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Proposition 218 Is The Fastest Way To Raise Money, But Is It Right?

 

“I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you’ve earned, but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Proposition 218

Ventura Water will push the boundaries of the law as it tries to use Proposition 218 to raise money to meet the Wishtoya Foundation Consent Decree.

In the next 12 months, Ventura Water will ask the City Council to increase water rates for 30 wastewater projects and 28 water projects by 2024. These costly projects will benefit some property owners. Other projects will help the community at large.

As of June 30, 2018, Ventura Water accumulated $115,000,000 for projects they planned to build between 2012-2018. Still, they need $449,586,000 more before 2024. How did we commit to spending almost $450 million, and why weren’t you asked to vote on it?

WHAT WILL THIS COST YOU?

These new rate increases will come on top of the increases imposed over the last six years. In 2012, Ventura Water wanted to increase rates to:

  1. Replacing aging pipelines and facilities
  2. Building projects to improve water quality
  3. Constructing new groundwater wells

In 2012 the average homeowner and family of 4, received a bi-monthly bill of $73.27 and sewer charges of $72.45 for a total of $145.72. That same family is paying $105.03 for water in 2018.  Add sewer charges of $104.64 and their total bill is $209.67.  This is a 43% increase over the 2012 rates.

From 2018-2024, expect a similar rate of growth. Your new water bill may look like this:Proposition 218

HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS SITUATION?

Propoosition 218In March 2012, the Ventura City Council signed a Consent Decree that requires Ventura Water to stop putting 100% of its treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary by January 2025. The decree stems from a Federal complaint filed by Wishtoya Foundation. Former City Manager, Rick Cole and Ventura Water General Manager, Shana Epstein, signed the consent decree on behalf of the city. The city no longer employs either of them.

Keep in mind that voters had no voice in the City Council consenting to the decree in 2012. Now, Ventura Water wants to deny voters the chance to say how we spend the money to meet the order, too. It plans to use Proposition 218 to get those funds.

HOW AND WHY CAN VENTURA INCREASE MY RATES?

So how can Ventura Water impose such large fees against its citizens without the traditional right to vote on such matters? The answer lies in how Ventura implements Proposition 218. Approved by the voters in 1996, Proposition 218 allows Ventura to raise money in one of three ways:

  1. General taxes. Those taxes used for general governmental purposes. Prop 218 requires the traditional voting procedure, notice, a ballot and an election measure. 51% of the voters must approve it. Ventura’s Measure O sales tax was one such example.
  2. Special Taxes. Any tax imposed for specific purposes and placed in a general fund. A Special Tax requires a 2/3 (66.67%) majority vote. The City sought this type of tax in 2009. It was Measure A on the ballot. It was a 1/2 cent sales tax for public safety and other specific projects. Monies would have been placed in the city’s General Fund. It failed.
  3. Special Assessments, Fees and Charges. Fees or charges means an assessment imposed as an incident of owning property which receives a unique benefit. The city can only impose such fees by affirmative voter approval. The exception being that prior voter approval is not required for “any assessment imposed exclusively to finance capital costs or maintenance and operation expenses for sidewalks, streets, sewers, water…”

VENTURA WATER TURNS A NON-VOTE INTO A YES VOTE

Ventura wants to use option C, Special Assessments, Fees and Charges to impose higher water rates.

Here’s how they’ll do it. Instead of putting it on the ballot, Ventura Water sends a water bill. Somewhere in the body of that bill, it tells you why the rate increase is necessary. You may dispute the rate increase by voting “NO” within 45 days, but the process is cumbersome. To disagree, you must download a protest form, complete and mail it or take it to City Hall by a specific date. Fail to jump over those hurdles and the City doesn’t care what you think or want. If 51% of the ratepayers have not voted ‘NO,’ that is the end of the matter. There are 32,000 ratepayers. Sixteen thousand one must vote NO to defeat an increase.

Proposition 218, now Article XIII C and D of the California Constitution, made the following findings:

         “The people of the State of California hereby find and declare that Proposition 13 was intended to provide effective tax relief and to require voter approval of tax increases.  However, local governments have subjected taxpayers to excessive tax, assessment, fee and charge increases that not only frustrate the purposes of voter approval for tax increases but also threaten the economic security of all Californians…This measure protects taxpayers by limiting the methods by which local governments exact revenue from taxpayers without their consent.”

When the City sought the last rate increase they took the position that they had the right to raise the rates without prior voter approval. They believed the procedures they followed were consistent with Prop 218 language, as interpreted by the California Supreme Court.  They maintain that they “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval” for anything they chose to label a water or wastewater project.

But it doesn’t end with this interpretation alone. A California Supreme Court challenge goes further.

TESTED IN THE COURTS

The California Supreme Court in Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil (2006)39 Cal.4th 205, at page 205, addressed the question of whether voters had the right to put an initiative on the ballot to reduce water rates. The court ruled in favor of the water agency and interpreted Prop 218’s language to mean a city “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval.”  The Court’s decision was specific. It didn’t involve the question of whether imposing fees to deal with a Consent Decree are valid.

Notwithstanding the protective measures of Prop 218, the City of Ventura conveniently interprets Prop 218 to still impose fees and charges beyond the simple costs of service to the homeowner. However, the court never went that far.

The City of Ventura’s interpretation of Proposition 218 is overreaching when it comes to any matter about water, wastewater and related environmental projects.

That decision by the Supreme Court only involved the issue of water delivery through a pipeline and whether voters could use an initiative process to require prior voter approval for the costs of that delivery.   It did not involve a question of whether fees imposed to deal with a $500 million water and wastewater projects together with environmental costs, expert studies, attorneys fees and a plethora of expenses arising out of a ConsentDecree decided by a City Council in 2012, and in which the voters had no voice.

What if the costs are not exclusively operational costs? What if the expenditures benefit the entire community, not just ratepayers? Does Proposition 218 apply in those circumstances? Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil does not answer these questions.

No Precedent For What They Plan To Do

In determining whether to seek prior voter approval, we hope that the new City Council will keep in mind the following the language from the Supreme Court in Bighorn case:

            “…the agency’s governing board may … raise fees or impose other fees and new fees without prior voter approval.  Although this power-sharing arrangement has the potential for conflict, we must presume that both sides will act reasonably and in good faith, and that the political process will eventually lead to compromises that are mutually acceptable and both financially and legally sound.”        (Emphasis added).

