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How The Right Steps In The 2019 Budget Make Your Tomorrow Better

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

—P.J. O’Rourke

Ventura faces severe revenue shortfalls in six of the next seven years, the size of those during The Great Recession. Ventura is on pace to lose over $9.07 million over the next six years. You should be concerned about the financial conditions in the City of Ventura, and you should also know this budgetary crisis is avoidable if the City Council acts this year.

Ventura’s General Fund Financial Outlook For The Next 10 Years

Ventura city staff calculate the city’s revenue and expenses for the next ten years [see graphic]. Costs will exceed income for six consecutive years beginning in the fiscal year 2020-2021—that’s next year.

Budget projection shortfall

Pensions are the main reason for the rise in expenditures. Annual pension costs will climb to $31.48 million from $19.71 million by the fiscal year 2025-2026. That’s an $11.63 million increase. The city projects property and sales taxes to increase by only $10.6 million over the same period. Not a rosy outlook.

Budget negatively impacted by pensions

Next year (the fiscal year 2020-2021), Ventura faces a $2.52 million deficit because of the $2.17 million in rising pension costs.

Pensions cause budget deficits

The city staff estimations are optimistic. They do not factor in a recession, which some believe is imminent. If a recession comes, people will lose jobs. Also, if a recession hits, property and sales tax revenues will suffer and projected losses may be even worse. What’s more, the city plans to add no money to reserves in the fiscal year 2019-2020. Current reserve levels for the City of Ventura will keep the city government running for only 45 days.

Wasn’t Measure O supposed To Save The Budget?

Measure O passed three years ago and will continue for the next 22 years. It brings in $10.8 million in additional sales tax revenue each year. Still, it isn’t enough to cover the projected shortfalls. Why is that?

There are several reasons why Measure O can’t save the city’s budget. First, there is no consensus among the City Councilmembers about how to use Measure O money. Alex McIntyre, Ventura’s new City Manager, asked all seven Councilmembers individually how they would spend it. All seven Councilmembers gave differing opinions on how to use the Measure O taxes. Without clear direction, it’s difficult for the City Manager to focus the city staff on what’s most important for our city. Confusion over Measure O is one example of how the City Council is dysfunctional on the budget’s priorities.

vultures eyeing the budgetA second problem is how special interest groups lined up to get their share of Measure O. At the May 20th City Council meeting, Councilmembers Lorrie Brown, Jim Friedman and Mayor Matt LaVere tried to move funds from Measure O to the General Fund for Fire Station No. 4. The Star report said the Fire Department union members felt insecure (sic) about Station No. 4 funding coming out of a temporary tax fund. (The tax lasts for 25 years)

In 2016, The City Council sold Measure O to voters with the promise that Fire Station No. 4 would remain open with its funds. Voters agreed to the idea of a temporary 25-year tax. VFD is now trying to persuade the City Council that when Measure O expires, there may not be funding for Fire Station No. 4. They fearmonger that response times to calls will increase, and lives could be lost. A 4-3 vote defeated the motion.

While this City Council takes precious time debating moving funds from one column to another, the growing unfunded pension obligations put pressure on the entire city budget, even with Measure O.

The Canaries In The Coal Mine

The canary in the coal mine foretells budget problemsEconomic disasters are all around us. There is no reason to think that Ventura is immune to them. The City of Oxnard is preparing to lay off hundreds of employees. They also plan to close a fire station and reduce the number of fire personnel available to respond to emergencies. The Oxnard City Manager says, “We are down to bare bones.” What’s happening in Oxnard is a preview of what could happen in Ventura unless the City Council acts quickly.

Ventura County Medical Center is losing over $40 million per year. That adds more unemployment to our community. With the City of Ventura own forecast of financial shortfalls, the City Council would do well not to ignore the economic disaster warning like ‘a canary in a coal mine.’

How Do We Fix The Budget?

Ventura's budget has always been suspectThe budgetary crisis is entirely avoidable if the City Council acts now. The solutions are simple, but they are not easy. It requires significant political will and resolve.

Improve The Budgeting Process

Currently, the City Council approves the city’s annual budget one year at a time. It doesn’t consider subsequent years’ financial demands. Given that the 10- year forecast shows losses for the next six years’ budgets, to ignore the next six years will be pushing the problem “down the road.”

