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

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

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

December 2017

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

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

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

January 2018

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

March 2018

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

April 2018

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

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

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

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

June 2018

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

July 2018

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

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

September 2018

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

October 2018

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

November 2018

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

City Council Election

December 2018

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

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

Wish The Councilmembers Good Luck In 2019

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Powerful VFD Union Exerts Its Strength On The Council

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

Uncertainty Over The Fire Engine

Interim City Manager Paranick did not recommend funding the roving engine in 2018. He said, “I haven’t gotten myself to a place where I’ve been comfortable yet, where I could sit here and justify the need based on demand. That’s why I did not recommend it.”

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

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

The Reason VFD Got Its Fire Engine

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

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

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

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.

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

Erik Nasarenko,
Mayor

Neal Andrews,
Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere

Jim Monahan

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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       Editors:

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

Politicians Expect You To Pay A Little Bit More

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

The Ventura County Star Mentions VREG

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

Click here to go to the article.

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

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

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

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

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

How Bad The Situation Is Depends On Who You Talk To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IF THIS UPSETS YOU, WRITE YOUR COUNCILMEMBER

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

Erik Nasarenko,
Mayor

Neal Andrews,
Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere

Jim Monahan

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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Ventura's Measure O Is Unenforceable

Oversight Of Measure O Is Untenable in Ventura

ELECTION AFTERMATH

Measure O passed in Ventura. Now, the hard part.

Measure O passed in Ventura. Now, comes the hard part: oversight.

2016 was a fascinating and challenging election year at all levels of government.  The City of Ventura was no exception.  Voters elected a new City Council Member and passed two City Charter amendments. Most remarkable of all, Ventura voters approved an increase in the sales tax. This will impact Ventura for 25 years.

The city staff and City Council promoted an extra 1/2 percent sales tax. The increase will raise another $10.8 million per year. That amounts to $270 million for city services over the next 25 years.

THE OVERSIGHT OF A NEW TAX IS UNTENABLE

The final vote count was 28,987 yes and 20,359 no votes. Measure O promises all voters strict oversight of the new money. Measure O mandates: 1) strict accountability 2) a citizens’ oversight committee 3) annual independent financial audits and 4) a public review of expenditures. Yet, the city hasn’t revealed its plan to put this strict oversight in place. 

Cheryl Heitmann, Ventura City Council

Ventura Councilmember Cheryl Heitmann

A lack of plan contradicts one councilwoman’s official position. She stated that her reelection was a signal from the voters. She believes voters think the City Council was spending the taxpayer’s money wisely. The 20,359 citizens that remember the Brooks Institute failure might disagree.

A LONG HISTORY OF BROKEN PROMISES IN VENTURA

Ventura citizens must hold City Government to its word.  Promises are sometimes forgotten or even ignored when it comes to money.  One example happened in 1991—26 years ago . City government promised to reduce water and waste water rates after the drought. The water and waste water rate increases they imposed were temporary. The drought ended. The rates never returned to their previous levels before the drought began. Once they got your money, the promises evaporated.It was also 26 years ago that our city promised desalination as a new water source, if voter approved.  Venturans approve the city’s call for desalination, but nothing happened.  Yet, Venturans still pay for State water rights because of the city’s nonfeasance.

Ventura lacks accountability in city government

Brooks Institute exposed the cracks in the city’s procedures.

Ten months ago, the city promised economic vitality when Brooks Institute moved downtown. Brooks Institute filed for bankruptcy. The project failed.  The City Council and the city staff pointed fingers at each other for that debacle. There was plenty of blame to go around, though.   The staff failed the Council by not performing its duties completely. The Council failed to ask the right questions before approving Brooks’ long term lease.

Afterwards, some City Council members reached a difficult conclusion. They realized the city staff lacks the expertise to assess complex real estate opportunities.

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Measure O passes

Congratulations On Measure O Passing! Now Let’s See You Do Something With It.

Yes on Measure O

Measure O proponents used yard signs like this to turn out the vote.

We congratulate the voters and the City Council on Measure O passing.

