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Beaten Up Dollar: Deficit

The Best Thing The Council Can Do About The Deficit

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Mark Twain

Ventura finds itself staring down another multi-million-dollar budget deficit. This time we must overcome a 10% deficit, or $12 million.

Most people’s attention won’t be on the budget because they’re focused on COVID-19 and the upheavals it has caused. The City Council will use the pandemic as a reason to make decisions they otherwise might not make. Make no mistake, however. The budget deficit existed before COVID-19 but became worse because of the economic shutdown.

Decisions by several past City Councils have brought us to today’s $12 million budget deficit. Previous Councils have not fully replenished the city’s financial reserves and have not planned for an economic downturn like the one Ventura is facing today. Now, the current City Council must find ways to make up for the lack of vision of previous Councils.

The Covid-19 Impact

The Covid-19 shutdown put hundreds of people out of work and decimated the local economy. Six of the seven Councilmembers and many of the city staff have never experienced such a dire situation. Fortunately, City Manager Alex McIntyre has. Even so, the current conditions will test his mettle.

The spotlight will be on Mr. McIntyre as Ventura moves forward after the pandemic. The burden is squarely on him to prove his effectiveness and value. The recommendations he makes—and the decisions the City Council make—will impact the city for years to come.

What Faces Ventura

Mr. McIntyre’s challenges are daunting. The local economy is in shambles. The city government and businesses will struggle to put people back to work safely and quickly. To survive the impending recession will require working closely with the city’s three unions, Fire, Police and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). And, he will have to guide an inexperienced City Council through budgeting during a recession.

Sales taxes have been severely impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic. Sales tax revenue has plummeted. The auto dealers, the casino, the Pacific View Mall and restaurants aren’t generating the taxes the city expected. They are the city’s most significant contributors to sales taxes. To make matters worse, the transit occupancy tax (TOT, or bed tax) has been non-existent.

Procedures are in place to reopen businesses, but reopening will be slow. Under the best circumstances, returning to pre-pandemic sales revenue levels will take time.

Consumers are reeling from the loss of jobs, reduced hours, and volatility in the stock market. Venturans may be reluctant to return to “normal” right away based on the experience of other people in countries that have already opened up.

A Daunting Deficit

Ventura faces a budget deficit the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 2008-2009 Great Recession. Four months ago, city staff projected the 2020-2021 budget was to be a $4.1 million deficit. In April, before the effects of the business shutdown were fully realized, the gap rose to $7.2 million. Now, the staff has revised the shortfall to be about $12 million below the projected $118.7 in revenue.

Plans To Address the Deficit

The city staff presented the City Council with 13 possible ‘tools’ to balance the budget. Seven of the 13 recommendations are personnel-related. These include:

  1. Transfer the Harbor Garage Debt to Parking Fund
  2. Hiring Freezes
  3. Reduce Employee Travel
  4. Eliminate of Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLA)
  5. Eliminate Merit & Step Increases
  6. Reduce Support to Outside Agencies
  7. Draw from Unrestricted Fund Balance/Financial Reserves
  8. Increase Cost Sharing for Employee Benefits
  9. Reduce Benefits
  10. Furloughs/Reductions in Hours
  11. Separation Incentives (e.g., Early Retirements)
  12. Reduce or Eliminate Services
  13. Revenue Enhancements

Interestingly enough, what is missing is the ‘modification of current and future construction projects.’

Working with the Unions To Bridge The Deficit

Balancing the budget will involve cooperating with the city’s unions. There have been closed session discussions between the City Manager, Mr. McIntyre, and the union representatives.

In April, Councilmember Lori Brown reported at the Finance, Audit & Budget Committee meeting that the SEIU union rep was already circulating through City Hall. These are signs of a union anxious to defend their current status. The substance of these talks has remained private.

Hurrying City Councilmembers Up the Learning Curve

As we already described, the recovery may be slower than many would like. When confronted with a list of alternative solutions, inexperienced Councilmember might leap at the easiest, viable solution. One Councilmember seems to lean towards using all of the city’s financial reserves. While no one considers using up the city’s financial reserves to be the first option, they must answer specific questions if they choose this solution. First, how would the city replenish the reserves?

Second, what happens if the city uses all its reserves this fiscal year, but the recovery takes several years? From where will the city get the funds to pay for services in 2021-2022?

Third, how would using the city’s reserves impact the City’s bond ratings?

Another Councilmember wants to replace the word ‘Eliminate’ with ‘Defer’ COLA or Merit increases. And finally, other Councilmembers search for a solution that equally spreads the pain, sort of a “one size fits all” approach.

The problem with this narrow thinking is that it does not address unintended consequences. As an example, a 10% cut for an employee making $100,000 is far different from a 10% cut for someone making $40,000.  While a $10% reduction of $40,000 is less money in absolute terms, the $4,000 reduction has a much more significant negative impact. Whereas, a 10% cut for the person making $100,000 still leaves that person with $90,000 in spendable income for food and transportation.

If the Council chooses to cut salaries, maybe a higher percentage for higher gross-salaried employees and a lower percentage for income under $100,000 would address this disparity. Over 250 Ventura city employees are making over $100,000 a year.

Voters Elected the Councilmembers to Set Policy

Voters elected the Councilmembers to set policy, set goals and let the city staff execute the plan.  It should not get bogged down in the details of the City budget. As an example, the City Council recently took valuable time at a Council meeting reviewing fee increases to discuss whether a fee should increase by 3% or $5. Such debate appears to be a poor use of City Council time.

More impactful and vital discussions on how to help Ventura citizens recover faster and have more spendable income for their families is needed. For instance, this Council can spare Venturans from the potential tripling of water rates by redirecting Ventura Water’s plans. Changes can save hundreds of millions of dollars immediately.

Get Everyone Safely Working Again Safely

The state and the County Board of Supervisors have outlined the Phase Two procedures to return to work. This return will be slow as businesses and governments grapple with social distancing. No one knows how long this recovery will take. However, time will eventually fix our problems. Getting all companies safely up and running will fix a lot of these budgetary problems.

One thing the pandemic has shown us is how to work efficiently. It has forced us to evaluate what’s essential and what’s not. Post-pandemic, we will need to learn to do “less with less with less.” We hope the city government heeds this lesson.