THE CITY MAY FACE A SERIOUS LEGAL CHALLENGE

If the City is considering rate increase of this magnitude without prior voter approval they should be mindful of the language in Prop 218. It provides that “in any legal action contesting the validity of an assessment, the burden is on the agency (Ventura Water) to demonstrate that the …properties in question receive a special benefit over the benefits conferred on the public at large…”

Complying with the Consent Decree by not putting wastewater into the Santa Clara River benefits all citizens, not just ratepayers.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water is proposing a mix of costly projects. Some will benefit property owners, and some will help the community at large. Building a pipeline and related infrastructure to import state water at the cost of $50 million benefits all property owners. Ratepayers generally accept this. Spending beyond that to build projects to satisfy a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology of the estuary is a problem.

Proposition 218 may not cover projects to meet a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology. We recommend a vote of the citizens in that instance.

Warn The City Council Of Ventura Water’s Potential Error

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 then know that Venturans must vote on a water rate increase to pay for the consent decree. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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What You Missed In The 2018 State-Of-The-City Speech

“We’re no longer a quaint little beach town.” —Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews

Mayor Neal Andrews’s State-of-the-City address was noteworthy more for what he didn’t say. The speech was a summary of last year’s events delivered by each of the major department managers with summary comments by Mr. Andrews.

What this year’s address lacked was a vision for Ventura’s future. Neither Mr. Andrews nor the city’s department heads mentioned job creation, new sources of revenue or business development. Instead, we heard how the city utilized Measure O’s $10.8M sales tax revenue.

The fact remains that Ventura faces significant challenges. The recovery from the devastating Thomas Fire has brought out the best in people but also exposed failures in systems and processes. We acknowledge the heroic efforts of citizens, police, fire and water personnel who fought to prevent further tragedy. But, we must temper those accomplishments with the systemic failures by the local government that contributed to this horror.

2018 Challenges Not Addressed In The State-of-the-City

Rebuilding After The Thomas Fire

Post-fire reconstruction is overwhelming the Building & Safety Department. Community Development Director Jeff Lambert put a brave face on it, but the stress was palpable.

City Manager

There is currently no City Manager. Assistant City Manager Dan Paranick stepped up to lead the city’s recovery efforts. From all indications, he is performing proficiently. Nonetheless, the search goes on for a permanent replacement.

Water Department’s New General Manager

New Ventura Water General Manager, Kevin Brown assumed leadership only weeks before the Thomas Fire. He now faces the double task of improving performance while he defends the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire.

Elections By District

The 2019 City Councilmembers will represent specific voting districts. Before 2018, voters elected Councilmembers “at large” to serve the entire city. This change will force Councilmember Mike Tracy and Mayor Neal Andrews to retire from City Council. New faces representing the Ventura Avenue and East Saticoy Districts will occupy their seats on the Council.

The Deafening Silence

In the closest thing to providing a vision of Ventura’s future, Mayor Andrews laid out his commitment to “focus on building prosperity.” He plans to support the business community, but he shared no specific policies or initiatives.

Another of Mayor Andrews’s commitments was to “radically increase the city’s technology.” He plans to do this through an improved broadband strategy. He revealed no further details or costs or how to pay for this plan.

Pragmatically Looking Ahead

What we know is Ventura faces specific, severe financial and budgetary challenges, even with the Measure O revenue. What we don’t know is from where the extra funding will come.

Other issues not commented on were:

  • Ventura will receive less property tax revenue from the 535 houses ravaged by the Thomas Fire.
  • Ventura can expect lower gasoline sales tax revenue because of trends towards less driving.
  • Unfunded pension costs will increase another 10%-20% next year.
  • The recent rains increased road damage on unrepaired streets. Telegraph, Victoria, Wells, and Thompson all show the effect of the storms.
  • Ventura Water needs an extra $500-$600 million over the next decade for water and wastewater infrastructure. Recent rate increases over the past four years will not cover this shortfall. Water rates will increase again.
  • Legal costs to defend the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire will come from the General Fund. The unbudgeted expense could result in higher fees.

Where Is The Vision?

There was one tiny glimmer of vision in Neal Andrews’s address. He said, “We [Ventura] are no longer a quaint little beach town. We’re among the top 10% of the largest cities in California.” Mayor Andrews recognizes a truth many of us have known for years. Ventura has urban issues, and we can’t solve urban problems with provincial solutions. We need fresh thinking.

However, Mayor Andrews and the city staff have not shared a future vision. Some may look to a new City Manager to provide a long-term plan. But experience indicates this is wishful thinking.

Rick Cole nearly ruined Ventura financially.

In 2004, the City Council hired Rick Cole. Mr. Cole had a grand urban development plan for Ventura. He spent millions planning to narrow Victoria and make Ventura a “walking community.” His unrealistic thinking nearly ruined Ventura financially. The economic impact will haunt Ventura for decades to come.

Mark Watkins inherited a mess from Rick Cole.

Following Mr. Cole, the City Council hired Mark Watkins. Mr. Watkins did not have the

grandiose vision of Mr. Cole. The City Council employed him as a caretaker. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to overcome the problems left by his predecessor. He inherited budget deficits. He managed those deficits by not hiring more employees. The remaining city staff he inherited stumbled executing his vision. As an example, Mr. Watkins lack of supervision surfaced when his team fumbled Brooks Institute. That mistake cost Ventura taxpayers over $261,000.

The two new members of the City Council may have a vision, but they are unknown and have no experience.

Editors’ Comments

Ventura is struggling. We’re struggling following the Thomas Fire. We’re struggling financially. We see the struggle in the faces of our neighbors. We see it in the faces of people on the street. We read it social media.

If the city is to move forward, it’s up to us to provide that vision. The government does not create jobs or develop business, nor do we want them to. Government (the City) is the last entity you want to create jobs. The government does better to stay out of the way so businesses may thrive.

What Government can do is create an environment that is favorable for business. They can do so by:

  1. Issuing permits faster
  2. Charging competitive fees (compared to other cities in the county)
  3. Creating acceptable zoning that encourages desirable companies to relocate to Ventura
  4. Identifying desirable industries with high paying jobs
  5. Bringing qualifying business owners to Ventura on a personalized tour of the city

Contact your City Councilmember. We need the revenue to offset our growing needs. Demand a plan to attract more business to the area; preferably ones with better than entry-level jobs. Insist the city assist property owners to fill all vacant commercial property. With jobs, revenues will increase. With jobs, crime will decrease. With jobs, Ventura will prosper.