Many people voted against this measure.  That opposition was never about the extra tax money that could benefit our City. Instead, it was about the lack of trust in how this government would spend the money.

Citizens’ Oversight Committee Promised

Our opposition forced the proponents to promise that a citizens’ committee would oversee how the city spends this money.

Will city government keep that promise? Will the candidates keep their promise? Or, will the money flow toward the special interests that spent so much to get you to approve this new tax?

We’ll Monitor Measure O Closely For You

18,581 vote against Measure O

18,581 citizens voted against Measure O. Nonetheless, it passes.

Proponents promised clear accountability for how city officials spend the money.

We promise we will try to insure the city spends the money as it promised. The 18,581 people that voted against the measure deserve to know that much.

 

 

 

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Vandalism a part of election rancor

Election Rancor Flares Up In Ventura

ELECTION RANCOR AND MALICE IN OUR MIDST

It will be hard for anyone not to remember this election. The election rancor and display of malice that has bombarded us on a daily basis by many of the candidates, and those supporting or opposing ballot measures, has been destructive if not disgusting. The disrespect shown the American people will not be forgotten soon.

VENTURA IS NO EXCEPTION

We are disappointed to report that 40% of the “No on Measure O” street signs that were placed in the last month have been stolen and taken down. We do not know who but we know why.

Vandalism a part of election rancor

Election rancor strikes Ventura. 40% of opposition yard signs stolen or destroyed.

It is one thing for individuals or groups of individuals to disagree with ballot measures and to make every effort to convey their message to the voters. That is what our republic is about and that is why we enjoy the right of free speech; however, those who claim “their” free speech and then deny it to others just because they disagree deserve universal contempt.

The No on Measure “O” signs will be replaced.  Regardless of how you vote we ask that if you see anyone destroying or removing political signs for any candidate or any measure that you report it to us and/or the police department.  It is a crime in this state to remove or destroy a political campaign signs.

 

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Special Interests pig out on Measure O

Special Interests Line Up For Their Share Of Measure O

“IT ISN’T WHAT WE DON’T KNOW THAT GIVES US TROUBLE, IT’S WHAT WE KNOW THAT AIN’T SO”—Will Rodgers

FEEDING AT THE PUBLIC TROUGH

The Yes on Measure O Committee reported contributions of $30,000.  Of that, over $10,000 has been spent with a public relations firm to convince you to vote yes.  (This is in addition to the $144,000 the city has already spent on consultants and a 4-color brochure). They argument has been that everything is urgent and there will be money for everyone, for everything.

Follow the money with Measure O

Follow the money contributed to Measure O. You’ll find many companies and individuals that work for the city.

Very large donors included individuals in city government. The City Manager, Mark Watkins, makes $281,000 a year and the Chief of Police, Ken Corney, $313,000 a year.  Each contributed $1,000.

Mayor Nasarenko, a public prosecutor, who announced that this tax measure would be his political legacy, also contributed $2,000.  Others included Councilman and former police chief, Mike Tracy ($1,000), Ventura Water General Manager Shana Epstein ($500) and Interim Parks and Recreation Director Nancy O’Connor ($750) and Assistant City Manager, Dan Paranick ($1,000)

Contributions from government employees are not a surprise. Those who depend on tax money for their wonderful salaries and benefits, see this tax as protecting their salaries and benefits. To do that they need more tax money.

Contributions from private special interests should also be a red flag.  John Ashkar, a developer doing business as Pacific Heritage Communities ($5,000), Toro Industries, a pavement contractor ($10,000), Tri-Counties Labor Council PAC, a labor union organization ($5,000) and Service Employees International Union Local 721 ($2,500).  These are companies and unions that feed off our tax dollars for their own benefit. They have had their snouts in the public trough for so long they make no effort to hide their self-interest.

Toro Industries does street and repair work.   They have contributed $10,000. A formal report by Public Works, called the Pavement Maintenance Plan for fiscal years 2017-2021, concludes that 70% of our streets are in good to excellent condition.  The city also plans to spend $5,240,648 in 2016 and $6,372,869 in 2017 on street repairs.  That totals over $11 million dollars, without increased taxes. One of the major arguments for Measure O has been the “urgent” need more money for street and road repairs.  This gives, at best, the perception of a conflict of interest. At its worst, this looks like an attempt to buy an election.