Now is the time to change this systemic shortsightedness. City Councilmembers have the opportunity to discuss budgeting on at least a 3-year basis, not one year at a time.

Not Filling All Open Positions In City Hall

To balance the budget over the next six years, the city staff has two potential solutions. They can increase revenue through taxes and fees or reduce expenses. Since it’s not easy or popular to raise taxes and fees, the alternative is to cut costs.

Ventura City Hall, city budget

The single largest expense category is city employees. Cutting staff is the obvious choice to reduce expenses. To avoid the unpopular cutting of current employees, the City Council can take a less unpleasant path and cut positions in the budget that the city never filled.

There are currently sixty unfilled positions at City Hall. If each vacant position costs the city $100,000 per person (salary, overtime, retirement and benefits), the cost to budget for these open positions adds to the projected deficit (losses).

If the city reduces the unfilled positions to thirty instead of sixty, the savings to Ventura would be $3 million per year. A $3 million reduction in expenses will balance the budgets for the next six years.

This decision puts the City Council on the horns of a dilemma. Should they hire all sixty positions now and later fire employees during the budget shortfalls? Alternatively, should they hire only thirty people knowing they can add personnel if the city’s economic situation improves? Eliminating unfilled staff positions is less disruptive to city government than laying people off.

Economic Development

An alternative toward improving the budget is to attract new or expanding businesses to Ventura. Several Councilmembers understand this and agree. More business and local jobs are the best solution for filling the budgetary shortfalls. More jobs generate more sales tax, encourage community spending and increase property values. Higher property values increase property taxes and reduce blight.

economic development adds to the budgetImagine the stimulus to the community of filling the old Star Free-Press building or the Toys-R-Us location would have.

The city has already taken the first step in this direction. City Manager, Alex McIntyre, has moved the Economic Development division under the City Manager from under Community Development. Elevating the reporting of this department to the City Manager signals the increased importance economic development has for the city.

Empower The Economic Development Manager

Another simple step the city could take would be to empower the Economic Development Manager (EDM). The EDM must have readily available an inventory of all commercial locations, complete with square footage, zoning, parking, pricing, and a list of commercial real estate agents and contact information.

The City Council must be ready to provide incentives to new or expanding businesses. The incentives must include fee reductions and process simplification to entice the companies. One such motivator must be a single contact within the city who will guide the relocation process through the bureaucracy.

Finally, the EDM must identify and target new commercial business to locate in Ventura.

Each of these positive steps toward economic development has one drawback. They are long-term solutions. None of them will happen quickly enough to fix a budget by next year.

Streamline the City Hall Experience

The city has started reorganizing boards and commissions that oversee Planning, Design Review, Historic Preservation, and other committees filled by residents appointed by the City Council. While this is a good start, it must go further.

Reducing boards and commissions saves staff time in preparing and attending meetings. The staff attends about 20 meetings a month. Fewer meetings will allow more time for the employees to better supervise operations in planning, design review, code enforcement, etc.

The city must look at other ways to reduce staff time in other duties—especially if the city hires only thirty of the sixty unfilled positions. All staff operations should be scrutinized to end obsolete or redundant activities.

Revamp Ventura Fire Department

Now is a good time to modernize the fire department. Ventura Fire operates in much the same way it did 100 years ago except the needs are far different:

  • Building codes are stricter making fires less frequent
  • More buildings have sprinkler systems
  • Over 75% of calls are for paramedics

Each fire station has paramedics on duty to serve those calls. In addition to Ventura Fire, each medical emergency requires an ambulance from a private company in case a victim needs transporting to the hospital. Rolling a fire truck plus an ambulance seems like duplicated efforts.

VFD adds pressure to city budgetAny change to the Fire Department would likely be unpopular with the public. That makes it a subject considered by Councilmembers, to be too controversial to discuss.  The fire department union will become protective of their fellow firefighters and will want to preserve the status quo.

As they have in the past, the unions will apply pressure to the Council. Since four of the seven elected Councilmembers received campaign contributions from Ventura Fire in their last election, the politicians will likely concede as they have in the past. Ventura Fire Department needs reorganizing. Now is the ideal time to do it.

