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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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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

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program ready to write directly to that Councilmember.

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council candidates

Latest Exclusive Insider Advice For Council Candidates

 

council candidates“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

—Lewis Carroll

Details filling in for Council Candidates

Ask anyone what the pressing issues are facing Ventura; you’ll get a variety of answers. With the unprecedented departure of three serving City Councilmembers, this is an excellent time to get the perspectives of those who have served. Having interviewed the retiring Councilmembers and some former Council candidates, all point to several significant issues facing Ventura’s next City Council in the next few years.

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 will bring fresh perspective and energy to the Council. They also will face a steep learning curve to be effective.

Governing By Districts

City Council Candidates will serve by district

As citizens expect their elected officials to represent their district’s interests, concern for the city as a whole may take a backseat to districtwide issues. That can be a problem when the demands regarding traffic, housing, crime and services of the districts don’t mesh with the other districts’ views.

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

Governing by districts means inexperienced new Councilmembers will lead the city. Inexperience means two things. 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.

More distressing may be the loss of a citywide perspective on the Council. Wrangling for projects will probably intensify. It is likely that Westside swimming pool proponents will battle the Kimball Park proponents over who gets funding, for instance.

Re: Growth

council candidates

Growth meant different things to each interviewee. All agreed Ventura needed to grow. They also concurred that growth and water availability are inseparable. Each acknowledged the need for affordable housing but recognized the opposition to more houses (the NIMBYs). Forward progress on growth means accommodating, integrating and compromise.

The Solution is Sensible Growth

Growth and water are inseparable—you can’t have one without the other. The next City Council must forge a reasonable growth plan. The new Council will also have to convince the “no-growth” citizens that the city needs to grow to be vital. The Council should also call for the city staff to streamline current fees and permits practices.

Re: Water

Everyone acknowledged water was a concern. The specifics on how to address the issue varied widely, however. The solutions offered by those interviewed included the Heal the Bay Consent Decree, state water, direct and indirect potable reuse and drilling new wells. There was no clear direction.

Solutions for Better Water Management

water, council candidatesThe new City Council can take three steps to address water. First, they must request a modification to the Heal the Bay Consent Decree to extend the deadline for extracting wastewater from the estuary. Extending the deadline requires the Council to direct the City Attorney to act if Ventura is to avoid penalties for not complying.

Second, The Council must force Ventura Water to table Direct Potable Reuse (DPR). It is an expensive gamble. No State approved testing exists for DPR today and may not for 4-8 years. California anticipates establishing safe drinking water standards for DPR in 2024, but there are no guarantees they will meet that deadline. There’s no reason to proceed with an untested and unproven method that risks the public’s health.

Third, the Council must make Ventura Water more transparent. The goal is two-fold. Increase accountability within the department and increase communication to the public. As an example of poor communications, most of Ventura did not know of September’s safe drinking water breach. Ventura Water exceeded the Federal Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) levels. Bear in mind that elevated TTHM levels were the cause of the water issues in Flint, MI. Ventura Water met the minimum requirements for reporting the violation. They contacted the residents in the affected area but did not explain it to the rest of the city. They fulfilled the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. To date, they have not notified the public whether the TTHM levels have returned to acceptable levels.

Re: Homelessness

council candidatesHousing Ventura’s homeless was a high priority. Some thought affordable housing was the solution. Others mentioned the homeless shelter. Some interviewees distinguished between the mentally ill living on the streets and the vagrants. Each saw it as a countywide problem with Ventura as its nexus. The county jail and the psychiatric hospital are in Ventura, making the city a natural final destination for the homeless to stay. One interviewee described it as a “catch and release” program by the other cities into Ventura.

Consideration Toward Addressing Homelessness

The new Council should distinguish between criminal vagrants and those willing to accept help. We should be willing to help those who help themselves.

Re: City Staff Accountability

All the interviewees wanted more accountability from the city employees. Often the City Council gives the staff too much power to drive the dialog about, and the outcomes of, important issues. Several pointed to the lack of a City Manager contributing to the problem. Incoming City Manager, Alex MacIntyre, will need to address this issue.