Editors Comments

A Safer Approach would be for the City Council and our City Manager to consider a combination of all 13 possible ‘budget-balancing tools.’ What’s more, they should consider deferring a few more pending projects. Take nothing on that list off the table.

In the past fifty years, there have been recessions in 1974, 1978, 1982, 1987, 1992, 1999, and 2008-2009. Each downturn caught the City Council facing a budget deficit they didn’t anticipate. It’s happened again in 2020.

We strongly suggest the City Council give City Manager Alex McIntyre the chance to do his job. Let him draw on his experience and knowledge to navigate the city through the challenges it faces. Mr. McIntyre knows what works and what doesn’t. We pay him to make these decisions. He is the one to implement the plans.

Our elected officials should not make each minor budgetary decision. Only one Councilmember has been through similar difficult times before. Some have limited experience when it comes to running a business or managing a multi-million-dollar budget.

Tell City Council To Let The City Manager Do His Job

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Important Trends You Should Look For In The COVID-19 Recovery

COVID quote

Wealth Is The Ability To Fully Experience Life.”

Henry David Thoreau

COVID-19

We’re living through unprecedented times. No one knows how events will develop as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Yet there are specific unmistakable trends to watch. We want you to be aware of the trends and to look out for the critical choices that will shape our future.

Now is the time to support our elected officials as they negotiate the COVID-19 epidemic. The time will come soon when the quality of their decisions will affect how much pain and sacrifice Ventura residents must bear. As a community, we’ve shown that we are resilient and generous. The Thomas Fire is a recent example. The impact of the Thomas Fire could pale in comparison to the coronavirus pandemic fallout.

Lost Sales Tax Revenue From COVID-19

The City of Ventura relies on income from two primary sources: property tax and sales tax.

Property tax revenue is constant and predictable. Yet, the Ventura City Council has little control over property taxes.

COVID-19 devestates sales tax revenueSales taxes will be severely impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic, and Measure O depends on sales tax revenue. Sales tax revenue has already plummeted. The auto dealers, the casino, the Pacific View Mall and restaurants aren’t generating the taxes the city expected. They are the city’s most significant contributors to sales taxes. To make matters worse, the transit occupancy tax (TOT, or bed tax) has been non-existent for the past six weeks. With no date set to reopen businesses, the losses will continue to mount.

How will Ventura make up the difference in sales taxes? Consumers are reeling from the loss of jobs, reduced hours, and volatility in the stock market. State unemployment benefits will help some. It’s notable, though, the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) has limited reserves, which will deplete quickly.

Furthermore, many businesses closed by the shelter-in-place order will not open. Those with large amounts of debt are most at risk. Don’t be surprised by some of the large businesses that fail in addition to the smaller, Mom-and-Pop establishments that will inevitably close—resulting in even more job losses.

Solutions Will Require Creativity

With the two primary sources of income for the City of Ventura in serious jeopardy, and the City Council has little control over either. Finding a solution will require ingenuity.

With no chance to increase income, the only option available is to reduce expenses for the city. Before COVID-19, the city faced a $4.1million annual deficit for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. After the business disruption from the epidemic, the $4.1 million deficit will be a welcome alternative to what is likely to happen.

City Major Expenses

COVID-19 firingsThe most considerable expense for any city is payroll—including benefits and retirement. The salaries, benefits and pensions are all controlled by labor contracts. In fact, because of the COVID 19 pandemic, these costs will likely blow up. The Ventura City Council’s control of this expense is limited to reducing staffing levels. Here are examples that the City Council is considering. See page 6.

CalPERS Damaged By The COVID-19 Pandemic

Before the start of 2020, CalPERS required Ventura to pay an additional $2 million above the $16 million it pays typically. Even though the economy experienced a decade-long economic boom, CalPERS is only 70% funded. The drop in the stock market following the COVID-19 panic hurt CalPERS’ investment portfolio even more. By October, the $2 million additional CalPERS requires Ventura to pay may be considerably higher.

Editor’s Comments

The City Council will be in the troublesome position of making significant, painful decisions to cope with the fallout. Payroll is the only controllable, significant expense that this Council can alter. While a hiring freeze is likely, it will have limited immediate effect.

COVID-19 will require many expense cutsThere are other costs the Council can influence. It’s time the City Council scrutinizes all the cost of services to consider less costly options. Those services can be General Fund items like fire and police, or they can be other operational items like water.

In fact, water directly impacts every household. The rates water users pay are approved by the City Council, even though Ventura Water operates outside of the General Fund.

Any increase to cost of water will be damaging financially to many families already burdened by the economic shutdown.

Lost sales tax revenue, steady property taxes, and an out-of-control, bloated retirement plan are out of the Council’s control. We hope they will focus on the things they can control and rein in expenses to avoid more extensive economic pain for the city and its citizens.

Tell City Council You’re Concerned, Want to be Informed, and Are Watching the Process.

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Why You Need To Pay Attention To The 2020 City Council Election

Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

—Albert Camus

The 2020 City Council election is this November. The challenges facing Ventura are so crucial that they will shape the city for decades.

Who the candidates will be for the Council in this election will likely be unknown until July. The nomination period opens July 13th and closes August 5th.

Our city is no longer the small seaside community to the north of the LA basin.  We are a growing community with all of the problems larger cities face.  We need qualified representatives to confront and solve those problems.  Candidates must have previous community involvement, education, experience and willingness to explore alternatives different from the sclerotic thinking and mistakes of the past.

Water Will Dominate The 2020 City Council Election

Every candidate will acknowledge that water is a concern for Ventura. The specifics on how to address the issue will vary, but how can you judge what they know? Here is what you should focus on.

Wishtoyo Consent Decree Compliance

Candidates for the 2020 City Council election must concentrate on the Wishtoyo Consent Decree, and the impact of the decree in the next decade. That Federal Decree requires Ventura to stop putting a majority of its treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary, beginning in January 2025 through 2030.  To do so will be an enormous cost to the city.

We have advocated that the city must request a modification to the Wishtoyo Consent Decree to extend the deadline for depositing wastewater into the estuary.