 

Demand a Plan From City Council To Attract More Businesses with Better Than Entry-Level Jobs to Ventura

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

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Budget Manipulation Using Fiscal Sleight Of Hand

Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air”
—Shakespeare, Macbeth

STATE OF THE CITY TREASURY

[TRANSPARENCY THROUGH FOUL AND FILTHY AIR]

History continues to remind us that to get to the root of any act of wrongdoing, malfeasance or wrongdoing, you need only follow the money to find the culprit(s). Eventually the truth and they are revealed. That again proved true at the City Council meeting on March 11, 2013.

Shell game balanced budget

Balancing the budget through financial sleight of hand

Our acting City Manager, Johnnie Johnson, in collaboration with the Chief Financial Officer, informed the City Council that those in charge of the budget in our City had adjusted [manipulated?] the GENERAL BUDGET to make it appear that we had achieved a balanced budget. In fact just the opposite was true.

The previous City Manager, Rick Cole together with Mayor Bill Fulton continuously publicized the fact that “we were living within our means”, that “we had balanced our budget” and that our “financial affairs were transparent”. On this Monday night the Council learned otherwise.

What the Council learned is that the $12,000,000 in financial reserves, created in 1992, and still in existence as of 2007, was now in fact only worth $4,300,000. The explanation provided is that Internal Service Funds (noted below), which contained money budgeted and set aside to meet real and specific future costs and potential liabilities, had been reduced so as to make it appear as if the budget had been balanced:

  • ($2m) Unassigned.
  • ($2m) Unfunded Workers Compensation liability
  • ($3m) Potential liability claims reserve Information
  • ($700,000) Technology

The explanation offered is that this was a way to make it appear as if our budget was balanced. As stated by Mr. Johnson, “we have not borrowed it from strangers, but we did borrow it from ourselves… (and) if we do not fund this within five years we will be broke”.

Mayor Tracy, at the conclusion of the presentation stated:

“Based on the way I look on the information we received here tonight we have probably been deceiving ourselves and therefore the general public. There is nothing illegal done here, we did not participate in any conspiracy, but I don’t think it (this) was clear to us”.

—Mike Tracy, Mayor and Retired Chief of Police

He then added that that the Council needed to put more oversight controls in place to prevent this from happening in the future. A new budget will be presented to the Council on May 1, 2013.

Editors Comments

Mayor Tracy and Councilman Heitmann were not on the City Council when these budget “adjustments” were made. For those council members and supporters of the former City Manager, this should be a lesson that the public was deceived and there was not total transparency during Mr. Cole’s administration. To have an interim City Manager, in 6 months time, bring to light that the $12.0M reserve was really $4.3M shows how gullible our leadership has been.

THE NEW CITY MANAGER BUSTS THE BUDGET

Mark Watkins’ higher salary and benefits strain Ventrua’s budget

On March 4, 20013, the City Council met to consider the employment contract for the new City Manager, Mark Watkins. On a vote of 4 to 3 the Council approved the employment contract. He will receive the following salary and benefits plus 6 weeks paid leave:

Base Salary $222,000.00
Annual Cost of Living Increases (1/2% of annual CPI)
Annual Performance Bonuses (3%-7%) $15,540.00
Auto Allowance $6,000.00
City Contribution to 401(K) $12,000.00
Employer Pension Pickup (2.5%) $5,500.00
Total Before Benefits $261,090.00

When invitations for applicants were first published the City Council set the salary rate range of $160,000 to $214,000. The previous City Manager received a salary of $174,000.

The Ventura County Taxpayers Association spoke against approval of the contract because the starting salary was simply too high for an entry level Manager, that the salary should be started lower and then increased to provide performance incentives and the contract provided automatic annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) during the 3 year term of the contract. They also warned against the COLA adjustment because of the precedent it would set when other public union contracts came up for renewal.

Mayor Tracy, Councilman Monahan, Councilwomen Weir and Heitmann approved the contract. They stated that Mr. Watkins was a long time resident of Ventura, that he had worked in the City during his career, that he was an Assistant City Manager in Thousand Oaks and that this was what needed to be paid to attract a qualified City Manager who would focus on the basics of operations of city government. Councilwoman Weir commented that any increase in the salary level could also be justified because “that we have already found savings in the City Manager’s budget to make up the difference”.

Our present acting City Manager commented that Mr. Watkins was a good choice, that this pay increase really only involved “pennies” in the total scheme of things, and that if he did not work out he could just be terminated and given a severance package.

Councilmen Andrews voted against the contract. Councilmen Brennan and Morehouse, after extolling the virtues and accomplishments of the former City Manager, Rick Cole, also voted no.

Editors Comments

Mr. Watkins will cost us an additional 26,102,700 pennies per year. He will earn all of that in dealing with our budgetary issues. We hope that the majority of the Council is right in saying that the additional expense can be justified by the savings that this new Manager will bring to our City.

In the meantime we must be diligent and continue to remind our elected representatives that if they we do not watch how they spend our pennies “we” will have no dollars left.

Editors:


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

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WAV Condos in Ventura

A WAV Of Financial Trouble Traps Ventura

 

“When everybody owns something, nobody owns it, and nobody has a direct interest in maintaining or improving its condition. That is why buildings in the Soviet Union — like public housing in the United States — look decrepit within a year or two of their construction…”
—Milton Friedman, Nobel Peace Prize economist

 

THE WAV CONDOS – A FAILED PIPE DREAM

[The Proof is in the Pudding]

Our former City Manager, Rick Cole and former Mayor, Bill Fulton, sought to implement their visions for Ventura. They have moved on but they left the citizens of Ventura with financial problems.

Each arrived from the LA area with populist visions, advocating for a community with less cars, more public transportation, more public housing all driven by the concepts outlined by the New Urban Congress. Their visions were embraced by a vocal minority – the art community, architects and low income housing advocates and special interest builders and planners that could live off the Redevelopment Agency dole. Their visions were a financial disaster. Mr. Cole’s contract was not renewed. Mr. Fulton packed his suit case and moved to Washington. Most citizens “waved” goodbye. A few are still awaiting Mr. Fulton’s new book on how the New Urban experiment worked in the City of Ventura, particularly the 69 residents of this subsidized housing units in this project that has cost taxpayers $985,072 per living unit.

The WAV Condos. Ventura’s attempt to build an “arts” city.

In January 2012, we treated one aspect of this project – the 13 market rate condominiums and 6,100 sq.ft. of commercial space along Ventura Avenue at the corner of Thompson Boulevard. The sale of these units and the lease of the commercial spaces were supposed to provide a source for repayment of construction loans to CHASE and the City of Ventura.