Improving City Staff Accountability

council candidatesThe new Council needs to apply critical thinking and be willing to question all city staff reports and recommendations. To do so requires financial literacy. Each Councilmember must study the city budget and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).

Second, the Council should stop accepting mediocre performance from the staff. Stop praising the employees even when they don’t perform. In private, two of the three outgoing Councilmembers say low staff morale is the reason for the gratuitous praise. False praise is not an antidote for low morale, in any case. It may be detrimental to the top performers by cheapening the value of the kudos. The new City Manager should confront the staff morale issue.

Third, the new Council should scrutinize the expenditures on outside contractors. Last year, Ventura spent $30 million. They should be fiscally responsible and look for ways to cut these costs.

What Was Not On the List of Issues?

Pensions were surprisingly not on the list by any of those interviewed. Either they don’t understand the issue, or they feel it is a problem they cannot change, or the fallout from ignoring it is too far into the future.

How to Address Pensions

Pensions are the ticking time bomb nobody wants to discuss. They’re the political third rail issue that candidates ignore. Two years into this new administration, the CalPERS payments are going to balloon. It’s time for the city to acknowledge and admit that pensions will consume the Measure O tax increase by 2023. Forecast the anticipated CalPERS increases objectively. Provide the Council with the necessary information to make financial decisions.

Editors’ Comments

Pensions, council candidatesMany complex issues face Ventura. All City Council 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

Even though voting districts divide the city, our elected Councilmembers must represent the entire community. When deciding on issues, they must think about the city at large. The tendency will be to think about each Councilmember’s district first and the city second. Such a practice is unacceptable to a town of only 109,000 people. We must always remind our elected officials to think of the city before his or her district.

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

New Council Candidates Will Replace Departing Councilmembers

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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You Have Reasons To Be Concerned About Ventura’s Pensions

“Courage Cannot Be Counterfeited. It Is One Virtue That Escapes Hypocrisy”

—Napoleon Bonaparte

Pensions

The City of Ventura has a spending problem, and it’s time for an intervention. The fiscal crisis is not widely understood. At its core are the promised unfunded pensions for public employees.

Ventura’s pension contributions for 2018 are $17,410,000. The annual contributions will balloon to $32,630,000 by 2025. That’s a compound annual growth of 9.4%. No other expense item in the US economy is growing that fast. As of 6-30-15, the entire unfunded liability for the City of Ventura is over $169.2 Million ($169,292,212). It is not possible to get out of the CalPERS retirement plan. As of 6-30-15, to terminate the CalPERS plan would costs $1.2 Billion ($1,197,537,902).

Ventura is not alone. Cities up and down the state must face up to the problem. However, Ventura’s pensions are a debt time bomb.

PensionsVentura is already paying 34 cents to CalPERS for every dollar it pays its active employees. In six years, that amount will go up to an unsustainable 51 cents for every dollar of payroll—more than any city in Ventura County. Pensions are already crowding out other essential city services like filling potholes, fixing infrastructure and even hiring more police officers and firefighters.

How Pensions Affect You Directly

Pensions

Pensions Will Crowd Out Needed City Services

Expect senior programs and after-school activities to disappear first. Next, the city will defer maintenance and capital

expenditures. The city will extend service contracts for police cruisers, city vehicles, and equipment. These things represent only a fraction of Ventura’s budget. Reductions in services will never be enough to stop the detonation of the pension debt bomb.

Ventura can only fix the problem by raising taxes, cutting needed services, or both. There is a direct correlation between the money Ventura spends on pensions and the city’s ability to pave streets and repair sewers.

Reckless Spending Continues

Despite knowing this, Ventura’s City Councilmembers increase spending without regard to the long-term consequences.

Pensions

The Roving Fire Truck Crew Adds To Ventura’s Pensions

Last month, the Council voted 4-2 to give the fire department $600,000 for a roving paramedic fire engine. City staff, the fire department and the fire union proudly pointed out grants and budget manipulation will pay the first year expense. No one on the Council asked what happens in year two and beyond. Fire Chief David Endaya asserted Ventura needs the engine because of an increase in calls. Yet he lacked specifics about whether there are more cost-effective ways to deliver the services.