VenturaWaterPure

Ventura Water has confused the City Council by combining two different ideas to falsely heighten the urgency to drink wastewater. In 2011, Venturans were told, “We are short of water.” Ventura Water proposed treating the wastewater we currently dump into the Santa Clara River into potable water at the cost of $1 Billion. They call the project VenturaWaterPure.

All candidates should remember $1 Billion is a large bet to place with the taxpayer and ratepayer money.   Will the candidates know that directly drinking treated water from the treatment plant is not approved and is not safe?  Do they know the details of injecting that treated water into the groundwater then pumping it back through a filtration facility?  Do they know there are less expensive ways to divert that water from the estuary?

Looming Water Rate Increases

Ventura Water will undoubtedly request a water rate increase from this next City Council. They will claim the money is for VenturaWaterPure or to improve the city’s water infrastructure. Water rates already went up by $220 million with water and wastewater increases in 2012-13. Any Councilmember and any candidate for City Council should be able to explain how Ventura Water spent the $220 million and why another rate hike is needed.

Ventura River Cross-Complaint

In 2014, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper filed a lawsuit alleging Ventura was taking too much water from the river, hurting habitat for wildlife. The city is not the only water user in the Ventura River and Ojai valley. So Ventura asked the court for a cross-complaint to allocate the burden of water sharing among the potential 14,000-plus property owners in the Ventura River watershed. Understanding this pending lawsuit is essential to the voters. The next City Council could approve spending another $4.4 million for legal expenses. Keep in mind that money is equal to the budgetary loss for the 2020-2021 General Fund. Any legal fees come out of the General Fund at the expense of public safety and street repairs.

Homelessness Will Be A Popular Issue In The 2020 City Council Election

Housing Ventura’s homeless is a high priority for the city. Most believe that affordable housing is the solution. As a bridge to permanent housing, Ventura’s homeless shelter, ARCH, is critical.

Ventura has 555 homeless people, according to the 2019 Point-in-Time count. Meredith Hart, Director of Ventura’s Safe & Clean program, believes the 2020 count will be higher. Ventura spends on its homeless are between $3.89-$4.59M per year.

All candidates must have a solution to homelessness, and they must not be afraid to challenge how and how much we are spending on the issue. The ARCH opened in February 2020, so we must allow time for it to impact the community. Yet, Councilmembers must be courageous enough to act quickly if the results are not favorable.

Candidates should also differentiate between the various types of people living on the street. Many of the homeless are “service-resistant,” meaning they will not agree to help regardless of the circumstances. The majority of the homeless are substance abusers or mentally ill. Others are vagrants. The city must have different plans to treat those genuinely needing help from the vagrants.

Budget Deficits For The Entire Term

Budget deficits will plague the new City Councilmembers throughout their entire four-year term. Knowing why the budget is running in the ‘red’ should be a significant consideration for every new city employee hired and every contract the City Council approves in the next four years.

The city staff projects a “most likely” budget scenario for 2020-2021 that will have a shortfall of $4.1M. It does not improve in the following ten years either. So the City Council must weigh the alternatives for cutting different city services.

Pensions Are A Political Third Rail

Pensions are the ticking time bomb nobody wants to discuss. They’re the political third rail issue that candidates ignore. Next year, the CalPERS payments will balloon by $2 million. That’s after a $2 million increase this year.

Pension obligations feed budget deficits. As pension obligations grow, it takes away money that would otherwise pay for essential city services.

Pensions will consume the Measure O tax increase by 2023. Any earnest candidate should demand city staff forecast the anticipated CalPERS increases objectively. Provide the Council with the necessary information to make financial decisions.

Voting By Districts In The 2020 City Council Election

Districts 2, 3 and 7 are competing in the 2020 City Council election.

The 2020 City Council election will culminate the switch from electing Councilmembers at-large to voting by districts—a process that began in 2018. The first round of district elections gave us inexperienced new Councilmembers to lead the city.

This election, voters will select Councilmembers in Districts 2, 3 and 7. Voters elected Christy Weir and Cheryl Heitmann as Councilmembers at-large, but they will now compete in Districts 2 and 7, respectively, if they choose to run again. District 3 will be an open seat as Councilmember Matt LaVere vacates his role to run for County Supervisor.

The city experienced growing problems with district governance when the demands about traffic, housing, crime and services of the districts do not mesh with the other districts’ views.

Campaign Finances

The 2018 City Council election was the costliest in the city’s history. The candidates raised a record amount of money.

A lot of that campaign money came from Political Action Committees (PACs). In 2018, the three largest PACs—Chamber of Commerce, Fire and Police—contributed $79,717 to candidates. Those PACs consider it money well spent if it buys them access to the elected candidates.

Voters should note the influence the PACs have over the 2020 City Council election. Pay attention to who contributes to the candidates, and what those PACs ask in return for their support.

2020 City Council election

2018 City Council election contributions

Growth As An Issue In The 2020 City Council election

council candidates

Growth means different things to different people. It’s inescapable that Ventura needs to grow. Everyone agrees that we need affordable housing. 

This year’s candidates need to acknowledge that growth and water availability are inseparable. They also need to recognize the opposition to more houses (the NIMBYs) by some in the community. Forward progress on growth means accommodating, integrating and compromise.

Every candidate must have some ideas on growth as part of his or her platform.

Editors Comments

Many complex issues face Ventura. All 2020 City Council election candidates need to be aware of the problems and have a plan to address them. We can’t rely on the candidates alone to be knowledgeable. It’s each person’s responsibility to be aware of the challenges before us. It’s equally important that each voter be confident that the candidates understand them. Only then do our elected officials represent us.

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

 

Make Certain All Councilmembers Can Address These Issues Adequately.

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What Services Will Ventura Cut In The 2020-2021 Budget?

2020-2021 Budget Mocked By Laurel & Hardy

Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into, Stanley.”

Laurel & Hardy

Sharpen Pencil To Balance 2020-2021 Budget

The 2020-2021 budget presents a challenge to the City Council. This Council must weigh how to close the budget deficit in the coming year.

The Coming Problem

the 2020-2021 Budget Makes People WhingeToday’s Council is still operating on the 2019-2020 budget that shows everything is fine. In six months we will be in a new budget cycle, how does that look? The city staff projects a “most likely” budget scenario that will have a shortfall of $4.1M.  How can the seven members of the City Council take action to save jobs and essential services for the citizens of Ventura?