There are also two labor unions contributing $7,500 toward a publicity campaign to convince you to vote yes.  What possible motive could they have in contributing $7,500 to the “Yes on O” campaign?

Citizens do not get a vote on benefits and contracts. We pretend that by voting for a City Council, we have a voice in such matters.  The reality is that we do not.  If you believe otherwise ask yourself, “Why would the City Council increase the Fire Departments retirement benefits by 50% and make it retroactive to the beginning of time?”  They could have made this action effective from that moment forward but they did not. By voting as the City Council did, it created an instant $80 million dollar unfunded debt foisted on the taxpayers.

COMMON SENSE

By the time you receive this letter you will have your Voter Pamphlet and, maybe, your ballot.  How you vote on all the tax measures that will impact your family?  We suggest common sense and what is in your best interest.

CONSIDER THE FACTS WHEN YOU GO TO THE POLLS

Consider carefully the arguments in the voter pamphlet and all of the facts before you decide and ask yourself if you have doubts.  We believe that MEASURE O IS A BAD LAW and urge a no vote. Here is why:

  • Measure O is for 25 years. This is a LIFETIME. It will never expire as promised.
  • THERE ARE NO RESTRICTIONS on how this money is spent. City Councils can and will change spending at any time. This is ripe for City Council’s broken promises and having funds redirected.
  • The guarantee of a Citizens Review Committee (CRC) is a lure for the gullible. The City Council appoints the CRC and any accounting reports will be after the city spends the money.  They will not have any budget control. They will not be order the Council to pay the money back. The City Council will retain the power to appoint and spend.
  • The City doesn’t need more taxes to operate our City. The Council has a balanced budget and has stated publicly that the current revenue is sufficient to operate. We have a balanced budget.
  • They even added funds to reserves and approved 4.50% raises and $1,500 bonuses for over 270 employees making over $100,000.
  • Pigs Gorging at Measure O

    Companies that do business with the city contributed heavily to pass Measure O.

    Ventura City Council now claims everything’s “urgent”. NOT TRUE. They want another $270,000,000 tax without prioritizing.

  • Over the last 2 years, the City of Ventura’s property taxes have increased by 4.0% and sales tax revenues have increased by 9.5%. The result is in 2017; the general fund revenue will be $104 million, the highest in Ventura’s history. Reserves have also increased to $12.5 million. Given the surfeit of new tax revenue repairing streets and public safety should already have first priority, not public art or low cost subsidized housing for everyone.
  • Polls implied that funds would be for rivers, beaches and veterans. Federal, state and bond budgets pay for rivers, beaches and veterans.
  • Recently increased WATER RATES of OVER 42% fund water and wastewater issues and cash reserves over $500,000 have accumulated. In fact the Water is planning to spend $17,000,000 to replace water meters with new digital meters.  We don’t need new taxes for water infrastructure.
  • The entire city is 150 is years old but the majority of the infrastructure business and homes were built after 1950. The suggestion that because the City is 150 years old and falling apart, is pure emotional campaign rhetoric.
  • In the Voter Information Pamphlet, the City Attorney, in his Impartial Analysis, states that Measure O has the provision that ‘Suspends the tax, after notice to the State, should the State divert this revenue for State purposes’. How many times have the supporters and Mayor said ‘By law, the State cannot touch Measure O funds’? Guess they lied to us again.

MEASURE O IS AN ASSAULT ON MIDDLE INCOME FAMILIES

Up and down the state, taxpayers are the targets of tax raisers.  On local ballots this November, voters face billions of dollars in new taxes and bond measures. There are 228 local tax measures representing a cumulative tax of $3 billion per year.  That is on top of what we already pay.   Measure “O” in the City of Ventura is one of those measures.  California has the highest sales taxes of any state in the union. Also on the ballot is a ½% Transportation tax, and Ventura Unified School Board property tax.