Editor’s Comments

The community will not support another tax rate increase. Pension costs already absorbed the entire $10.8 million raised by Measure. Still, citizens ask why the city doesn’t repair their streets and sidewalks. We can’t hope for an economic miracle to increase revenue, so the city must take steps to curb expenses. Ventura must:

  • Lower expenses by not filling all open positions at City Hall. Add those costs back into the budget
  • Design and target new commercial businesses to locate in Ventura
  • Offer incentives and fee reductions to bring more jobs to Ventura
  • Streamline the City Hall process and operations to reduce staff time. It will accelerate the processing time for building and licenses
  • Streamline medical response procedures within Ventura Fire. Find ways to reduce fire department costs for those calls. Dispatching a private ambulance and fire trucks with paramedics every time is expensive
  • Hold in-depth discussions at the City Council to expand budgeting to a 3-year basis, not one year at a time

INSIST THE CITY COUNCIL MODERNIZES THE BUDGET PROCESS

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Oversight committee

Update On the Measure O Citizens’ Tax Oversight Committee

Reason is, And Ought Only To Be The Slave Of Our Passions”
—David Hume

EARLY SIGNS OF A TRAIN WRECK

The city’s Measure O Oversight Committee has shown signs of being inadequately trained and poorly prepared for the job they were appointed to do. This is not the fault of the committee members themselves but a reflection of the City Council and City Staff.

The Measure O Citizens Oversight Committee conducted their third public meeting on August 10,2017 at the Sanjon Maintenance Yard (Ventura Water Department). Each of the three meetings has been at a different location. They are not televised or recorded in any manner. Few members of the public attend.

This new tax oversight committee, appointed following the sales tax increase approved by the voters in the last election, serves ostensibly to provide recommendations to the City Council on how the new $10 million, in new sales tax money should,or presumably, not be spent.

The City of Ventura Finance Department did a yeoman’s job in attempting to provide the committee with a draft of proposed future spending of Measure O funds for the next 5 years. It was a suffocating spreadsheet which required detailed comments and direction on the evening of the meeting. If the purpose was to provide clear, informed and relevant information for the public and the committee as a basis for making decisions on how to spend the new tax money, it fell short.

The City Finance Department made a good effort to explain everything but the complexity of the subject required more than a brief meeting.

SPENDING PROJECTED TO EXCEED INCOME

For most citizens seeing this spreadsheet for the first time, be prepared to understand that
there is a projected deficit by the second year, and each year after that. See this detailed projection here.

Measure O overspends by $1.76 million in the second year

At first glance, the Measure O funding will be overspent by $1.761m in the second year. By the fiscal year 2022, the City of Ventura will be over budget (spending more than they expect to receive) by $3.732m. We must all keep in mind that this is a draft worksheet for discussion purposes only; but even so, to learn at the outset that the head of our finance department predicts a deficit in just 5 years for a new tax that will last 25 years does not bode well.

What is clear however is that the Committee is being asked to approve thisprojection, and that a very large percentage of those projections are for long term contracts for public safety and city personnel. History has demonstrated quite clearly that those “contracts” are never reduced thus we can expect more and more of this new tax money to be consumed for personnel and benefits.  Everything else – roads etc. – will be low on the list of priorities.

There were two things that the Measure O Committee needed to concentrate on. One was that the only annual budget recommendation that really needed to be discussed was for fiscal year 2018. The second was that they were only seeing a small percentage of the financial picture. The general budget line items were not presented, thus there was no way for anybody to perform an analysis of where money “should” or “should not” be spent, or to determine if the general budget had been modified and then back filled with the new tax money. Without a comparison to the general budget, it is impossible to perform that task.

For example, by not having the general budget for a  specific department, side by side to that departments proposed Measure O Funding, the Measure O committee had no way to determine if say $700,000 for sidewalks made sense because they have no idea if Public Works is spending another $1.0m or zero out of the General Fund Budget for sidewalks.

CITY DEPARTMENT PRESENTATIONS  

Each of the three sought the Measure O Oversight Committee’s approval to present their spending to the City Council. Public Works Director, Tulson Clifford, presented his department’s request for $6.1 million in 2017-2018. Police Chief, Ken Corney, presented his department’s request for hiring new officers in time to enter them into the training academy in October 2017. And, Nancy O’Connor, Parks Director, presented her department’s request.