The Seriousness of the 2020-2021 Budget

In two of these three scenarios, Ventura residents should be concerned about possible severe cutbacks in services and personnel.  Ventura has a 67% probability of significant shortfalls in the next fiscal year and the next four years after that. This Council may play a game of fiscal musical chairs with the budget hoping the music doesn’t stop and throw the city into insolvency. Is there a better solution?  It may be time for the Council to focus on a multi-year budget to better spend the limited money available to us.

The Council must come to a decision soon and may need to cut back services and personnel. If they don’t, the specter of insolvency looms over the city. The Council should inform citizens and allowed them input before taking drastic measures. Please keep reading!

What Can The Council Do With The 2020-2021 Budget?

The city staff presented the Council with several options to consider remedying the projected shortfalls. The team looked at revenue and expense items available to the Council.

Potential Revenue Enhancements to the 2020-2021 Budget

  1. The added revenue from proposed changes to Prop 13.​ These changes are beyond the City Council’s control. They are purely wishful thinking at this time.
  2. Increase the Transit-Occupancy-Tax (TOT) rate.​ The TOT, also known as the bed tax, impacts tourists visiting the city. Each 1% rise in the tax generates an additional $600,000 in revenue. The downside of increasing the TOT is that it makes Ventura less desirable for tourists to visit or may shorten a visitor’s stay.
  3. Additional revenue from cannabis sales might generate $500,000 or more.​ Prop 64 made recreational marijuana use legal, yet Ventura has been slow to embrace pot sales. Outgoing Police Chief Ken Corney believed Ventura should exercise caution when rolling out cannabis. Yet, even if Ventura pushed hard for cannabis sales, the revenue would barely dent the projected $4.1 million deficit.
  4. Other revenue-generating ideas.​ The city staff didn’t elaborate on what those ideas might be.

Potential Expense Reductions to the 2020-2021 Budget

  1. Limiting Overtime in the 2020-2021 BudgetReduce overtime for city employees.​ The largest single expense category in the city is staff salaries and benefits. Reducing overtime might save as much as $5.6 million in the budget.
  2. Reduce “extra help” expenses.​ Such a reduction would generate $2.3 million in expense reduction. Extra helpers supplement city workers.
  3. Reduce anticipated pay increases.​ That means fewer raises or smaller raises for city employees. Every 1% decrease in pay raises contributes approximately $800,000 in savings.
  4. Transfer some Information Technology (IT) or Internal Services Fund (ISF) costs to Measure O. ​The city staff believes transferring some of these costs to Measure O will support staff needs. The cost savings would be $120,000. If they do move those costs, though, it will represent a shift in policy.The Measure O proponents told voters the money would address specific needs. IT and ISF costs were not among those needs. Measure O money goes into the General Fund, so the City Council can use it as they see fit. Yet, using it for operating purposes would invalidate the spirit of the sales tax increase.  Using Measure O breaks one of then-Mayor Erik Nasarenko’s promises of the Measure’s benefits. The Measure O Oversight Committee should be concerned.We warned you.​
  1. Review warehouse costs. ​ This alternative lists no amount of savings.
  2. Review all discretionary spending:
  3. Museumm Cuts in the 2020-2021 BudgetReview the money Ventura pays to support the Ventura County Museum. ​ This option will save $250,000 per year. ​Prior Councils agreed to give the museum more than $1 million through the fiscal year 2022-23.
  4. Review the money spent on Ventura’s Libraries. ​ Savings could be as much as $250,000 per year. No one mentioned the unintended consequences of such a cut, however.
  5. CAPS may be cut in the 2020-2021 BudgetEvaluate Community Granting Programs. ​ The amount of potential savings is not listed. This category includes programs like Community Access Partners (CAPS). CAPS received a contentious fourth amendment​ through December 31, 2019.
  6. Assess contributing to Ventura’s Visitors Bureau. ​ The savings could be as high as $968,000.
  7. Examine other discretionary spending. This alternative included no specifics.

Potential Use of Fund Balances

  1. Use $3 million in 2021, $2 million in 2022 and $1 million in 2023 (or some other variation) from the Unassigned Funds.
  2. Use the Catastrophic Reserve of $15 million if a recession strikes.
  3. Use Measure O revenue. Certainly not its intended goal.

These three options are the most troubling items presented by the city staff. Using the city’s various fund balances should be considered as a last resort and, while it’s prudent for city staff to present them as options, the City Council should consider using them only in dire circumstances.

Considering the 2020-2021 Budget

The city staff assumed some projects would continue as planned. That is a false assumption. The City Council should consider all alternatives. More than ever, the Council should review “Business As Usual.”

  1. Do we the Citizens want to authorize spending up to a BILLION dollars on a water project?The Water Agency and the Council continue to put forward the need to spend $1 billion because we need drinking water, thus the need to use recycled wastewater by building VenturaWaterPure to satisfy supply needs. Are there regulations in place to allow that?  The State of California won’t have an approved test for water safety until 2024, at the earliest. Seemingly the purpose behind this is that the Council needs to ship the Santa Clara River effluent somewhere else. Yet, they could choose the most cost-efficient option of shipping that water to Oxnard’s Advanced Water Treatment Facility.  A $70 million option versus $1 billion. What do the citizens want?
  2. Should the Council ask city employees to contribute a higher percentage of their pay towards their retirement?
  3. Should the Council consider options for the Fire Department? Evaluate whether to merge Ventura Fire with Ventura County fire?
  4. Shouldn’t the Council and citizens know precisely how Homeless services cost and how they get allocated? Let’s ask for the facts as citizens. Just some of the costs include:
    1. The Homeless Shelter ($712,000 per year)
    2. The police Homeless Task Force (seven officers)
    3. A Safe & Clean Program manager
    4. An embedded mental health professional
    5. The Downtown Ambassadors
    6. The police and fire personnel that answer service calls in addition to the Homeless Task Force

Editors Comments

We’re confronted with several key questions when considering the 2020-2021 budget. How is it that after more than ten years of economic growth and market growth, and the imposition of a sales tax increase, we are about to face a sudden, significant budget deficit?  We believe it’s the cumulative effect of more than a decade’s worth of poor economic policy choices by both the city government and the citizens.