Chase holds the note on Ventura’s WAV Condos. The city stands to lose $2.5 million if the WAV condos do not sell by 2016

To make the market rate condos and commercial space development work, the City loaned $2,000,000 to the developer ($2.5 million now due with interest), and subordinated that loan to a first trust deed in favor of CHASE in the sum of $4,000,000.  Those loans were scheduled to be paid on the sale of the 13 condos, or by March 1, 2012. They did not sell and the commercial space did not lease. Facing foreclosure, and loss of our money, the City entered into a contract with CHASE to extend the due date to December 1, 2016.

This was not the result the City planned when this project was started. The City selected a person named Chris Velasco to “develop” the project, using our taxpayer dollars of course. Mr. Velasco signed the contracts, operating as a Minnesota non-profit company called PLACE. He gushed about the project. Here is one example:

“WAV’s market rate condominiums (priced from $625,000 to $875,000) are now for sale…WAV’s forward thinking configuration comes with an up market price tag. The average price per square foot for condominiums in the same zip code is $274; WAV’s pricing is $368 per square foot; however, buyers will be living green and helping underwrite WAV’s community. Besides the artists, and the public who flock to Ventura’s Art Walks and galleries, it includes those at 15 section 8 apartments”

So how reliable was the original plan? Not, by all accounts. The realtor involved with trying to sell the WAV units and lease the space recently shared his thoughts with us:

“These condos could only be sold for cash, or with a portfolio lender, due to Fannie Mae guidelines restricting the lending side. Its what I was up against for the three years. I had the listing together but was faced with the fact that the City refused to recognize that the condos were priced almost 1/3 higher than the market would bear. They would not entertain lowering them to market value.

“The condos were never worth $850K, at the most somewhere in the mid-$600s But even then the economy was turning down with buyers running for the hills. Add to THAT the fact they let my listing run out because I didn’t sell any. They said they wanted to take ‘another direction’.

“Now, perhaps they’re worth $479 tops – but you can’t use a traditional bank. Portfolio lender rates are usually at least 2 points higher, but a cash is the only way. Once one sale exists, there is a comp. Until then, its a big guessing game…”

            —Jerry Breiner, Realtor

 

Editors Comment:

Dump the WAV Condos as fast as possible.

Our City stands to lose $2.5 million if the WAV condos do not sell by 2016. It is likely they will not sell. An objective person cannot avoid the obvious problem in marketing these condos — bad views (freeway), bad location, no parking, low income neighbors and bad design. Our goal should now be to sell them for what we can to avoid a potential total loss through the foreclosure process. In other words, forget the cheese and just get out of the trap.

 

BANKRUPTCY LOOMS FOR CITIES

[The Good, The Bad and The Ugly]

The election is over but the business prospects for California cities remains dismal. Moody’s, a business rating service has placed the debt of 30 California cities, under review for downgrade. With the rating downgrade each of these cities will have great difficulty in raising money to operate essential government functions by borrowing municipal bonds.

THE BAD

On the list for downgrade are Oakland, Fresno, Sacramento, Azusa, Berkeley, Colma, Danville, Downey, Fresno, Glendale, Huntington Beach, Inglewood, Long Beach, Los Gatos, Martinez ,Monterey, Oakland, Oceanside, Palmdale, Petaluma, Rancho Mirage, Redondo Beach, Sacramento, San Leandro, Santa Ana, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Maria, Santa Monica, Santa Rosa, Sunnyvale, Torrance and Woodland.

The rating examinations will potentially affect $14.3 billion in lease-backed and general obligation debt on the books of these cities. Why? Because these cities did not address their internal cost structures, did not reduce personnel costs in the face of looming debt and used accounting gimmicks in the hopes that the economy would change. It has not changed. Add their unfunded pension and debt obligations to their itemized costs and they are in trouble.

THE UGLY

The cities of Vallejo, Stockton, San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes filed for bankruptcy. Their revenues from real property taxes and sales taxes dropped precipitously while fixed costs, such as public safety pensions remained high.   Public safety personnel refused to modify their benefits to help with the budget issues of their city. The fight between public safety unions, who refuse to modify their pension contracts, and the bond holders who loaned the cities money, looms large.

THE GOOD

 At the beginning of the recession the City of Ventura lost $5 million when Washington Mutual (WAMU) collapsed and $5 million when Lehman tanked. Tax revenues plummeted from $100 million to $82 million currently (estimated).   The City has tried to adjust for this 18% revenue reduction but the unfunded pension benefits for police and fire departments increased from $43,496,873 in 2008 to $68,385,380 in 2011. That is an increase of 57% for public safety. Add to that the $21,327,225 in unfunded benefits for all other City employees and we owe $89,712,605.

The positive news is that in the last four years is that the City has recovered $1.5 million of the WAMU investment. The City Council has also been trying hard to adjust their expenses and live within their means. Standard and Poor provided our City with a rating of AA.

One of the key individuals in achieving the S&P rating and urging fiscal restraint is our Chief Financial Officer, Jay Panzica. He has been instrumental in guiding the City through this difficult economic period. He was the driving force behind the Budgeting for Outcomes.

Chief Financial Officer, Jay Panzica, wasinstrumental in guiding the Ventura through this difficult economic period.

Mr. Panzica was also instrumental in setting the stage to help refinance the bonds owed for past water and waste water building projects. The first step was to seek an increase of water rates. This step, reviewed by a citizens committee in the fall of 2011, resulted in increased rates for all water users. The counsel prudently adopted those rates, on the recommendation of the citizens committee, thus setting the stage for a major refinance effort in 2012. Increased rate (revenue) by users provides the security for payment of the bond premiums in the future.

To take advantage of today’s lower interest rates, to refinance existing debt for Water and Wastewater projects and to obtain new money for new projects he asked our interim City Manager, Johnny Johnston, to seek approval from the City Council authorizing the issuance of $52 million in Water Revenue Bonds and $23 million in taxable Series A and tax-exempt Series B Waste Water bonds.

On October 8, 2012, the Council approved the request to:

  1. Refinance the existing water bonds ($27,410,000 issued in 2004)) and issue new bonds for additional $25,000,000 for future projects.
  2. Refinance the existing waste water bonds ($25,075,000 issued in 2004) for $23,000,000.

The bonds sold. As a result of a substantially reduced interest rate our City will save $1.8 million on the old water bonds and $2.3 million on the waste water bonds that we otherwise would have had to pay under the terms of the 2004 bond issue. A savings of $4.1 million plus financing costs, and another $25 million in new money for future water improvements is a very positive step forward.