A sales tax is regressive and it has a substantial impact on everything a family buys – clothes, cars, toys, you name it. The lower your income, the greater percentage of that income you pay in taxes. The average income for a family in the Ventura is $66,485.

If your are working 40 to 60 hours per week or are a senior citizen on a fixed retirement income, think carefully about voting for a tax increase because it will be giving local government more of your money.    Remember also that those pushing for you to pay more taxes are in a government position. 503 full time City employees receive an average pay and benefits of $103,549.  Of that number, 70 employees (13%) make over $200,000 per year and another 167 make over $150,000 per year.

THE TRUST ISSUE AND PAST SPENDING

Trust of this government is a looming question.  Do you trust this City government to effectively use your tax dollars in a prudent manner?  They have a spending problem.

In deciding on how you will vote ask yourself, what is there about a promise of future prudence and strict accountability that gives you hope that the mistakes over the last 25 years will not be repeated in the next 25 years.   As a reminder here is a list of the losses just over the last 10 years.

  • $2.5m WAV project, never repaid. $1 million of that moved from water rate payer money to the General Fund in the name of “Art”.
  • $1.0m spent on a plan to narrow Victoria. Spent then abandoned.
  • $1.2m for 911 taxes. Money collected never refunded
  • $0m diverted at the expense of the internal service funds.
  • $10.0m lost investments with Lehman and WAMU, poor City Council oversight
  • $1.2m annually for 50% fire retirement increase
  • By making The fire departments retirement retroactive to the beginning of time, this immediately increased liability to the City another $80 million dollars overnight
  • $5.0m to promote as Art City Ventura
  • $1.2m twice sold parking spaces settlement in the downtown parking structure
  • Brooks Institute lease without due diligence, losing thousand and leaving contractor with $825,000 in unpaid liens

EDITORS COMMENT

Budget surpluses and tax revenues are growing. Ventura City Government, like citizens, must live within their means. This FOREVER tax is UNACCEPTABLE. There is no legitimate reason to tax us $270,000,000 more.

Editors:

B. Alviani, K. Corse, T. Cook,  B. Berry

J. Tingstrom, R. McCord, S. Doll B. Frank

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Brooks Institute Is Ventura's Latest Failure

Remember Brooks Institute when you vote for Measure O in November

“WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T”
—Benjamin Franklin

WAVE GOODBYE TO BROOKS INSTITUTE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS

The news in the last few weeks has reported the closure of Brooks Institute.  Everyone lost from this closure.  The students hopefully will find other institutions to complete their education and their teachers may find other positions, but the Citizens of Ventura are again holding the proverbial bag.

On August 20, 2016, The Ventura Star published an editorial about the role of city government in this matter, and it sums the situations up fairly well – “The City Council and city government appear to have given preferential treatment to a small but vocal constituency – and failed the rest of Ventura”.  We cannot improve on their conclusions except that it was all avoidable.  We can provide you with specific facts and information that we have garnered thus far so that when the bureaucratic spinning and finger pointing starts, you will be able to see it for what it is.

In February the City announced with great elation and fanfare that Brooks was coming to town. Councilwoman Heitmann led the parade as well as the City Economic Development Manager, Leigh Eisen. They extolled the prospects of increased revenue for the city and that downtown business would flourish.  Same hype surrounded the WAV (See our August 2011 letter published at August 2011 Newsletter).

Brooks Institute Unfinished Office Space

Brooks Institute left unfinished classroom space when the deal unraveled.

There were three sites leased, two private owner locations downtown and one behind City Hall.  The largest was the two top floors of a 5-story city office building at 505 Poli just behind City Hall.   There may have been two other private owner locations but that as yet has not been established.

Hope and promise filled City government.   Staff rushed to execute leases for the 505 Poli property.   Brooks Institute entered into a contract with a major contractor to demolish and build tenant improvements on the two top floors of 505 Poli at a contract price of $1.2 million. Tenants of those two floors were evicted; the contractor was permitted to fast track demolition and tenant improvements started.  When hazardous materials were found on site Building & Safety again fast tracked the work, which was promptly completed by Venterra, a hazardous materials remediation company, at an additional cost of $80,000.  Demolition was completed and 2/3 of the tenant improvements were built.  Then Brooks closed its doors and the project imploded.