Ventura hasn’t projected a budget deficit this large since the 2008-2009 Recession. With the stakes this high, there is little room for error. Poor decisions could lead to the city’s insolvency.

Yes, we must solve the current budget shortfall. We expect this City Council will focus on meaningful change and keep citizens informed. This Council has a difficult task ahead and must weigh how to best spend the limited revenue we have and substantially cut expenses to close the budget deficit.

Citizens expect the Council to be astute when evaluating these alternatives and to have staff report as clearly as possible.  That’s why we believe taking on a $1 billion water project is lunacy without direct input from the voters.

The decisions the Council make with the 2020-2021 budget will have consequences for years to come. Citizens must help with input and oversight. Please consider contacting your representative and let them know you are concerned, want to be informed, and are watching the process.

Tell City Council You’re Concerned, Want to be Informed, and Are Watching the Process.

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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

Retirement pensions are the city’s number one problem. Pensions in the 2010s 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.”

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Why You Should Worry About VenturaWaterPure

And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Examing Conferences Expense

For the second time in four years, Ventura Water failed to present scientific findings that challenged its decision on VenturaWaterPure. Either Ventura Water withheld this pertinent information from the Ventura Council, or it is unaware of the reality that Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR) is unhealthy.

IPR presents a danger to humans. The September 2019 study from the University of Southern California (USC) concludes that IPR contaminates water with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Once infected with the bacteria, medical science cannot combat these antibiotic-resistant strains.

Reasons VenturaWaterPure Is Not Ideal

There are several reasons VentuaWaterPure is not an ideal solution. For whatever reason, Gina Dorrington, Ventura Water’s Assistant General Manager, neglected to tell the Council about these findings at the October 14th meeting.

It appears that the health of Ventura’s citizens is not a priority in these decisions. Furthermore, it begs the question, “What is the motivation for a misguided recommendation?”

VenturaWaterPure project will need an extra 20-27 employees, according to Susan Rungren, Ventura Water’s General Manager. Each employee will earn a pension. At a time when rising unfunded pension liabilities threaten the city’s finances, the prudence of adding 20%-27% more employees to Ventura Water is questionable.

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

To recommend anything contrary to moving forward on this project would not only jeopardize many jobs, but it would also imply that past City Councils and City Managers were wrong with previous decisions, and we have wasted millions of dollars in the process.

City Council Has Its Motivation To Approve Plan To Spend $1 Billion To Drink Wastewater

The City Council has been rushed by Ventura Water to comply with a Consent Decree Ventura agreed to in 2012. The 2012 Consent Decree with Wishtoyo Foundation contended that Ventura Water was dumping its waste into the Santa Clara River Estuary and harming the Santa Clara estuary. The decree requires Ventura to divert seven million gallons a day beginning in 2025 and concluding no later than 2030. What better way to justify a horrible decision than to convince people that it was for their good? They pointed to drought conditions and offered VenturaWaterPure as the solution.

When anyone is looking to justify a bad or ill-conceived idea, they look for another similar decision to defend their own. A case in point is finding other locations in California that have made bad decisions. Misery (bad choices) enjoys company. Two locations in California, Orange County and Monterrey, use Indirect Portable Reuse (IPR). The real question should be ‘Why only two?’ It took Monterrey 10 years to get a permit and build it. That alone is not a sound reason to pursue this premature direction to recycle wastewater in drinking water.

By misdirecting attention to drinking water—fundamental to life—it created the misperceived need for VenturaWaterPure. Complying with the Consent Decree is not the same as providing drinking water. Yet Ventura Water has been mingling the two needs since 2011. Separating the two issues helps make decisions more transparent.

Conflating Two Issues To Achieve The Desired Result

Ventura Water has confused the City Council by combining two different ideas to falsely heighten the urgency to drink wastewater. Since 2011, the campaign has been “We are short of water,” they say, “and the best way to meet that shortage is to drink wastewater.”

Ventura Water was quick to adopt DPR as the solution for an alternative water source.  Then-Ventura Water General Manager Shana Epstein had no data to support that assertion, except for the representations of the sales company designing the hardware for VenturaWaterPure.  Ms. Epstein repeatedly announced it was good water to drink. She and the other supporting that view were dead wrong.

Dispelling the Myth about Drinking Water

Ventura has enough drinking water for the next 15 years at current consumption rates, according to the 2019 Ventura Water Report (Table 4-3, p. 65). Unlike most cities in California, we are fortunate to be bounded by Ventura and Santa Clara rivers, Lake Casitas, plus groundwater basins.

To add more reserves, in 2018, the City Council approved a project to construct a pipeline to access a new water source—State Water. Besides providing more water to the city, we can mix State Water with our existing water to improve the taste of Eastside water. Ventura has had this option for the last 47 years.

Ventura Water’s public objection to State Water as a primary source has been that it is not available in dry years. They contend that State Water is thus “unreliable.” However, allocations of State Water over the past five drought years have averaged 55% of the contracted allowance. Ventura Water also conveniently ignores the fact that 75% of Ventura County relies on State water as a primary water resource.

Missing the Consent Decree Deadline

We may not be able to meet the timing of the Consent Decree if we pursue VenturaWaterPure. It took Monterrey ten years to apply for permits, be granted permission from the different agencies and build its IPR plant. Ventura has not applied for a single permit to begin constructing its plant. If it takes ten years from today to complete our plant, we will miss the Consent Decree deadline by five years. There’s no reason to believe Ventura will apply for permits and build its plant faster than ten years. VenturaWaterPure is destined to miss its target date.

A Waste of $1 Billion For VenturaWaterPure

IPR is inefficient and will not meet Ventura Water’s projections. Orange County and Monterrey use IPR already. IPR shows a net water loss of 23%, based on Orange County’s experience. If VentuaWaterPure treats 4.5 million gallons per day of tertiary water, this will yield approximately 3.5 million gallons per day of drinking water, or about 3,900 Acre-Feet per year (AFY). According to the Final Environmental Impact Study, that is 1,500 AFY short of the 5,400 AFY needed to meet Ventura’s estimated demand.