Editors’ Comments:

Good is a relative concept. Creating a basis from which we can build infrastructure and thus create a solid foundation for future economic growth is the right course for government.

“If you put the Federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert in 5 years there’d be a shortage of Sand”

As for government trying to engage in business and compete with private enterprise the words of Milton Friedman says it all “If you put the Federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert in 5 years there’d be a shortage of Sand”

 

Editors:

B. Alviani           K. Corse             T. Cook

J. Tingstrom      R. Mccord         S. Doll

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Grand Jury and City Code Enforcement Abuse

WHEREVER LAW ENDS TYRANNY BEGINS
—John Locke, 1632-1704

CODE ENFORCEMENT AS A REVENUE STRATEGY FOR VENTURA

This edition of Res Publica is not a typical VREG topic on City finances because it pertains to a recently published Grand Jury report; however, since the report addresses the aggressive collection of fees and charges by Code Enforcement, motivated by the need to raise more revenue, it is important to bring the details of that report to your attention as a citizen.  It is also extremely important for all of our citizens to know how others in our community are treated by the City Manager staff, who constantly remind us of their transparency, fairness and a sense of partnership with all citizens.

GRAND JURY INVESTIGATES CITY OF VENTURA

[THE SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM IS BACK]

Bully is the byword of Ventura Code Enforcement officers.

The 2011-2012 Ventura County Grand Jury opened an inquiry into the practices and fee policies of the City of Ventura and its Code Enforcement group regarding second dwelling units and non-dwelling structures for the period of 2009 through the present time, and have issued a report condemning the Code Enforcement practices.

 

The investigation started numerous citizens complained of:

  1. Aggressive enforcement actions
  2. verbal threats from code enforcement officers
  3. unauthorized searches
  4. threatening documents
  5. preferential treatment
  6. unfair appellate system
  7. arbitrary enforcement decisions holding current or successive property owners responsible  for permits not obtained for work done prior to their ownership
  8. City Council and City Manager trying to raise more revenue through fines and higher permit fees to balance their budget

CODE ENFORCEMENT HISTORY

The backdrop for this started in 2008-2009, when the City began experiencing the financial impact of declining revenue, including revenue losses in Building & Safety and Planning.   Faced with reductions in sales tax revenue, like all cities, this council compounded our revenue problem with a spending problem.  Those spending decisions have come back to haunt us.  As a reminder here are a few examples:

  • $1,000,000 for a study to narrow Victoria Avenue
  • Council enacting a 911 tax that had to be reversed
  • A failed election effort to raise sales taxes
  • Council’s waiver of $1.5 million in payment of permit fees, which should have been paid to Building & Safety for the WAV construction project
  • Lending $2.5000,000 to the WAV developer, and then subordinating that loan to a CHASE loan on the same property. If CHASE elects not to extend their note again and forecloses on the 13 condos in this project that money is gone
  • Unfunded pension liabilities for police and fire of $42,288,412. That does not include the cost of the unfunded benefits for all other employees, which is approximately $20,000,000
  • In 2014 the City will have to pay CALPERS another $19,488,000, on top of payroll costs of $48,000,000, for a total of $67,488,000. That is 80% of our total annual general fund income

A SYSTEM OUT OF CONTROL

Ventura Code Enforcement officers use intimidation, according to the Grand Jury.

The Grand Jury pursued an active investigation of interviewing citizens, government employees and reviewing historical documents.  The evidence and testimony of witnesses in such investigations is, by law, privileged and cannot be disclosed.  This report is an indictment of a system out of control. Here is an even dozen out of 44 facts which the Grand Jury found to be true:

  1. The Code Enforcement officers were aggressive and used intimidation to gain authorized and unauthorized access to properties in the City
  2. Code Enforcement badges are designed to look similar to the Ventura Police Department badges. Code Enforcement officers are not peace officers
  3. Ventura Code Enforcement officers intimidate and bully property owners

    Code Enforcement officers claim to have more power than police officers relative to property matters

  4. Code Enforcement has acted on complaints that appear to be retaliatory in nature against neighbors
  5. The Chief Building Officer made recommendations and reports to the City Council to increase inspections, adopt regulations and programs to increase fees
  6. The City Community Development Department (Jeff Lambert) and Code Enforcement (Herr Stauffler) hold current property owners liable when no permit is found, for any work performed, even for work prior to ownership
  7. City permit and inspection record keeping responsibility is placed on the property owner by Code Enforcement staff.  There is no legal requirement for property owners to retain such permits or maintain records
  8. The City lost and/or misfiled permit(s) and inspection records
  9. The City has some damaged and unreadable permits
  10. The previous Code Enforcement fees are arbitrary and have little monetary relationship to the cost of services
  11. The City considers the new code enforcement fees are not a tax.  The Building & Safety Department permit and inspection process had been funded by the General Fund.  The same inspection activities are now performed, except the funding comes from the new permit fees — charged to property owners that build or modify structures
  12. The City stated that finding more code violations does not have a direct financial impact on the Code Enforcement group, but does significantly raise the permit fees for Building & Safety, and likely saves Code Enforcement jobs

Read the full text of the Ventura Grand Jury report here. For more, click here.

CITY OF VENTURA RESPONSE TO GRAND JURY REPORT

[LET THEM EAT CAKE]

The City administration published the following response:

“The City of Ventura and its City Code Enforcement staff are committed to preserving and promoting the safety of all who live, work and visit our community. City Manager Rick Cole has reviewed the Grand Jury’s report and acknowledges their suggested policy recommendations.

It should be noted that the report includes no specific example of the problems cited, nor any new information beyond the complaints publicly aired before the City Council and the Safe Housing Collaborative going back several years. Those concerns have been the subject of extensive Council and staff discussion and action, which have already resulted in changes to the City’s approach in promoting and enforcing the health, safety and zoning codes. It should also be noted that despite the public play of a few complaints, the City’s approach to code compliance is compassionate and patient in working with property owners.”

 

Editors Comments:

The response by the City to this report clearly demonstrates their lack of understanding, or constitutes a brazen and irresponsible attempt to obfuscate the truth when they state “the report includes no specific example of the problems cited” –  in other words it is ”vague”.

  A grand jury’s historic function, serving as a quasi-judicial body is to determine if there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and to protect citizens, including the obligation to “investigate and report on the operations, accounts, and records of a city’s officers, departments and functions…”   They also have the duty to “inquire into the willful or corrupt misconduct in office of public officers of every description”.