To their credit, Councilmembers Mike Tracy and Christy Weir voted “No.” They wanted more details. Nonetheless, the Ventura Fire Department got its new engine, even though no one gave adequate data to support the decision.

Interim City Manager Dan Paranick did not recommend funding the roving engine for this year. Paranick worked with Fire Chief Endaya, but in the end, he said, “I haven’t gotten myself to a place where I’ve been comfortable yet, where I could sit here and justify the need based on the demand. That’s why I did not recommend it.”

Days later, he announced his resignation to accept a position closer to his home in Simi Valley.

The Fire Department isn’t the only group benefiting from the spendthrift City Council. Earlier this year, the police received pay increases of 5% adding to the city’s future pension liability.

In 2017, 90 of the top 100 salaries on the city payroll are police officers and firefighters. Every one of the Top 100 earns more than $198,800 in pay and benefits. For perspective, the average family in Ventura earns $66,000 per year with two wage earners.

Pensions

In reality, Ventura pays pensions for 3.3 retired police and fire employees for every two public safety employees on the job. That’s untenable.

So how is the Ventura City Council managing spending, and considering the long-term financial effect of their decisions? In short, they’re not.

Elected officials first believed the extra $10.8 million collected from Measure O would afford them the ability to meet new programs. But, Measure O is now a supplement to existing projects. Councilmembers frequently discuss the need for tax increases.

Moreover, it is not only about pensions.

  • According to the Capital Improvement Plan (CPI), Ventura Water Department insists on spending $538 million to convert wastewater into drinkable tap water. There remains the probability that water rates will increase by 200%.
  • Ventura’s golf courses lose $1.7 million annually on the debt they incurred.

When the money runs out, it has forced other cities to find solutions. They turn to the only tools they have at their disposal: raising taxes, cutting needed services, or both. Some even filed bankruptcy.

Economist Herbert Stein once said, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” Ventura is on a trajectory that cannot go on forever.

Your Chance To Make Ventura Better

PensionsThis November, Ventura has an unprecedented opportunity to tell the City Council, “No more new spending.” There are three open seats on the Council in this November’s election.

Past financial overspending must stop. New Council Members with an economic understanding of operating a city must prevail. Voters need to look past the individual candidates’ popularity to carefully consider their ability to understand and manage city finances.

Desirable candidates will:

  • Treat city money as if it was coming out of their pocket, which it is
  • Understand the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) before taking office
  • Understand the city budget and capital expenditure projects
  • Hold city staff accountable to present successful projects to the Council
  • Hold the City Manager accountable for results
  • Make difficult decisions knowing their decisions will anger some constituents
  • Do the right thing, not the same old, easier thing
  • Represent of the citizens of Ventura, not be a cheerleader for city staff recommendations

Editors Comments

You have the opportunity to make Ventura better this November. Voter turnout needs to be high for this crucial City Council election if Ventura is to improve. Decisions these new Councilmembers make will immediately impact the city’s economic vitality. We mustn’t leave this election to chance.

Encourage people to vote. Educate everyone on the grave crises facing the city today. Ask candidates how they plan to address these crises. Listen to their answers. Hold them accountable after they’re elected. If we do all these things, we’ll improve the chances Ventura will remain fiscally sound now and in the future.

Hold These Councilmembers Accountable For Their Past Spending

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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

Local Ventura Politics

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

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

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

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

A Chance For The Council To Start Fresh

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

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

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

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

We Know Poor Choices Lead To Financial Disaster

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater Transparency Is The Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editors’ Comments

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

 

Tell The City Council Not To Act Hastily

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program ready to write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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

Pension Redux

“Stupidity is also a gift of God but one mustn’t misuse it.”
—Pope John Paul II

PENSION OBLIGATIONS REVISITED

On March 11th the City Council was informed that the $12 million reserve that we have had since 1992 isn’t available as we had been led to believe. Although the General Fund has about $28 million, including this $12 million dollar reserve, by the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year had been “committed” or “promised” to someone or something. This includes such things as a $5.4 million dollar loan to the Ventura Redevelopment Agency or the $2.4 million set aside for the Jobs Investment Fund.