The fact is that Ventura reduced its wastewater by 17% from 2009-2018, despite increasing water connections by 3.5% (according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report). The amount of wastewater sent to VenturaWaterPure is decreasing. We can reduce the affluent further by using more tertiary water for irrigation in the city. Ventura could increase to 1,200 AFY for irrigation from the current level of approximately 500 AFY. The cost to ratepayers is only the cost of a pipeline for the delivery of tertiary water.

Ventura’s Imprudent Decisions

This City Council has shown a propensity to pay for the same outcome they could have gotten for less. We saw this when the city placed its high-use electricity accounts in the Clean Power Alliance. We may be witnessing it again with VenturaWaterPure.

The opportunity exists to adhere to the Consent Decree at half the cost to ratepayers compared to VenturaWaterPure. For the price of a pipeline, Oxnard will take Ventura’s treated tertiary water. They may even provide Ventura clean water credits. It’s unthinkable not to consider Oxnard Advanced Water Treatment Facility (AWTF) as an option.

Editors Comments

Every citizen should have serious doubts about the pragmatism of the City Council’s decision to fund VenturaWaterPure. It’s time to slow down. Some studies show that VenturaWaterPure is unsafe. Ventura Water for six years has continued to announce that it is safe for human consumption. Yet, the fact that there isn’t a consensus among scientists should be a warning flag to Councilmembers. Do they want to be remembered as supporting VenturaWaterPure if it’s shown to be unsafe, unregulated and unhealthy in the future? Let’s hope not.

One billion dollars is a large bet to place with the taxpayer and ratepayer money for a process that is questionable among scientists. There are cost-effective alternatives available, but it’s unlikely they’ve been examined since the initial decision to create VenturaWaterPure was made in 2011. Times change. Circumstances change. Now is the time to reconsider options to be sure we’re making the best choice available.

Reverse the decision to proceed with IPR, and certainly DPR, until there is more investigation on its safety. The Council is dealing with public health. The Council reversed its decision on DPR in 2018 when they learned a state expert panel deemed DPR unsafe. The Council should be prudent with IPR and change or pause that decision, too.

Finally, the City Council should more rigorously question Ventura Water on its proposals and actions. Twice, Ventura Water has failed to present scientific findings that challenged its direction with VenturaWaterPure. The Council would do well to keep in mind the adage, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.”

Tell City Council, “Slow Down On VenturaWaterPure!”

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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!”

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Retirement Pensions Are Our #1 Problem (and what you need to know about it)

retirement pensions & will rogers

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

—Will Rogers

retirement pensions deficit nationwide

America’s significant retirement pension funds are underfunded by an unfathomable $4.2 Trillion, according to an August 6 Wall Street Journal article. Ventura mirrors this phenomenon. Ventura workers participate in the state pension fund, CalPERS—the largest in the country. CalPERS is only 71% funded as of June 30, 2018, despite a 10-year bull market and a growing economy.

Because of the chronic funding shortfall, CalPERs demands rapidly increasing contributions from all participating local governments. Ventura 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 benefits too. Something in this equation has to change.

 

CalPERS retirement pensions obligation

Retirement Pensions Today

Most state, county and local pension benefits are considered to carry a virtually iron-clad guarantee to the workers to whom they have been promised. Even the smallest attempts to alter future benefits—much less current ones—have been met with furious opposition. Workers’ representatives and also the plan managers themselves—like CalPERS—oppose changes. That opposition has been mostly successful. Governments at all levels are hamstrung between their duties to provide on-going services to their citizens and their ever-increasing financial obligations to pension funds. In the State of California, once one hires an employee, their retirement cannot be changed.

A typical city employee would receive a pension almost the same as his or her working salary if they participated for their whole career. In the case of many public safety employees, their retirement will last longer than their employment as they are fully vested in their retirement pensions by age 50 or 55. For so-called “miscellaneous” employees (all others) the retirement age is higher, usually 62. Nevertheless, the years in retirement can still equal or exceed those worked.

Discussions about pensions get emotional because we’re talking about people’s future and security. What gets lost in the arguments is this. The law and politics guarantee retirement pension benefits, but not the actual returns on investments. There is no separate investment market for pension funds. All investment pools, large and small, invest in the same markets. The myth is that pensions are safe. They are not. The difference is that taxpayers pick up the difference between reality and what politicians promised.

Unprecedented Bull Market

For the past ten years, since mid-2009, there has been an incredible bull market in stocks. CalPERS has posted many good returns during those years. However, Ventura’s pensions are underfunded by $215.1 million. For far too long, pension promises have been at levels far beyond what the real markets can provide.

 

Ventura's specific retirement pensions problem

 

What Can We Do To Fix Retirement Pensions?

Politicians have made many attempts to improve the current system, but none have addressed the problem in a meaningful way. CalPERS does offer one solution: Cities can buy out of the system—technically—but the costs are so enormous that no municipality can realistically consider that an option. It’s no accident, of course. CalPERS’ onerous payment demand to end participation is designed to be a straight-jacket. As of June 30, 2017, for the City of Ventura, the amount required to get out of CalPERS is $1.254 Billion.

League of California Cities and Government Finance Officers Association recommended actions to confront unsustainable pensions.

  1. Reduce the unfunded liability by making annual catch-up payment even more than CalPERS instructs you to pay—if you can afford to pay more.
  2. Raise taxes
  3. Reduce services
  4. Require voter approval of any pension obligation bond, or POB.

Pension Obligation Bonds Explained

A city issues a pension obligation bond to pay down the unfunded pension liability. The POB converts the pension liability into a fixed rate of return. There are considerable underwriting costs when issuing a POB. The city invests the money received from the bond into higher returning investments, usually in the stock market. The central idea is that the stock market investments will produce a higher return than the fixed interest rate on the bond, thereby earning money for the pension fund.

A POB creates debt to pay off debt. Such a bond is essentially a gamble with public money. Simi Valley is considering issuing a POB, and Ventura might follow suit if Simi Valley is successful.

The League of California Cities and Financial experts, including Government Finance Officers Association, strongly discourage local agencies from issuing Pension Obligation Bonds (POBs). This approach (going into debt to pay off debt) “only delays and compounds the inevitable financial impacts.”

