers keeps getting shorter.

The City Council does a poor job overseeing the City Manager. Former City Manager Rick Cole moved $7.5 million from the Public Liability Fund, Workers’ Compensation Fund and Information Technology Fund to other areas in the budget to make it appear as if the city’s budget was balanced. Either the Council didn’t catch the manipulation or was unwilling to investigate further.

A city manager could confuse the city council in the past.

Former City Manager Donna Landeros reallocated $9 million earmarked for the proposed Convention Center for various city programs, and nobody knows what happened to the money.

And, most recently, retiring City Manager Mark Watkins acted as the chief cheerleader on Measure O. He touted the money was for city services when the truth is it will eventually go towards employees’ pensions.

Even the City Council’s most recent hiring decision costs taxpayers money. The Council erred in the transition to Mark Watkins from Rick Cole. Cole received total salary and benefits of $189,341 along with a housing allowance to move to the city. When Watkins came in, he didn’t need a housing allowance because he already lived in Ventura. Rather than save that money, the Council chose to increase his salary and bonus to $242,059. The $52,718 increase impacts the city’s future financial condition negatively. At the time, Councilmember Christy Weir claimed hiring Mr. Watkins would save the city more money than the rise in his salary. The figures don’t bear that out over the four years he served in the role.

What’s more, Mr. Watkins is to receive his retirement pension based on his highest salary. At 56 years old, Watkins will receive retirement pension based on his $242,059 salary.

Greater Transparency Is The Key

Past City Managers had a bureaucratic background. Some argue requiring bureaucratic experience makes sense. Bureaucrats are the antithesis of transparent, though. They operate out of sight of the voters. This lack of transparency was disastrous for Ventura. Here’s why.

The city manager would be more accountable with published standards of performance.

A bureaucrat measures success by how large a team he manages. He’s driven to increase budgets to protect that organization. A more massive government usually equates to increased regulation. Rarely is that beneficial to citizens.

Also, a bureaucrat that is friendly towards and advocates for the city staff is not impartial. He will be reluctant to reduce expenses, eliminate unnecessary work, redirect work to private entities or minimize long-term staff costs. Bloated staff costs taxpayers money.

Finally, a bureaucrat negotiates his retirement when negotiating for the staff because he participates in the same plan. Human nature being what it is, the City Manager will likely bargain less vigorously, creating a conflict of interest.

Transparency begins with knowing how the City Manager is performing. The city should use Standards of Performance (SOPs) to measure achievement. Currently, the City Manager doesn’t have SOPs listed on its website. The Council should prepare SOPs, and the city should post them for the public to review. What’s more, the City Manager’s accomplishments should be in the public record. Citizens deserve a yardstick to measure if the city is meeting the City Council’s directives.

How to be more transparent when selecting the next City Manager:

  • Publish the screening criteria the City Council gave to the search firm to select candidates
  • Reevaluate the job qualifications and look outside of municipal government.
  • Post the Standards of Performance. Establish measurable performance levels on a regular review schedule.
  • Establish a Blue-ribbon committee to provide the Council strict salary and bonus guidelines.
  • Verify a candidate’s financial management expertise. The candidate must provide clear and incontrovertible evidence.
  • Insist on community outreach success from the candidates. The job description doesn’t list this as one of the primary duties.

Editors’ Comments

Hiring the next City Manager is paramount, and citizen input is a must.

 

Tell The City Council Not To Act Hastily

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 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 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.

Budget Manipulation Using Fiscal Sleight Of Hand

Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air”
—Shakespeare, Macbeth

STATE OF THE CITY TREASURY

[TRANSPARENCY THROUGH FOUL AND FILTHY AIR]

History continues to remind us that to get to the root of any act of wrongdoing, malfeasance or wrongdoing, you need only follow the money to find the culprit(s). Eventually the truth and they are revealed. That again proved true at the City Council meeting on March 11, 2013.

Shell game balanced budget

Balancing the budget through financial sleight of hand

Our acting City Manager, Johnnie Johnson, in collaboration with the Chief Financial Officer, informed the City Council that those in charge of the budget in our City had adjusted [manipulated?] the GENERAL BUDGET to make it appear that we had achieved a balanced budget. In fact just the opposite was true.