THE PROJECT UNRAVELS

Brooks Institute paid no money to the City for rent, no money for a security deposit and no performance bonds or guarantees were put in place.  Reportedly $70,000 in back rent is due. Future rents are lost. The tenant improvements have yet to be completed. The Assistant City Manager tells us that it will only cost our City $200,000 to complete those improvements.

Unsurprisingly, within a matter of days, the facts have proven otherwise.  The contractor has filed a lien against the City for $825,000 for the work they and the subcontractors performed on City property, including the $80,000 cost of the removal of the hazardous materials.  Add lost rent to date, future lost rents the evicted tenants would have paid, the estimated cost to complete the tenant improvements and the damages causing the losses to swell to over $1.2 million.  Then there will be the legal costs to collect these losses, if possible, and to avoid liability.

The private property owner who also signed Brooks’ leases and started the work of providing tenant improvements in the downtown area was more fortunate.  He wisely obtained guarantees to protect himself.  Brooks Institute, owned by a Chinese owned company named Gphomestay, has lawyered up with an expensive LA firm. The contractor has lawyered up too but no word yet on what lawyer will try to pull the City’s chestnuts out of the fire.

The citizens of Ventura deserve to know why the taxpayer has once again been “hornswoggled[1]“.  Dreams, hopes and ideas for healthy economic growth are wonderful, but such things must be tempered with economic reality and good business sense.  When those are ignored the phrase “a fool and his money are soon parted” is apropos.

DEMAND THE TRUTH

The City Council has a lot to explain.  They were quick to ask the citizens of Ventura to increase taxes (Measure “O”).  They spent $118,000 of our tax money to hire public relations firms to convince 51% of the voters to vote yes on that measure thereby giving them more of our money.  Will they be as quick to take responsibility for another $1 million plus dollar loss?

No Deposit on Brooks Institute

Citizens should ask, “Who approved the Brooks Institute lease without asking for rent payments upon execution?”

This Council, particularly the two candidates seeking reelection in November, Councilwomen Weir and Heitmann, need to answer questions about their ability to conduct business on our behalf.  We must have representatives that are experienced and understand business. We, as a community, cannot afford losses of this magnitude and we certainly should not be handing the City Council another $270,000,000 over the next 25 years if they are not qualified.  By this recent action, this City Council is not capable of managing our tax money.

Other than “what were they thinking” here are questions EVERY citizen should be asking?

  1. Who approved this lease without asking for rent payments upon execution?
  2. Who reviewed and approved the terms of the lease with Brooks?
  3. Who made the decision to permit construction on City property  without a guarantee or performance bond in the event of default of Brooks Institute?
  4. Who performed the due diligence and examined the financial condition of Brooks Institute to determine their ability to perform under the terms of the lease?
  5. Who recommended the approval of this lease and its terms to the city Council?
  6. Shouldn’t those who made the decisions in this matter resign or be fired?

City Government’s response thus far is that they will sue Brooks to get our money. City officials continue to say they are surprised, shocked and disappointed. They should not be any of these things. This was all foreseeable based upon the financial condition and history of Brooks Institute. 

VREG is continuing to investigate this transaction and will report our findings in subsequent issues as new facts are discovered.

EDITORS COMMENT

In the private sector, when a so-called “good deal” goes bad for lack of due diligence people lose their jobs. In the public sector, nobody is held accountable and elected officials either choose not to run again, or they run and look for a fall guy.  

Just keep the BROOKS project in mind when you are asked to vote for Measure “O” in November; and, when voting to fill the three City Council seats that are open ask yourself if they are truly qualified.

Editors:

B. Alviani       K. Corse          T. Cook         B. Frank

J. Tingstrom R. McCord       S. Doll          C. Kistner

 

[1]Hornswoggle”, slang circa 1829.  A word to describe one who has been bamboozled.  Synonyms: dupe, fake out, fool, hoodwink, deceive, humbug, juggle, misguide, misinform, mislead, snooker, snow, spoof, string along, sucker, suck in, take in, trick

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