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2019 State-of-the-City

What You Missed In The 2019 State-Of-The-City Speech

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie…but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

—John F. Kennedy

2019 State-of-the-City Address

Mayor Matt LaVere filled his 2019 State-of-the-City address with images of a utopian Ventura. Unfortunately, it lacked specifics on addressing Ventura’s most pressing issues.

The mayor laid out his seven goals for 2019-2020. His vision included several goals that his predecessors didn’t achieve. Six of the seven were unmeasurable. What’s more, many goals are mere rhetoric and very little substance.

VENTURA’S HOMELESS CENTER

2019 State-of-the-City AddressTopping the mayor’s list of priorities was opening a permanent, full-service homeless shelter by December 31, 2019. The date gives this goal specificity. Opening the center doesn’t begin to solve the problem, though. Mayor LaVere and the City Council equate opening a homeless center with improving Ventura’s homeless situation. They are not the same thing.

Homelessness has risen the past three years to 555 persons from 300 in 2016. In that time, the city has increased spending on the homeless. The problem continues to grow despite spending more tax money to solve it.

The Council and city government are hoping the new homeless shelter will stem the tide. A closer look at the facts, though, shows their hope is not well-founded. There will be 55 beds, and it will cost Ventura $712,000 per year. Filling every bed will still leave 500 homeless persons on the street. The shelter will serve only10% of the homeless population.

2019 State-of-the-City AddressWhat’s more, the City Council conflates opening the center with helping the homeless. The goal shouldn’t be to have beds available. That’s an intermediary step. The goal should be to get the homeless off the street and return them to a healthy way of life.

The real solutions to homelessness—a very complex problem—was missing from Mayor LaVere’s vision. There are examples of successful programs in other cities. Looking at successful programs, like the one in Providence, Rhode Island, would be a step in the right direction.

UPDATE THE GENERAL PLAN

The second goal was to reinitiate the General Plan update. Ventura city government will conduct public outreach throughout 2019. Other than holding several long-overdue citizen input meetings, the outcome will be unmeasurable.

The city must try new, innovative ways to reach citizens. Otherwise, it will miss valuable input. Young people are most likely to be underrepresented. Our younger citizens are generally absent from public meetings. Yet they will live with the consequences of the General Plan.

The mayor and City Council are relying upon the voters to be content that the city was doing the outreach.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

2019 State-of-the-City Address

The third goal is to create a comprehensive economic development strategy. The strategy would include several key focus areas, including:

  1. Auto Center and Focus Area 1
  2. The Johnson Drive corridor. Mayor LaVere cited the North Bank Apartment project as an example.
  3. Front Street. The mayor wants to turn it into Ventura’s version of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.

Missing from the address is the vital fact that economic development begins with other people’s money. It takes investors willing to put up the capital to improve the business environment. How will the City of Ventura invite and welcome investors who want to start or move their business in Ventura?

Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone succeeds because the city made it easier to rebuild in the area. Developers lament that Ventura’s city government makes it difficult to do business. Stifling regulations, fees and planning delays force investors to look elsewhere. The new economic development plan should have one single goal to stimulate growth. Force the city to review, streamline or remove building codes and regulations wherever possible.

VENTURA BEAUTIFUL

2019 State-of-the-City AddressMayor LaVere’s fourth goal is to beautify the community. He wants to end what he termed “blight.”

Like the economic plan goal in the 2019 State-of-the-City address, this goal relies on “other people’s money.” Homeowners must invest in eliminating the so-called blight. There is no compelling reason for property owners to reinvest in some properties. The same stifling regulations and fees that deter investors hurt homeowners, too.

Following the Thomas Fire, the city reduced the building permits and fees for rebuilding. If the mayor is serious about improving blight, offer similar reductions to anyone enhancing their property. That would be measurable.

COASTAL AREA STRATEGIC PLAN

The fifth 2019 State-of-the-City goal is also unmeasurable and unspecific. Mayor LaVere says we must develop a Coastal Area Strategic Plan. He contends we need this because of climate change. He offered no further details.

The same faults of gaining input for the General Plan apply to the Coastal Area Strategic Plan. Find ways to reach all citizens.

BUILDING COMMUNITY

Mayor LaVere’s sixth goal is for the Ventura community to come together by building parks. Building community was a goal of both Mayor Erik Nasarenko and Mayor Neal Andrews. Three years and three administrations later, this goal remains.

2019 State-of-the-City AddressThe mayor hopes to achieve this goal by building community parks. The Westside Community Park set the model. Mayor LaVere’s first target is Mission Park.