Police in city government

Police Chief Ken Corney’s request was approved by the Oversight Committee

There were only 5 of the 7 Committee members present and this would present a potential problem for the Measure O Committee. After about 2 hours, the Committee Chair person suggested that no recommendations be made until all 7 committee members were in attendance. This was after hearing Chief Corney explained that timing was crucial and the funding for the Neighbor Drug & Crime Prevention required the hiring and training of 7 new officers at the police academy in October.  .

If it had not been for Committee Board Member Kristopher Hansen’s quick thinking and motion, to recommend to City Council the Police Chief’s request for funds, the outcome could have been detrimental to the Ventura citizens. Measure O Citizens Committee did their job and funds were approved for the police department and postponed for all other requests.

EDITORS COMMENT

To assist this new committee in their task and to maintain transparency for all citizens in the community VREG makes the following suggestions and recommendations:
  1. Have the entire department’s general funds budgets side by side the Measure O budget.
  2. The Department Heads provide a detailed cost breakdown on how the funds will be spent which matches the line items on the general budget.
  3. Discussing department spending five years is helpful but misleading. There are too many variables to factor over that period, such as personnel, maintenance costs, contracts, natural resources, safety, technology and public demand.
  4. Increase and improve the training for current and future committee members. Be satisfied they understand their roles,duties and responsibilities.
  5. Be sure they know Parliamentary procedures, so they help, not hinder, city government such as what constitutes a quorum to act.
  6. As needed, provide in-meeting guidance and direction from city officials whenthe committee appears confused or aimless.
  7. Hold the meetings in places that permit cable TV coverage. Transparency isimportant to Measure O. Thus far, it has not been transparentI nhibits transparency and confuses the public on where to attend meetings.
  8. Hold the meetings in the same facility. Moving from location to location

 

Addendum

 

THE STAFF PRESENTATION/REQUESTS FOR FUNDS

To help you better understand, we have included both Public Works and the Parks and Recreation presentations so you may judge for yourself that there is no correlation to the Measure O budget requests on a line by line analysis to the general budget. Here is a verbatim of what they were told:

PUBLIC WORKS

The Public Works Department is charged with designing, building, operating and
maintaining the Citys infrastructure including:

  • 75 buildings;700 lane miles of pavement and adjacent sidewalks;
  • 138 traffic signals;26 miles of alleys;
  • 22 parking lots; and
  • An extensive storm drain system (110 miles of storm drain lines, 2,400 storm drain inlets, and 9 miles of drainage ditches).

Some of this infrastructure was installed over 100 years ago, and much of it has
reached or exceeded its useful life. The following infrastructure improvements are needed to protect the environment for the safety, enjoyment and prosperity of future generations:

  • Improve streets, sidewalks, alleys, and provide safe facilities for pedestrians and cyclists – $191 million;
  • Clean and protect the beaches with storm water and drainage repairs – $34 million;• Protect and seismically improve bridges $27 million and
  • Repair public buildings and facilities $27 million.

Public Works has reviewed the infrastructure needs and prioritized projects based on existing conditions, risk, liability, and other factors. While we recognize that not all of these improvements can be made in year one, this proposal contributes to the long-term sustainability and resilience of Venturas infrastructure. The proposed Measure O budget for Public Works projects in FY 2017-18 is $6.1 million. These projects include pavement overlay on Telegraph Road (Main St. to N. Mills Dr.) and replacing the storm drain at Harbor Blvd. and Olivas Dr.

PARKS, RECREATION AND COMMUNITY PRESENTATION

            PRCP focus for Measure O will be aimed at delivery of service to activities that “reduce blight, assist the homeless, and maintain or improve existing facilities and infrastructure”.

            Safe and Clean. Expansion of current program allows for additional staff to respond to homeless debris cleanup as well as general trash, debris, weeds, in right of ways, sidewalks and roads.