These promises are in fact liabilities, money we that we owe. If all of the promises are fulfilled and the RDA successor agency is unable to pay back their loan, the General Fund would only have $4.3 million. Not discussed or mentioned at this Council meeting were the other debts and liabilities, in particular the unfunded public pension debts. Those obligations have increased 97.4%. since our report to you 4 years ago.

The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) is an annual financial report detailing the financial condition of our City.

We start with the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). This is an annual financial report detailing the financial condition of our City. These numbers are accurate, but bear in mind that by the time we see the reports the data is 18 months after the fact. Further, you have to look in the footnotes to discover those debts which are “off the books” like the City pension program, which is administered by CALPERS.

What follows is an extract from the 2008 CAFR, as it related to the status of the City pension plan then. The third column reflected how much we owed to employees and retired employees as of the date of the report. The category of “safety” covers police and fire pensions and all other employees are carried in the “Miscellaneous Employees group”. Our unfunded liability totaled $48,673,594.

In the same year the revenue collected by the general fund totaled $88.7 million, of which $47.1 million (53.1%) was spent exclusively on police and fire departments. The percentage of our general budget paid to police and fire has increased dramatically whereas other employee costs have remained relatively stable. In 2009 59.9% of our total budget was allocated to public safety, 57.7% in 2010 and 53% in 2011. That did not include the “unfunded pension obligations”.

CalPERS increases unfunded pension liability costs to Ventura

In 4 years UNFUNDED PENSION OBLIGATIONS INCREASED 97.4% and now total $96,099,169.00.

These unfunded obligations accrued interest year after year, at the rate of 7.75%. CALPERS did not recover the substantial losses (reported by some news sources as 50% )as a result of the 2008 recession. They also did not earn the 7.75% annual projected investment returns until just recently. On the Legislative side efforts at the State and local level to move from a defined benefit plan to a 401(k) plan for new hires failed. Our City did try to address the problem by requiring current employees to contribute 4% of their compensation toward their own retirement plan, but it was piteously short. In 4 years UNFUNDED OBLIGATIONS INCREASED 97.4% and now total $96,099,169.00.

CALPERS is quick to point out that over a 20 year period the” return for each fiscal year ranged from -24% to +21.7%., and if we let them continue to manage our pension plan they “assume” we will get a return of 7.50%. But, if we want out and want to run our own program they use a 4.82% rate of return. We really owe $350,848,292. (See attached Hypothetical Termination liability for each plan).

 

PUBLIC PENSIONS OR BOND HOLDERS – AT RISK

[WHAT IS GOOD FOR THE GOOSE IS GOOD FOR THE GANDER]

Last year the Governor’s office and legislature announced that they had achieved “pension reform”. The reality is that they did not change any of the current pension benefits. They did this mainly for political reasons, but also because it is widely assumed that employees in the public pension system are protected by the constitutional ban on “impairing the obligations of contracts”.

Public employee unions have stridently asserted that they are different and thus bullet proof. This attitude was displayed clearly when the City of Stockton filed bankruptcy. That City told their bond holders and/or their insurers to take less, but refused to reduce the $29 million it pays each year to CALPERS for the employee benefits.

Assured Guaranty Ltd, which insured the Stockton bonds, stood to lose $100 million. They filed a complaint in the bankruptcy court claiming that Stockton had targeted the bondholders to take a loss, but continued to pay CALPERS without any reduction or did not seek any benefit reductions from the public labor unions.

Another insurer, National Public Finance, added their voice to the controversy, supported the Assured Guaranty position, but also alleged that the City of Stockton “rather than face the hard realities imposed by its unbearable liability to CALPERS (decided) to take a pass” – in short, that it was easier to sacrifice the bond holders than face the political wrath of the public employees or CALPERS.

So, the bond insurers asked the bankruptcy judge, Christopher Klein, to declare the City’s bankruptcy plan as inadequate because it ignores the pension debt, and they seek to compel the City to reduce its pension payments. The CALPERS reaction was to argue to Judge Klein that the pension payments have a higher priority over bonds. CALPERS lost.