These are terrible choices for the public.

What The City Council Might Do To Reform Retirement Pensions

retirement pensions superheroThere are two other choices for our City Council to consider if they have the political will to do anything about this crisis that will cripple the City of Ventura.

  1. Make beneficiaries pay more. With the city covering 100 percent of the unfunded liability, the problem will continue to grow. There will be minimal reforms because the actuarial losses fall on the taxpayer. Capping the employer contribution at a fixed percentage of salary would cut pension costs for the city. As pension costs increase over the years, the employees will pay all the costs associated with the growth.
  2. Change when retired city employees may begin collecting pensions. This alternative solution applies to new employees only. What if police and fire could fully vest their generous pensions by age 50 or 55, as they do now, but the payments did not start until age 65? Why would that help? The reason is that even if the city makes no further contributions, the fund will have ten more years to grow. At current official pension growth rates, that would more than double the value of that fund over those ten years. Also, the retirement payment period would be ten years shorter, given the same life expectancy. Such a system would still offer retirement security, but it would start at what most of us consider average retirement age.

social security retirement pensionsPublic sector employees may resist the changes but think about it. Private sector employees don’t get their full social security until 65 or even 67, depending the year they were born. Moreover, Social Security is only going to be one quarter to one-half of your working earnings.

Editor’s Comments

Even with an unprecedented bull market, Ventura’s unfunded pension liability grew over the past ten years. During such a period, one would expect the excess liability to at least shrink some.

Instead, the pension liability is growing faster than market returns can ever expect to make up. CalPERS annual demand will now permanently increase by about $2 million per year for the five to six years and then stay there. There is no assurance it will not increase even further in the future. Something has to change. Otherwise, the city will either cut back needed services, raise taxes, or both.

Past retirement pension negotiations were based on union bargaining and raw political power, creating a gap between what politicians promised and what cities realistically can pay. We offer some solutions, but it will take political will to bring the retirement benefits back to reality. Changing the system is the only way these promised benefits can be truly sustainable and dependable for retirees. It’s also the only way that taxpayers can afford to pay for them.

Demand Retirement Pension Reform

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What You Should Know About Seaward Sushi

“I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Seaward Sushi battled to reopen

Is Ventura Open For Business?

When the city needs money, they go to the old trope, “We’ll attract new business.” After all, Ventura is open for business, according to this Council. Actions speak louder than words, however. The recent incident with Seaward Sushi illustrates the confusion and shortsightedness in City Hall.

In June 2019, social media blew up over closing of 40-year old Seaward Sushi. After owner Rachel Woodward closed her doors June 14th, for the final time, her story spread on the internet. Based on what Rachel posted, it would have easy to jump to conclusions. One could conclude that Ventura’s permitting and code enforcement’s strict policies and slow processing time were the villains in this situation.

After telling her story on social media, it got the attention of several people like Jim Friedman, Stephanie Caldwell at the Chamber and others at City Hall. While we don’t know all the facts, only after this story attracted attention on social media, the City of Ventura hastily arranged a meeting on June 24th.

What the Seaward Sushi Situation Revealed

No City Staff Owned Seaward SushiIn an interview with Rachel Woodward, she revealed that she kept meticulous notes. She has a complete phone and paper trail of all dates and times that someone spoke to her, and a list of appointments and promises broken from representatives from City Hall. Rachel felt she needed to keep these records. She got the impression that everyone at City Hall was “very defensive,” and nobody wanted to be “held responsible” for what had occurred before the June 24th meeting.

The city gave Rachel a temporary permit on June 24th to reopen on June 28th. Without the privilege of knowing what they discussed in that meeting, we do know that Ashley Batista from the city was able to provide a permit to reopen June 28th.

Rachel voluntarily agreed to a hearing on August 6th. At the August 6th hearing, there was zero opposition, and the city granted a permanent permit. She has been in business ever since. Business is still down, but it can only get better.

Nobody took responsibility for Seaward SushiRachel further felt that it was also apparent that few, if anyone, was in the community visiting businesses. And, when someone visited a company, there weren’t clear directions on how to streamline the process.

The story does not end here, in any case. If it took one meeting to find enough support to justify reopening, how did the original staff fail to reach a similar conclusion in the first place?

From this experience, Rachel learned a few things. She felt that before the June 24th meeting, nobody wanted to take ownership of the situation.  It seemed to her that nobody in City Hall knew the specifics, and no one was clear on the process to follow.

Editors Comments

If Ventura is open for business, maybe the city staff involved in the process did not get the memo. The city needs to do a post-mortem on the Seaward Sushi approval process to find ways to improve if they are going to claim to be open for business. We recommend changing the current approval process to one that requires two employees to examine and approve exceptions to ordinances or policies.

Insist The City Council Reduces Overregulation For Businesses

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Irresponsible With Your Money On The Clean Power Alliance

When in doubt, don’t.

—Benjamin Franklin

Clean Power Alliance Good Intentions, Bad Decision

Thank the Councilmembers Cheryl Heitmann, Christy Weir, Lorrie Brown and Sofia Rubalcava for higher electrical costs, higher water, and wastewater rates. Also thank them for less police protection, fire safety and street paving, all so the City Council can save face and make all residents’ environmental champions.

Every citizen will now pay far more for electricity than if they stayed with Southern California Edison. The City Council had the option to keep your rates the same, but they didn’t. Too bad, because citizens will pay the increase and they will not get a vote.

When Choice Is No Choice At All

The City Council voted to enroll the entire city in the Clean Power Alliance program by a 4-2 vote on February 26th, 2018. During that meeting, our acting City Manager repeatedly advised the Council members they should wait because of financial uncertainties and undetermined costs.

They rejected the City Manager’s advice. Only Mayor Andrews and Councilman Tracy agreed with the City Manager’s recommendation and voted no. The other four members of the Council (Ms. Heitmann, Ms. Weir, Matt LaVere and Erik Nasarenko) committed the entire community to pay the additional costs for 100% for renewable solar energy.