            Urban Forestry Tree Maintenance. This proposal provides resources to prune 10,000 trees each year, in addition to the approximately 6500 trees that are currently trimmed annually. Expected outcomes will allow for all city maintained trees to be on a 3 to 5 year pruning cycle (species dependent). The current pruning cycle is 7-9 years.

            Median Maintenance. Current maintenance of medians is approximately once per month, medians only, minimal sidewalk maintenance at best. Expanded funding of the program will allow median and sidewalk maintenance on main arterials to be performed twice per month.

            Aquatic Center Maintenance. The Aquatic Center, at Community Park, opened in 2002 and most of the hard components of the center-pumps, motors, tanks, and the pools themselves, have a finite useful life, and need regular maintenance and replacement. There is no sinking fund associated with the pools and adding ongoing funding allows optimal maintenance, and helps keep the pools operating safely.

            Preserving Park and Recreational Facilities. Community Park has one entrance, at Kimball Road. The master plan for the park includes an additional entrance from Telephone Road, at Ramelli Avenue. Hundreds of people enjoy Community Park daily, and on weekend the number of visitors is oftentimes in the thousands. A second entrance improves access to the park, and allows for larger softball, soccer, and swimming events.

Restroom at Arroyo Verde. Many of the park restrooms are closed on a regular basis due to issues with cleanliness and safety. The City of Portland, Oregon developed a stainless-steel restroom. These restrooms have been installed in their downtown areas, and are frequented by tourists and the homeless. The restrooms main features are fabrication-alone piece, ease of cleaning, and drastically reduced cost due to prefabrication.

Have An Opinion? Share It With A City Councilmember.

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Erik Nasarenko,
Mayor

Neal Andrews,
Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere

Jim Monahan

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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       Editors:

R. Alviani          K. Corse          T. Cook         B. Frank
J. Tingstrom    R. McCord       S. Doll          C. Kistner

Pension Liabilities Threaten Ventura's Financial Health

Pension Liabilities Threaten Ventura’s Financial Health

John F. Kennedy on Fiscal Responsibility

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, the other represents opportunity.” —John F. Kennedy

VENTURA’S FINANCES – HEALTHY, OR NOT ?

At the Ventura City Council meeting on February 23, 2015, our Mayor will discuss The State of the City.  It is to be expected that she will praise the accomplishments of the City, such as creation of a Water Commission to address water shortage issues and the City efforts to improve roads and basic infrastructure.  The condition of City finances will also be a major subject, building on the Ventura County Star article, published on President’s Day, with the headline “City’s Financial Outlook Healthy”.

A candid discussion of the condition of City finances is to be welcomed, but it is not the rosy picture portrayed in the Star article. The Economic reality of the current  public pension liabilities of the City of Ventura unfortunately is not receiving the attention it demands when determining our financial outlook, nor is the impact of escalating payments to CALPERS and the drain it will have on the General Fund and City services in the next 5 years getting noticed.

A.  VENTURA UNFUNDED PENSION OBLIGATIONS TRIPLE

In the fall of each year CALPERS provides financial and actuarial reports for the SAFETY PLAN OF THE CITY OF SAN BUENAVENTURA (police and fire) and MISCELLANEOUS PLAN (all other employees).  The latest report, dated October, 2014, provides a valuation of assets and liability as of June 30, 2014.

The combined City pension assets have a present value of $191,329,875. and we owe $353,756,578.  There is no money to pay the $157,993, 381 shortfall. The official calculations are based upon an assumption, projected over the actuarial life of the union participants, that CALPERS, as our pension fund administrator, will achieve an investment return of 7.5%.

What this report does not discuss in direct terms is the 50% loss our City incurred during the 2008 depression, together with the other 1600 local government agencies funds that they manage.  That money has not been replaced.  What CALPERS wants to emphasize in their report is the 18% (not net of costs) return that they received ending June 30, 2013. This is a short term gain only.

For the investment forecast CALPERS uses a rate of 7.5%. However, when CALPERS illustrates their Hypothetical Termination Liability calculations on page 28 of the report, it uses a far different and lower discount/investment rate of 3.72% instead of the 7.5% rate of return. In that event we owe $488,961,724.

In reality, in early in 2014, CALPERS admitted that it is still underfunded by 50%.  They report earnings of 18.5% last year, but a study has reported their actual earned average of 3.41% for five years, 5.36% for ten years, 6.97% for 15 years, and 8.38% for 20 years.