In December, 2012, Judge Klein rejected the CALPERS constitutional inviolability of contract argument and ruled:

“While a state cannot make a law impairing the obligations of contract, Congress can…the goal of the bankruptcy code is adjusting the debtor-creditor relationship. Every discharge impairs contracts”.

So, what will happen to the benefits of the public pension contracts or the bond holders? CALPERS, those in the Stockton pension plan and the bond holders may both lose. This chapter is soon to be written.

EDITORS’ COMMENTS:

A 97.4% increase in unfunded liabilities over a 4 year period is setting Ventura up for failure. Most citizens don’t realize that Ventura will pay $13.3 million to CALPERS for 2012-2013. This is over and above salaries and other benefits. As more employees choose to retire early (50-60 years of age) this only gets worse.

Call it what you will, but the City Council thus far has adopted a profligate fiscal plan of doing nothing to pay this unfunded obligation. Hoping that the economy will rev up, that inflation will chip away at the obligation, or that somehow our pension assets will produce magnificent returns is foolish.

When the Council considers its new budget in June we urge them to set aside a percentage of our annual revenue to add to our reserve and/or apply to the unfunded pension obligations, and to release some of the commitments it has made to the General fund cash balance.

 

Editors:

B. Alviani         K. Corse             T. Cook

J. Tingstrom    R. McCord        S. Doll

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City Government Clueless About What Citizens Need

“The characteristic complaint of our time seems to be not that government provides no reasons, but that its reasons seem remote from human beings who must live with the consequences”—William Brennan, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

THE END OF THE FIRST DECADE

It is the end of the first decade of the 21st century.  This first ten years have been marred by war, scandal, fraud, economic failure and government malfeasance at all levels. Venturans will also be happy to turn the page and try to rebuild.  The questions is whether local government can provide the insight and leadership to achieve prosperity, or will be mired in the failed policies and decisions of the past.

THE NOVEMBER 3RD ELECTION – BEFORE AND AFTER

[THOSE WITH INTEGRITY AND THOSE WITHOUT]

We start with glimpse of the events leading to the last election. It was not pretty and hopefully is not an indicator of how the politics of city government will perform in the next ten years.

Police Association Smears Candidate Andrews

Prior to the last election the Ventura Police Association commissioned a telephone poll (push poll) for the specific purpose of trying to eliminate Councilman Neil Andrews.  A push pole is a seemingly unbiased telephone survey that is actually conducted by opponents of a particular candidate in order to smear or disseminate negative information about that candidate.

Police in city government

Police Association interjects itself into city government

Then immediately prior to the election came the mother of all polished and salacious brochures. You know, the one about Neal Andrews taking public money to the tune of $20,000.  None of it was true, but the policemen in charge didn’t care about that. They too have a right of free speech, even rotten speech and fraudulent utterances.

It didn’t work. The voters wisely returned Mr. Andrews to office.  He was elected to his third term of office, and was the next highest vote getter [9,246] next to our newbie retired chief Mike Tracy [9,777].

Councilman Andrews. of course, was punished for his position when the majority of the Council at their December meeting. The Council refused to elect him as the mayor of this fine city or even the position of Deputy Mayor.  Councilmen Andrews and Morehouse were in the minority.   The Ventura County Star published an editorial castigating the members of the council who condoned this miserable spectacle.

THE UNFUNDED PENSION PROBLEM PLAGUES GOVERNMENT

The unfunded pension liability of this city is the biggest problem facing this community, and will be the focus of VREG in the first quarter of 2010.

CalPERS increases unfunded pension liability costs to Ventura

Councilmember Andrews believes city government should bear all the cost of police and fire pensions.

Councilman Andrews is  the only elected official  who has not lost focus on this enormous issue.  His public position, and one that he has espoused for years, is that the benefits of the members of the public unions, particularly police and fire,  are excessive and must be changed from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.  That of course is not to the benefit of the union members because they want all they can get — FROM YOU.