The previous City Manager, Rick Cole together with Mayor Bill Fulton continuously publicized the fact that “we were living within our means”, that “we had balanced our budget” and that our “financial affairs were transparent”. On this Monday night the Council learned otherwise.

What the Council learned is that the $12,000,000 in financial reserves, created in 1992, and still in existence as of 2007, was now in fact only worth $4,300,000. The explanation provided is that Internal Service Funds (noted below), which contained money budgeted and set aside to meet real and specific future costs and potential liabilities, had been reduced so as to make it appear as if the budget had been balanced:

  • ($2m) Unassigned.
  • ($2m) Unfunded Workers Compensation liability
  • ($3m) Potential liability claims reserve Information
  • ($700,000) Technology

The explanation offered is that this was a way to make it appear as if our budget was balanced. As stated by Mr. Johnson, “we have not borrowed it from strangers, but we did borrow it from ourselves… (and) if we do not fund this within five years we will be broke”.

Mayor Tracy, at the conclusion of the presentation stated:

“Based on the way I look on the information we received here tonight we have probably been deceiving ourselves and therefore the general public. There is nothing illegal done here, we did not participate in any conspiracy, but I don’t think it (this) was clear to us”.

—Mike Tracy, Mayor and Retired Chief of Police

He then added that that the Council needed to put more oversight controls in place to prevent this from happening in the future. A new budget will be presented to the Council on May 1, 2013.

Editors Comments

Mayor Tracy and Councilman Heitmann were not on the City Council when these budget “adjustments” were made. For those council members and supporters of the former City Manager, this should be a lesson that the public was deceived and there was not total transparency during Mr. Cole’s administration. To have an interim City Manager, in 6 months time, bring to light that the $12.0M reserve was really $4.3M shows how gullible our leadership has been.

THE NEW CITY MANAGER BUSTS THE BUDGET

Mark Watkins’ higher salary and benefits strain Ventrua’s budget

On March 4, 20013, the City Council met to consider the employment contract for the new City Manager, Mark Watkins. On a vote of 4 to 3 the Council approved the employment contract. He will receive the following salary and benefits plus 6 weeks paid leave:

Base Salary $222,000.00
Annual Cost of Living Increases (1/2% of annual CPI)
Annual Performance Bonuses (3%-7%) $15,540.00
Auto Allowance $6,000.00
City Contribution to 401(K) $12,000.00
Employer Pension Pickup (2.5%) $5,500.00
Total Before Benefits $261,090.00

When invitations for applicants were first published the City Council set the salary rate range of $160,000 to $214,000. The previous City Manager received a salary of $174,000.

The Ventura County Taxpayers Association spoke against approval of the contract because the starting salary was simply too high for an entry level Manager, that the salary should be started lower and then increased to provide performance incentives and the contract provided automatic annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) during the 3 year term of the contract. They also warned against the COLA adjustment because of the precedent it would set when other public union contracts came up for renewal.

Mayor Tracy, Councilman Monahan, Councilwomen Weir and Heitmann approved the contract. They stated that Mr. Watkins was a long time resident of Ventura, that he had worked in the City during his career, that he was an Assistant City Manager in Thousand Oaks and that this was what needed to be paid to attract a qualified City Manager who would focus on the basics of operations of city government. Councilwoman Weir commented that any increase in the salary level could also be justified because “that we have already found savings in the City Manager’s budget to make up the difference”.

Our present acting City Manager commented that Mr. Watkins was a good choice, that this pay increase really only involved “pennies” in the total scheme of things, and that if he did not work out he could just be terminated and given a severance package.

Councilmen Andrews voted against the contract. Councilmen Brennan and Morehouse, after extolling the virtues and accomplishments of the former City Manager, Rick Cole, also voted no.

Editors Comments

Mr. Watkins will cost us an additional 26,102,700 pennies per year. He will earn all of that in dealing with our budgetary issues. We hope that the majority of the Council is right in saying that the additional expense can be justified by the savings that this new Manager will bring to our City.

In the meantime we must be diligent and continue to remind our elected representatives that if they we do not watch how they spend our pennies “we” will have no dollars left.

Editors:


R. Alviani K. Corse T. Cook J. Tingstrom R. McCord S. Doll

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