Clean Power Alliance Quotes

In October 2018, the same four Council members (Ms. Heitmann, Ms. Weir, Mr. LaVere and Mr. Nasarenko) approved a contract with the Clean Power Alliance (CPA), enrolling every citizen and all city accounts in Ventura into the Clean Power CPA, in place of Southern California Edison. However, you were always free to reverse what the City Council decided if you took steps to opt-out. Otherwise, the change took effect in February 2019.

Remember, at the time the City Council voted to approve the Clean Power Alliance they didn’t know what it was going to cost. They committed the entire city to higher energy costs without knowing what those costs were going to be.

Who is the Clean Power Alliance?

Clean Power Alliance LogoThe Clean Power Alliance is a 2-year-old electricity provider in Southern California. They claim to bring clean, renewable energy at competitive rates. They compete with Southern California Edison (SCE), which has been around for 111 years and has been continually working on renewable energy for over ten years.

The City Council bought into the Clean Power Alliance’s message. You were “automatically enrolled in 100% Green Power which provides 100% renewable energy,” allowing all “residents to be environmental champions, leading the way to a greener future.”

You’re In Unless You Opt-Out

You were in the Clean Power Alliance unless you opted out. To opt-out, you needed to go to cleanpoweralliance.org, or call 888-585-3788. Whichever method you chose required your last utility bill and your SCE account number. Without those, you got nowhere. If you opted-out by telephone, you spent considerable time listening to recordings, ad nauseam, extolling green power’s virtues.

Six Months Later, The City Manager Learns The CPA Power Costs Are Greater Than Expected

In June 2019, the circumstances changed with the Clean Power Alliance. The cost of “green energy” went up—a lot. City Manager, Alex McIntyre, requested that the Council opt-out of the CPA program and return to SCE for the “high user accounts” of the city (like the street lights). Residents would remain enrolled in the 100% increased renewable rate with the CPA.

Clean Power Alliance Weighs Down Homeowners' Bugdets

The Clean Power Alliance Weighs Down Homeowner’s Bugdets

He recommended returning to SCE for at least a year until more was known.  He demonstrated that the costs to large energy use accounts within the city, such as street lighting, water, and wastewater, are 20.8% greater than represented a year earlier.  The total increase in costs for these high user accounts could be an additional $571,476.

After a lengthy discussion, filled with rampant confusion, misunderstanding, and punctuated with illogical statements, four members of the Council (Mses. Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava) rejected the City Manager’s recommendation.  These four voted that all of the smaller city accounts would remain in the CPA program at 100% green power.  As for the six large City accounts, they voted to opt-out the street lighting account, and reduce the other large accounts to the 36% wind rate.

The result is that City government will be paying $228,086 more for electrical power through the CPA program than they would have paid through SCE.  Of that number, water and wastewater account will be paying $157,148. What’s more, they didn’t know the actual costs when they voted.

As for what residents will pay, the City Council confirmed that they would stay in the program at the 100% rate.

That gives all residents “the opportunity to be environmental champions, leading the way to a greener future.”

What Impact Will The Clean Power Alliance Decision Have?

The costs of participating in the Clean Power Alliance are becoming more visible, and it’s hurting the city. Southern California Edison increased its rates to the CPA, who is now passing those costs on to Ventura. The timing of the rate increase pressured the City Council into making a rushed, imprudent fiscal decision.

In the 11th hour, our solar power provider was now going to substitute wind power for solar and presented a $228,086 rate increase to power city departments. All of this came on the same evening that the City Council gave final approval to the 2019-2020 budget. Now this $228,086 increase, at a minimum, will shortchange police, fire and street paving, all so the city can have wind power.

Police, Fire and Street Paving Gets Shorted

Clean Power Alliance Leaves Less for PoliceCouncilman Jim Friedman got it right when he voted no.  When he expressed that, “The budget is $3.5 million in the red now, and this just makes it worse.” By voting to pay more to the CPA—money the city does not have—city services will suffer. Your streets won’t get paved.  The city doesn’t hire a police officer. Your water and wastewater rates increase. The police and fire departments don’t respond in time to save a life. If any of these things happen, you only need to look to four members of our City council for their budget decisions. (Mses. Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava)

The city staff recommended opting out for one year until Ventura got a clearer understanding of what their fiduciary responsibilities would be. The City Manager recommended the City Council opt-out for one year. Councilmembers Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava disregarded the staff’s recommendation to protect past votes to join the Clean Power Alliance. They voted to “save face” over the public’s interest.

Making Your Decisions for You

Council Pushes Clean Power AllianceThe City Council chose your electricity provider for you. In so doing, they shifted the burden of “Green Power” to every homeowner in the city. So, if you did not opt-out, you’ll pay higher electricity bills. We should resent the City Council forcing this upon the community. The CPA program should be a decision for each citizen to make. In this case, the government effectively enrolled everyone automatically without any consent from the citizens who will be paying the bill.

Four members of the City Council  (Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava) were caught up in the “Save the Planet” message and hysteria. They believed that recyclable energy is the better choice, regardless of the cost. The Council should have taken a more cautious approach with an unproven, start-up company offering power whose benefits and costs are unknown. Instead, they let ideology cloud their decision instead of being fiscally prudent with taxpayer money.

Editor’s Comments

Should Ventura be concerned about a City Council that doesn’t plan, and spends money they don’t have? So far, they act with an attitude that ‘we’ll find the money somewhere.’ Obviously not from their pockets.

The highway to Hell is paved with good intentions. The City Council would do well to remember that. The city’s finances can withstand fiscal irresponsibility because of the Council’s financial ignorance only for so long. A day of reckoning is coming. Ventura faces six years of negative budgets. Perhaps that day is sooner than the City Council realizes.

As citizens, we must ask, “How long will we live with the Council’s bad financial decisions? For how long will we accept Councilmembers with political agendas that disregard city staff recommendations to make a ‘statement’?” Should Ventura be concerned about a City Council that doesn’t plan and spends money it doesn’t have?

Carefully examine your expenses and your beliefs to determine if the Clean Power Alliance is for you. If not, opt-out.

Moreover, when you go to the polls next November, do not reelect Councilmembers who exhibit no fiduciary responsibility with your money.

It’s time we examine our City Council’s performance and ask why they do the things they do. If we don’t diligently watch our money now, there may not be any money to watch in the future.

Demand More Fiscal Responsibility On The Clean Power Alliance

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