This is real.  If you do not believe this City has a serious debt problem you are not paying attention.  Attached is a letter which VREG published in April 2009, titled “THE SPECTRE OF BANKRUPTCY”. The unfunded liability for the City of Ventura,  as of June, 2007, totaled  $294,673,595.  We believe the 2008 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report will reveal that the debt picture  has improved somewhat and will report on that analysis in our next issue. VREG will also sponsor a public forum and speaker on this issue in the first quarter of 2010.  We will announce the time and place.

A MESSAGE FROM A CITIZEN

[WHAT OUR CITIZENS WANT FROM GOVERNMENT— PAY ATTENTION CITY COUNCIL]

Just before Christmas the Ventura County Star published a letter from one of our citizens.  With his permission we publish that letter as a message to start the new year:

WHAT CITIZENS WANT

Re: Your Dec. 12 editorial, “Council’s Action a slight to voters”:

I concur with the editorial that called the selection of Mike Tracy as deputy mayor as a slight to voters.  I have no problem with Tracy and feel he will do a great job, but as a brand-new, untested councilman he hardly deserves to be appointed deputy mayor.

Skipping the popular, at least with the public,  not electing Neal Andrews [as Deputy Mayor] is truly an insult to the people who voted.  What the City Council and city manger do not understand is that there’s a reason no new tax measures have been passed.  The voters are unhappy with the way things are going.

I was particularly irked by Councilman Brian Brennan’s comments after Measure A failed.  He basically said the public wants more city services, but doesn’t want to pay for them.  I think he is wrong.  I believe the public wants basic services and is willing to pay for them.  Those services, in my opinion are:

  • Well-maintained streets and storm drainage.
  • Library services at the Helen Wright Library.
  • Adequate police and fire protection.
  • Safe neighborhood parks.
  • Being able to move about the city without harassment by professional bums.
  • A city that encourages a Walmart, which would provide tax revenue and jobs.
city government should stop wasting money

One reader wants city government to stop wasting money.

What I believe citizens do not want are:

  • Large, expensive sports complexes.
  • Expensive housing projects for “struggling artists”.
  • Worthless and expensive bus-stop art at the mall.
  • Exorbitant pensions.
  • City leadership that seems to enjoy punishing the public for not going along with their agenda.
  • And, finally, a city leadership that thinks residents who do not agree with them are just ignorant.

I feel better now.

—Ray Holzer

Editors’ comments:

          Thank you Mr. Holzer.  Could not have said it any better.

Editors:

B. Alviani        S. Doll           J. Tingstrom

K. Corse          B. McCord    T. Cook

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Pension reform needed

Grand Jury Exposes City Pension Out of Control

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not” —Thomas Jefferson

THE FLEECING OF VENTURA

The Ventura County Star reports the Grand Jury finds Ventura’s Pension Out Of Control

On July 26th the Ventura County Star published an article about the deplorable conditions of the public pension plans in Ventura.   The Ventura Grand Jury labeled these city pension plans as headed for disaster — an out of control cost [They actually said “uncontrollable cost”].  To see how out of control the one in Ventura is see the October, 2008 issue of Res Publica, which  provided an in depth analysis of just how much unfunded debt exists because of the lavish pension plans given to public employees by the City Council.  We republish some of that article here as a reminder to our citizens when they go to the polls in November.

(c) THE FIREFIGHTER PENSION

In a vote of 4 to 3 the council  approved the Memorandum of Agreement and the new pension contract with the firefighters of this city giving them a pension equal to 3% of their highest salary times the number of years in service plus all medical, dental, the same plan received by policemen.  The yeas were Councilmen Fulton, Brennan, Summers and Monahan.  The neighs were Mayor Weir, Councilmen Andrews and Morehouse who stated just before his “NO” vote — “I HAVE GRAVE CONCERNS TO COMMIT WHEN WE DON’T KNOW WHERE THE FUNDS WILL COME FROM”.

I have grave concerns to commit when we don’t know where the funds will come from.

In our August 2008 letter and postscript letter titled “IN THE SHADOW OF VALLEJO”. We posed a hypothetical retirement scenario — a fireman goes to work for the department at age 20, works 35 years and retires at the age of 55 earning a salary of $100,000 per year.  The adopted increase now provides that he/she will receive 3% of their salary in their last year of employment multiplied by the number of years of service.  So he/she will retire earning $105,000. [$100,000 x 3% = $3,000 x. 35 = $105,000].

ed summers pension blunder

Councilmember Ed Summers voted for pension increase because city employees only live 7 years past retirement.