Code Enforcement Sheriff of Notingham

Alan Rickman as the Sheriff on Notingham

The specific evidence and the identity and testimony of witnesses during a Grand Jury investigation are privileged and cannot by law be disclosed to anyone unless and until an indictment is issued.  Their proceedings are conducted in private, and their reports are reviewed by County Counsel, or the District Attorney.  For the City to now suggest that the report is without merit because it does not mention specific examples of wrongdoing or names of witnesses interviewed is ludicrous.  Does the City staff really believe they are entitled to know the names of the people they are accused of intimidating, or whose properties were the subject of an illegal search?

City government and Code Enforcement officers serve a valuable and important service to our community, until they start acting like the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham, of Robin Hood fame, who was notorious for his use of force, intimidation, abuse of power and excessive punishment of the citizenry.

Editors:

B. Alviani          K. Corse          T. Cook

J. Tingstrom    R. McCord       S. Doll

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CalPERS costs Ventura piles of cash

CALPERS Increases on City Out of Control

Winston Churchill

“Americans always get it right, after they have tried everything else”
—Winston Churchill

HMS TITANIC

[Moving Deck Chairs to Avoid a Disaster over Pensions]

The story of the sinking of the HMS Titanic and the causes are known to all.  Had the ship not been traveling too fast, or had the officer on the bridge ordered a change of course earlier the collision with the iceberg  would not have occurred  The courses of action to avoid disaster were clear, but ordering the crew to move deck chairs to avoid  a cataclysmic event was not one of them.

Police salary negotiation victory jacks CalPERS

Ventura Police unions extracted concessions to pay for CalPERS contributions.

So it was on Tuesday January 16, 2011, when the Ventura City Council approved new labor contracts with the Ventura Police Officers, Police Management and the employees represented by the SEIU. The City Council vote was 5-2 in favor of the agreements. Councilman Andrews and Councilwoman Weir voted against approval. The decision of the other five — Brennan, Fulton, Monahan, Morehouse and Tracy was in favor.

The agreement with the Fire Department union is not due for another 6 months, but results are likely to be similar.  Recall that Mayor Fulton and Council members Brennan, Monahan and Summers were responsible for increasing the firefighter pension in the fall of 2008 so that these folks could retire with 3% at age 55[1], thus increasing our unfunded pension debt by $1.2 million or more annually.  Mr. Summers is gone but Councilman Tracy (retired police chief) will predictably follow in his footsteps on this pension issue. (See Res Publica, August, 2008 for a complete summary)

The City Manager’s “Victory Lap” Over Pensions

Below is an email from City Manager, Rick Cole, recently proclaimed by Mayor Fulton, conveying the news of this purported accomplishment. The email is upbeat and congratulatory for their success of having the employees start to pay towards their own retirement and the establishment of a two-tier system, where new employees will have to be older before they may receive full retirement.

Active citizens,

This week the Ventura City Council approved new labor contracts with employee bargaining units that will move the City toward a more sustainable pension program. The agreements are expected to save a net of $250,000 during the remainder of this fiscal year, $1.0 million in fiscal year 2011/12 and $1.3 million in fiscal year 2012/13, for an estimated savings of $2.6 million over the three fiscal years.

The new employee contracts require employees to pay 4.5% of CalPERS pension costs, resulting in a higher percentage saving for Ventura taxpayers than any other city or county labor agreement in Ventura or Santa Barbara County since the beginning of the economic crisis.

The agreements will also implement a second tier CalPERS retirement formula, based on a later retirement age for newly hired employees. Ventura is the first to do so in the two County regions for either safety or miscellaneous employees. The agreements approved by the City Council cover both.

Concessions were made on both sides to reach agreements that safeguard the delivery of quality services to our community. For the first time in several years, employees will receive additional employer contribution to optional benefits to cover a portion of the rapid rise in health care costs. A key part of the package was an increase of three days in paid leave time for employees who have been forced to take unpaid leave time during the City’s winter shutdown. Executives and managers are not eligible for the additional leave time.

Pension reform has been the subject of public debate across the State and beyond. Last year, the City Council set the goal of raising the retirement age for new employees and returning to employees paying their share of pension costs. Both goals were achieved in the agreements ratified by the Council this week.

Respectfully,

—Rick Cole, City Manager

Our City Manger and Mayor Fulton hail their accomplishment as a milestone and enormous accomplishment.  Or was it? Councilwoman Christy Weir did not think so.  She rejected the proposal and stated “Fiscally, the city needs more than this right now.”   Council Member Neil Andrews said the agreements “simply don’t go far enough.”

“Fiscally, the city needs more than this right now.”—Christy Weir, Councilmember

CalPERS extracts piles of money

New police salaries will cost Ventura taxpayers piles of money.

Here are some extracts from the reports of CALPERS, the folks who manage our pension money (or losses) dated October 10, 2010, based on data as of June 30, 2009. The Council members had these reports when they voted on these pension contracts.

First, the “employer contribution rate”, which is the percentage of total payroll that must be paid yearly to fund the pension plans. The rate for police and fire for example must be paid for policemen and firemen yearly in addition to their pay and medical costs:

 

FISCAL YEAR          EMPLOYER CONTRIBUTION RATE (Police & Fire only)

2011/2012                   35.190%

2012/2013                   36.4%

2013/2014                   40.6%

“The estimated rate for 2012/2014 uses the valuation assumption of 7.75% as the investment return. Member contributions are in addition to the above rates”.

CALPERS, report of 10-10-10

We next turned to page 5 of the CALPERS report which provides the following data about the police and fire retirement:

Funded Status June 30, 2008 June 30, 2009
Present Value of Projected Benefits $ 270,877,057 $303,536,023
Entry Age Normal Accrued Liability $ 223,938,241 $248,929,746
Actuarial Value of Assets $177,314,177 $184,660,390
Unfunded Liability $  46,624,064 $  64,269,356

 

An identical report was provided for all other employees with the following results:

Funded Status June 30, 2008 June 30, 2009
Present Value of Projected Benefits $ 205,128,033 $217,940,958
Entry Age Normal Accrued Liability $ 167,837,616 $184,806,501
Actuarial Value of Assets $157,529,148 $165,040,339
Unfunded Liability $  10,308,468 $  19,766,162

A 47.6% increase in unfunded liabilities in one year.