Like the other goals, rebuilding Mission Park lacked specifics, budgets, timelines or measurable results. Moreover, this plan has one fault the others don’t have, public safety.

2019 State-of-the-City AddressMission Park is home to a growing number of Ventura’s homeless population. To prepare the area, the homeless must move elsewhere. The 55-bed homeless shelter isn’t the solution. Also, even if we scatter the homeless, there are safety issues. Someone would have to clean the discarded needles, drug paraphernalia and human waste from the park.

STOPPING THE BLEEDING

2019 State-of-the-City AddressThe need for key personnel is a huge problem. To fulfill any of our mayor’s goals requires adequate staff. The final 2019-2020 goal is to stabilize and strengthen our city government. The city has eight unfilled, critical managerial positions and dozens of vacant jobs. The city will achieve none of the other ambitious goals if there aren’t enough workers at City Hall.

We know this is City Manager Alex McIntyre’s responsibility. In February, he requested six months to fill those positions. Four months remain. He needs time to recruit qualified people and offer competitive compensation. We hope Mr. McIntyre will fill those roles soon, but if he doesn’t, how will the City Council help and support him?

EDITORS’ COMMENTS

This year’s 2019 State-of-the-City speech was platitudes, a utopian vision and fuzzy logic. Those may have worked when we were a quaint beach town, but they don’t work today.

These are challenging times for the city. An understaffed government is trying to do the people’s work, but it’s hard. Issues like homelessness, economic development and community building, are secondary to the daily duties.

Mayor LaVere presented his vision of what Ventura could be. Unfortunately, he may have made promises his administration can’t keep. Worse still, his optimism lacked specifics and failed to address Ventura’s most pressing issues: employee retirement costs, water costs and public safety. Nonetheless, if the commitments are vague enough, no one will be able to measure if we keep them or not.

FORCE THE CITY COUNCIL TO BE MORE REALISTIC WITH ITS 2019 STATE-OF-THE-CITY GOALS

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

Councilmembers
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Councilmembers Councilmembers

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Busting Ventura’s Budget Myths And Fantasies

Winston Churchill

THE TRUTH IS IN- CONTROVERTIBLE, MALICE MAY ATTACK IT, IGNORANCE MAY DERIDE IT, BUT IN THE END THERE IT IS
—Winston Churchill

PENSIONS BUST BUDGETS
[Grappling with Money and Economic Reality]

The City Council race concluded with the reelection of Councilmen Andrews, Monahan and Tracy plus a new councilman, Eric Nasarenko.  Our new Councilman was elected as Deputy Mayor at the last Council meeting and will serve in that capacity next year.  We congratulate each member of the Council.

During the election campaign these candidates asked to be elected so that they could help to bring about changes in City policies to:

  • improve the development of business
  • create and maintain parks
  • seek to improve streets
  • finance libraries
  • find ways to provide housing for lower income citizens
  • improve the gateways to Ventura on the North and South of Highway 101
  • create a more favorable regulatory structure to encourage development of housing
  • improve services to our citizens.

One thing that stood out for all four of these Councilmen was their plea that if the voters returned them to office and elected Mr. Nasarenko then a newly constituted Council could and would be more cohesive, and bring about the promised changes.

Their promise of change is laudable, but nothing can or will be accomplished without the money and revenue to realize those changes. That objective requires sound financial planning—an accurate and realistic budget with realistic income and expense projections.

From Where Will The Money Come In This Year’s Budget?

On June 17, 2013 the old City Council was presented with a Proposed Budget for 2013-2014. They were shown a power point presentation, explained by our City Treasurer, which was based upon a printed 569 page budget book submitted by our City Manager, Mark D. Watkins, on April 23, 2013. This budget was approved on a vote of 6 to 1 after a 30 minute hearing.  Nobody from the public appeared to comment.

It’s hard to overcome a $1.6 million deficit, if this year’s budget has no new revenue items.

Council members asked few questions, but did make statements “for the benefit of the television public” concerning their views on this budget.  Nobody asked any questions about the projected income, or questioned the expenses in this complex document other than Councilman Andrews.  He voted “no” on the motion to approve a budget projecting a deficit of $1.6 million in our next fiscal year (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014).  He explained his no vote – “We have cut too far and we need to look at public safety costs (police and fire pension benefits)”, meaning that the Council needed to look at ways to address the enormous pension costs before considering anything else such as new taxes.