Since that publication Councilman Summers, who is up for reelection in November, pointed out that we need to make some “minor corrections”.  We quote from his letter:

In the example it indicates that an employee has the ability to retire and receive 105% of their annual salary.  Regardless of the time of service and age at retirement, the program is capped at 90% of the eligible salary.  The example also includes add-back for accrued sick leave and vacation.  The City’s formula does not include any add backs, the formula uses only the base salary.  It is the County’s formula that includes add backs…(in addition)…unfortunately the assumption of a 30-year future obligation per employee is incorrect, the average life expectancy of a public safety employee is 7 years from retirement”. 

          We do not know what source Councilman Summers uses for this remarkable revelation that firefighters retiring at age 55 are projected to live only 7 years. His assertion is nonsense and not supported by any credible source.   Further, when he and the other profligate four argued that “the increase was only 1%, it in fact was an increase from 2% to 3%, which is a 33 1/3% increase in the retirement plan.   So what is the reality? We have less money now than we did in October, 2008.  This City Council has led us into a sea of red ink — $294,673,595 as of April, 2009, yet our Council and the public safety unions ask us to pretend that this not a problem.  Instead they want more money in the form of new taxes.  Here is an example of what we now have to pay just 15 retired folks yearly for the rest of their lives — $1,707,086.

Mike Tracy* $ 186,902
Gary McCaskill $140,602
Neil Gedney $129,856
Brian Gordon $132,548
Carl Handy $122,022
Douglas Aldridge $124,396
Bill Rigg $121,333
Robert Boehm $120,494
Donald Davis $112,735
Jim Walker $ 110,570
Everett Millais $105,245
Shelley Jones $105,013
Roger Nustad $101,836
Gail Bogner $100,515
* Retired Chief of Police. Running for City Council
Pat Miller pension out of control

Police Chief, Pat Miller

Mike Lavery pension out of control

Fire Chief Mike Lavery

More recently we learned that our present Chief of Police, Pat Miller and Fire Chief Mike Lavery would retire. Why did they push so hard for an increase in the retirement benefits in October, 2008 ?  Well  Duhh ! Thank you Councilmen  Fulton, Brennan, Summers and Monahan.

More recently Councilman Fulton announced that the City was going to appoint a committee to examine the public pension plan.  Let us hope against hope that they don’t pack it with FOCs like they did the Blue Ribbon Committee, and that they read the Res Publica analysis of April 2009, which concluded that the pension plan is headed on the same path as the City of Vallejo – Federal Bankruptcy.      

Councilman Neal Andrews has advocated for a change. in this area, and has published a lengthy memo on the subject:

“Immediately abandon the compensation formula that essentially forces us to mimic the weakest and most incompetent policymakers in other communities. Today we promise to compensate our employees at approximately the average level of other communities, though we sometimes count the highest paid three times as heavily as others. This is an artificial and arbitrary benchmark. We should instead adopt a clear policy of compensating at a level adequate to provide a sufficient workforce with the high level of competence we want in them.

Adopt a two-tier retirement system that provides a guaranteed contribution to the retirement plan for all new employees, instead of the current guaranteed benefit program. This would not change a thing for current employees, but over time it would significantly reduce the volatility of our budgets by stabilizing a major element of our financial liability. This is the same type of retirement program offered today by most of the private sector.”

—Neal Andrews

Editors’ Comments:   

Councilmembers FULTON and MONAHAN deflect any criticism and defend the retirement plan by saying the decision to raise pension benefits was deferred. When questioned,  they cannot recall when the motion or official action was made, do not recall who recommended delaying the firefighters retirement plan increase or just what happened.  They act as if this is a non-issue.  For your information councilmen, the pension increase which you approved in October 2008, has NOT been rescinded or modified.

Editors:

B. Alviani      S. Doll            J. Tingstrom

K. Corse        B. McCord     T. Cook

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