B.  HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

In August 2008, the editors of this newsletter published an analysis of the unfunded pension obligations of Ventura titled IN THE SHADOW OF VALLEJO.  We warned against the increase of the firefighters’ pension benefits by 33% (from 2% at age 55 to 3% at age  and urged the Council not to make the increase, and to require all other employees to contribute at least 5% to 10% toward their pensions.

We provided extracts from a CALPERS report of the time.

 

Funded Status–June 30, 2008 Police/Fire Misc. Plan
Present value of projected benefits $270,877,057 205,128,033
Entry Age Normal Accrued Liability $233,938,241 $167,837,616
Actuarial Value of Assets $177,314,177 $157,529,148
Unfunded Liability $46,624,064 $10,308,468

“I do not know where we are going to get the money.”

The vote was 4 to 3 in favor. Voting against the increase were then Mayor Weir and Councilmen Andrews and Morehouse.  Councilman Morehouse’s comments at the time were prophetic.  “I do not know where we are going to get the money”.

In January 2011, VREG newsletter again visited the pension issues because the City Council was considering the renewal of the labor contracts with the employees in the City.  The proposal was to require the employees to contribute 4.5% of the CALPERS pension costs. This VREG urged the Council to require greater contributions from the employees.  The article was titled HMS TITANIC  [Moving Deck Chairs to Avoid a Disaster].

The City Council vote was 5-2 in favor of the agreements (which included a requirement that employees contribute 4.5%). Councilman Andrews and Councilwoman Weir voted against approval. The decision of the other five—Brennan, Fulton, Monahan, Morehouse and Tracy—was in favor.

Councilwoman Christy Weir rejected the proposal and stating “Fiscally, the city needs more than this right now.”   Council Member Neil Andrews concurred stating, “The agreements simply don’t go far enough.”

“The agreements simply don’t go far enough.”

C. AN ESCALATING  PAYROLL CONTRIBUTION RATE THREATENS FINANCIAL HEALTH

Today the City of Ventura owes in excess of $157,993,381.  It will only increase and the drain on the General Fund will likewise increase because the required employer contribution rate for police and fire for example must be paid yearly in addition to their pay and medical costs. Here are the mandated and projected rates from CALPERS.

FISCAL YEAR           EMPLOYER CONTRIBUTION RATE (Police & Fire only)
2011/2012                   35.190%                      2012/2013                   36.4%
2013/2014                   40.6%                          2014/2015                   44.225%
2015/2016                   45.598%                      2016-2017                   50.6%
2018-2019                   52.5%                          2019/2020                   54.5%
2020/2021                   54.6%

BANKRUPTCY DEVELOPMENTS

Pension Liabiliteis Lead To Insolvency

Ventura’s Financial Health Threatened By Pension Liabiliteis

The cities of Stockton and Vallejo were forced to file chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings.  The cities asked their creditors to take haircuts, but not CALPERS. The cities insisted that the public employee unions were exempt and entitled by law to100% on the dollar. The Federal Bankruptcy Court ruled otherwise in January, 2015.

CALPERS argued that the California Constitution guaranteed the union contracts and thereby pension benefits from cuts and/or that they enjoyed sovereign immunity and police powers as an arm of the state and/or that they have a lien on municipal assets.  In January 2015, the Federal Bankruptcy Court effectively threw them out of court saying: It is doubtful that CALPERS even has standing.   He writes “It does not bear financial risk from reductions by the City in its funding payments because state law requires CALPERS to pass along the reductions to pensioners in the form of reduced pensions”.

Judge Klein further stated:  “CALPERS has bullied its way about in this case with an iron fist” and “that their arguments are constitutionally infirm in the face of the exclusive power of Congress to enact uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy…”.

The impact of this decision is that CALPERS cannot stop cities from modifying pensions.

EDITORS COMMENT:

The direction that Ventura is heading is insolvency and the idea that employee pensions are guaranteed and protected is wrong. Unless the City Council take steps to force public employees to pay a greater portion of their retirement and stop increasing the annual percentage of the general budget toward retirement and benefits, Ventura will collapse.

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

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