Two Council members made statements that the general fund be unburdened by shifting some costs from the general fund to special tax assessment districts — taxes on real property.  Councilman Morehouse wants to shift a $500,000 public lighting cost to property owners, although conceded, when asked by Mayor Tracy, that this might also be funded by increasing sales taxes.  Councilwoman Weir commented at length about the special assessment costs imposed by other cities, such as Camarillo and Oxnard, for street repair, landscape maintenance, parks, public safety and libraries.  It was clear from these comments that their solution for our City deficit is to tax our way out of it.

Where’s The Transparency In The Budget?

This published budget is long, complex and difficult to read.  It consists of real number-clots, number slabs by department and sub-department(s) with pages of swimming line items in minute detail. It is difficult to read, interpret or understand as a financial planning document.   For example, members of VREG tried to determine how the projected income was calculated, and what the public pension costs (the largest item in the entire budget) would be for the next fiscal year.  The income information could not be found.  The pension data was sprinkled throughout all 589 pages and explained by esoteric line items and number for every department. The City Treasurer was asked about the complexity of this document.  He conceded that this was the equivalent of a “data dump”. A good management tool for a City Council it is not.

Focusing first on the income side.  The City Treasurer at the June hearing projected income of $86.7 million. This is $4.3 million more than was collected in 2012-13, an increase of 5.2%, twice the estimated U.S. Gross Domestic product estimate of 2.5%.

No explanation has been given on where this new source of revenue will come from.  That question was put to one candidate during a candidate forum in October.  A citizen asked, “What plan does the city have to grow their revenue by that amount of money?”

The answer was revealing (click on the quote to see video of his answer):

Ventura City Budget

There is a $1.6 million deficit in this year’s budget. As a higher percentage of Ventura’s General Fund is spent on police and fire pensions, less revenue is available for other services.

 

The projected deficit of $1.6 million and sagging income expectations are bad  The annual cost of  salaries and benefits  for public safety — police and fire —  is bad, and will grow to fifty-two (52%) of the total general budget  in the next fiscal year

Unfunded Pension Liability Is Staggering

Then there is the matter of how much will have to be paid to CALPERS to pay the unfunded pension obligations of City employees, police and fire personnel in addition to the annual operational costs.  In 2008 those unfunded obligations totaled $48 million.

In October, 2013, CALPERS reported that the market cost of those unfunded liabilities have increased by 360%, and  as of June 30, 2012, totaled $173,412,464.  CALPERS also added a note in that report that if the City wanted to terminate our contract with CALPERS it would cost us $600,421,434.

This is only going to get worse because CALPERS has announced it will consider adjusting (lowering) its expected rate of return in 2015 by 1/4%, and that the actuarial life of public safety personnel is not shorter than the average person, as previously assumed, but is the same.  That means these pensioners, starting at age 55, will get paid benefits over a longer period of time.

Cities nationwide are grappling with the growing retiree-benefit pension costs which are eating up more of city general funds.  That leaves less money to spend on parks, libraries, maintenance of trees and parkways, street lights and an asundry of public service projects.  Ventura is not alone. As a higher percentage of a City’s general fund is spent on police and fire pensions, less revenue is available for other services and projects.  Detroit, Stockton and San Bernardino are models of cities that refused to accept economic reality.

If the total unfunded obligation cost does not get the attention of our new City Council, then perhaps the most recent CALPERS Actuarial Valuations predicting our annual payment obligation will get their attention.  In 2013-14 the required annual contribution total will be $8,530,730.  In 2014-15 the required payment will increase to $9,489,593.  That is more than $1 million more to be paid out of the General Fund

  Editors’ Comments

Why there are no protests by the citizens of Ventura for changing the pension plan of public safety personnel?  What will it take to get Venturans excited and concerned about this problem?

When the question of pension reform was presented to our City Council members in the past the traditional answer was that this problem could only be addressed on a statewide level; Ventura will not be the “lead dog” and venture out into this new territory; and, as unfounded as it may be, that Ventura would no longer be competitive in hiring the best employees.

This unfunded obligation to public safety personnel is a budget buster.  Nobody wants to make a decision.  In the meantime, Ventura will reduce services, charge more fees (or taxes) from its citizens and ignore the obvious “train wreck” that is ahead because it either lacks the leadership or vision to act responsibly for the future of this City

All the campaign promises in the world are worthless unless and until this new Council establishes a realistic budget, and finds real solutions to our public pension obligations.  Trying to tax ourselves out of debt is not a solution. Requiring greater employee contributions to their own retirement (8 – 10%), and creating a defined contribution plan for new hires will solve the problem in time.

That is why you were elected!

Editors:

R. Alviani      K. Corse      T. Cook

J. Tingstrom  R. McCord   S. Doll

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