 What is to be gleaned from these statistics is that as of June 30, 2008, we as a City owed $ 56,932,532, and that as of June 30, 2009, we owed $84,035,518.  This represents an increase of $27,102,986 or 47.6%.   The data however gets worse when you look at the projected employer contribution rate between 2011 and 2013.  Apply those percentages against the current police and fire payroll of $48,000,000 and the losses are staggering.  In 2014 for example we will have to pay CALPERS another $19,488,000 on top of a payroll cost of $48,000,000, for a total of $67,488,000.

Discrepancy Between What CalPERS Reports And What The City Manager Reports On Pensions

Compare those numbers to the City Manager’s email about how much we will save in the same period.  The opportunity to achieve true reform and to attain a sustainable pension plan was now. The City Council was negotiating from a position of “impasse”. This means that if no agreement were reached, the Council would have been able to insist upon more reasonable terms to correct the lavish and excessive benefits conferred upon the public employees in the last ten years and achieve sustainability. The advantage was in the City Council’s favor of getting a “three year average salary” as the basis for calculating the amount of retirement, or lowering the percentage of retirement and/or increasing the age of retirement, or moving from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. Instead, the management team and the City Council settled for far less than what was fair to the taxpayers of this City. The SEIU contract was a good step forward.

The management team and the City Council settled for far less than what was fair to the taxpayers of this City.

A spreadsheet is attached to allow you to evaluate the decision.  These are real numbers.  Please note that the pension entitlements and amounts are fixed, but that the General Fund Revenue is not.  The income projection is based solely upon educated “guesses” by City officials.  The other assumption is that CALPERS is correct in projecting that the investment of City of Ventura pension dollars will yield 7.75%.  If our investment does not yield that return on our investment the losses get far worse.  If you want to determine how certain entries were calculated, such as percentage calculations, place your cursor over the number and left click once.  The formula for the calculation will appear at the top of the form.  For those who want the bottom line here you go:

  1. In 2008 income was $94,100,000 and the City sent CALPERS a check for $11,948,759.  This was 12% of our total income on top of the payroll cost of $48,087,281. Total spent on people and pension benefits totaled $60,036,040 or 63% of our actual income.
  2. In 2011 income is budgeted at $80,400,000 and the City will send CALPERS a check for $13,142,936. This is 16% of our total income on top of a payroll of $47,056,848. Total that will be spent on payroll and pension benefits will total $70,199,784, or 87% of our budgeted income.
  3. In 2013 income is budgeted at $82,000,000 and the City will send CALPERS a check for $13,929,524. This is 16.9% of our total income (*) on top of a payroll of $47,056,848. Total that will be spent on payroll and pension benefits will total $70,199,784, or 85.6%% of our budgeted income.

*The budgeted income (projected) for the City in 2012 is $80,800,000 and in 2013 $82,000,000.  If their guess at income is wrong then the percentage of payroll and benefits gets larger.

EDITORS COMMENT:

Bad negotiating increases CalPERS contributions

Bad salary negotiating increases Ventura’s CalPERS contributions

Had all of the agreements mirrored the SEIU contract this might have been a positive step toward solvency.  Instead Councilmen Fulton, Brennan, Morehouse, Monahan and Tracy decided to move the deck chairs on our ship of state in a token effort to avoid a looming financial disaster.  Such votes cause one to reflect and ask how this simple majority can continue to float above economic reality.   Are these five elected officials reading the financial reports? Do they truly believe and hope our local economy will rise out of the ashes like a phoenix in a nation with $15 trillion in Federal debt and a State that is broke?

Do not mistake, the SEIU contract was a positive step, however the police unions and this council majority used lavish benefits and entitlements as their starting point in negotiations rather than economic reality.    

Editors:

B. Alviani           K. Corse          T. Cook

J. Tingstrom     R. McCord      S. Doll

 

CALPERS 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 3 year net gain from employee contribution to CalPers increase
*Total Employee Payroll       48,087,281      51,240,487      48,940,168    47,056,848      46,685,947     47,287,512
* Percentage of Contribution by Employer 17.08% 17.88% 18.65% 21.31% 22.61% 25.78%
* Dollars of Contribution by Employer         8,211,264        9,162,430        9,128,522    10,026,168      10,555,745     12,190,178
* Percentage of Contribution for Employee Portion paid by City 7.77% 7.74% 7.89% 6.62% 4.57% 3.68%
* Dollars of Contribution for Employee Portion paid by City         3,737,495        3,967,333        3,863,616      3,116,768        2,131,282       1,739,346
* Percentage of Contribution by Employee 1.04% 3.16% 3.97%
*Dollars of Contribution by Employee         488,063        1,477,236       1,877,308
*Total General Fund Revenue       94,100,000      94,100,000      85,100,000    80,400,000      80,800,000     82,000,000
*Source is City of Ventura Finance Staff
Percentage of CalPers to Total General Fund 12.70% 13.95% 15.27% 16.95% 17.53% 19.28%
Total of CalPers Payment       11,948,759      13,129,763      12,992,138    13,630,999      14,164,263     15,806,832
Percentage of City’s payment to CalPers                   100                  100                  100 96.42% 89.57% 88.12%
Dollar Increase, year over year, to CalPers        1,181,003          (137,625)         638,861           533,264       1,642,569
$ of Contribution by Employee         488,063        1,477,236       1,877,308
Employee Portion over City’s increase        (150,798)           943,972          234,739            1,027,913

[1] 3% at age 55 means 3% of a policeman’s or firefighter’s highest annual salary times the number years of employment.  For example, a 20year old works 35 years and in his last year his salary is raised to $80,000.  He will be paid $84,000 a year for the rest of his life.

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Fleecing taxpayers costs Ventura money

A Little Here. A Little There. Pretty Soon It Adds Up To Real Money.

For and Against the Parcel Tax

Bellwether: “A male sheep which leads the flock, with a bell on its neck. A leader of a thoughtless crowd” —Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

THE  SOUND OF THE BELL

[SHEARING TIME?]

Three years ago nobody in city government would pay attention to the voices of caution who warned the City Council about the money excessive public employee salaries cost and the unfunded pensions of public employees. Now, thanks to the City of Bell perhaps the citizens of this community will pay attention to their role in government, and the need for serious and drastic reform.

Everything went wrong in Bell.  It was greed in all of its glory, and it illustrated what is wrong with the arcane public pension system in this State, and in every city in this state, including Ventura.    Bell City Manager, Robert Rizzo, resigned after it was revealed he was being paid $800,000 to oversee a town with a population of 40,000.  Now the LA Times reports that the records actually show that he was paid $1,500,000 a year.  Included in that was 28 weeks of vacation and sick time at a cost of $386,000.  Well he is gone but he is not out because he will collect $600,000 yearly from his pension benefits with CALPERS.

fleecing taxpayers costs Ventura money

Ventura taxpayers get fleeced in Bell disaster. We will pay money to Randy Adams for life.

This example however is even closer to home.  Two people in the City of Bell used to work for the City of Ventura.  Angela Spaccia, Assistant City Manger for Bell was paid  $376,000 a year before she quit, and moved over to work for the City of Maywood.   She used to work for the City of Ventura. Then there is Officer Randy Adams who worked in Ventura for 23 years as a police officer.  He then gravitated through various jobs until he became the Chief of Police for the City of Bell.  He too resigned after it was revealed that he was earning $457,000 a year.  He can retire, as will Ms. Spaccia eventually, but whose money pays the pension?

Not the City of Bell.  They escape nearly all the costs of Chief Adams $411,300-a-year pension. Under CALPERS rules, the city is responsible for just 3% of that because he only worked there for one year. Taxpayers in Glendale, Simi Valley and Ventura would have to pick up the tab.

This happened because Bell hired Adams at more than double the money he was making as Chief in the City Glendale. That salary spike doubled his eligible pension amount under CALPERS, the state’s public employee retirement plan.  Add the state’s permissive pension laws and a host of variables that can dramatically affect retirement pay and we find a system that leaves you in a bleary daze

Other cities will be on the hook for Adams’ pensions costs even though their salaries were relatively modest. until he landed in Bell. When he resigned Chief Adams was making $457,000.  He will now get  approximately 90% of that sum.  Glendale will have to pay around 16% of Simi Valley 18%, and Ventura 63%. Ventura alone will have to pay this guy $259,119 per year for life. Remember, none of this has ever been funded.

CITY OF VENTURA’S RESPONSE

Ventura’s mayor, Bill Fulton, has written several articles on the subject.  You can go view the articles here.  He, like everybody else, condemns the excesses by employees and officials in the City of Bell.  His articles are well written and deserve a read, but how transparent is our city government?  Mayor Fulton answered this question in one article:

“…democracy only works, even in small cities, if people pay attention, and oftentimes people aren’t paying attention. But one of the most disturbing aspects of the Bell situation … is how hard it is to figure out what’s happening even if you are paying attention. In spite of the state’s vaunted Brown Act open-meetings law, California governments are still not particularly transparent”. 

HOW MUCH MONEY DOES THE COUNCIL MAKE?

The City Charter limits council members to $600 per month and the mayor to $700 per month, plus members are paid for participating on certain boards and commissions.  Here is the yearly total:

Councilmember Salary Boards Travel
Fulton, Mayor $ 8,800 $2,000 $1,200
Monahan $7,200 $3,800 $1,200
Tracy $7,200 $0 $1,200
Morehouse $7,200 $1,440 $1,200
Weir  $7,200 $0  $1,200
Brennan $7,200 $0 $1,200
Andrews $7,200 $0 $1,200

 

CITY EMPLOYEE COMPENSATION

Employee Salary Medical Pension Contribution Car
Ken Corney, Police Chief $195,153
Quinn Fenwick, Asst. Police Chief $160,012
Kevin Rennie, Fire Chief $187,000
Don McPherson, Asst. Fire Chief $170,014
Ron Calkins, Public Works Director $175,547
Jay Panzica, Chief Financial Officer $171,265
Rick Cole, City Manager $174,158
Mary Walsh, Asst. City Manager $171,265
Ariel Colonne, City Attorney $194,909
Jeff Lambert, Community Dev. Dir. $171,265
Elena Brokaw, Director, Parks & Rec. $167,088
Jenny Romey, Human Resources Dir. $159,037
Total $2,096,713

*In response to a VREG request for the full cost of each of these employees the City Manager, on August 10, 2010, provided the following response:

“Within the next few days, we (will) have calculations on the cost  of employees over and above regular salary (we’ve just posted those earning over $100,000 including gross pay and overtime) to be followed by the Box 5 W2 calculations (which also includes city paid deferred comp and the value of life insurance) to be followed by a total all-in of that plus city paid benefits and CalPERS contributions”—Rick Cole, City Manager

Editor’s note:

For detailed information on past or present Ventura city employees’ salaries, visit transparentCalifornia.com.

As for Ventura’s exposure to the Randy Adams pension claims, purportedly the City has sent a letter of protest and/or legal challenge to CalPERS to try and stop payment.  Good luck with that one!  Even Chief Adams will lawyer-up and argue we are a nation of laws and not men.

Editors’ Comments:

How many more Randy Adams types do we have out there? How much more  do we owe, over the amount funded through CalPERS, to those who are retired or about to retire in the future?  It is time for government to become proactive instead of reactive in the management of our tax money and find out before we end up in the shearing shed. Stop listening to the bellwether !

Editors:

B. Alviani           S. Doll

J. Tingstrom     K. Corse

B. McCord          T. Cook

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Failed Investment, Failed Policies Make Ventura Like Greece

“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”
—Motto on THOMAS JEFFERSON’S seal.

CALIFORNIA: AMERICAN GREECE

Tim Cavanaugh of an on-line news company called REASON has written a good analysis of the dilemma facing California. He writes:

“What do Europe’s most bankrupt state and America’s most bankrupt united state have in common, aside from being bankrupt?

In what is undoubtedly a coincidence , noticed only by free-market fundamentalists, it turns out that Greece, that sun-drenched paradise on the Aegean, and California, that sun-warmed El Dorado on the Pacific, are the worst places to do business in their respective economic zones.”

VENTURA’S VISIONARY?

[Investment In People Too High]

The city Manager recently announced that we are in a “war for jobs”.   He is right, but know this. We will be competing with every city in the nation for those same jobs.  The winner will be the public entity that realizes that the jobs we lost in the 2008 depression are not coming back. We have to create new opportunity and new jobs.

The city needs private enterprise now more than ever, so please City Council when a new project developer or businessman comes through the door give him a hug, and not a bill for all of the costs and fees that you have piled onto such projects.  A happy face and lower fees, as an incentive to come to Ventura, will work wonders.

The Ventura City Council says they are going to “Live Within Our Means” and stay within their budget, but they wince when it comes to the thought of layoffs. The closing of a fire station proposed by the City Manager, as expected, has heightened the emotions of several adjacent neighborhoods and the Fire Department folk.  These citizens and the firemen need to wake up and realize that this is not about saving a fire station, but the financial well being of the entire City.  We must keep in mind that  City government has been entrusted to provide  “basic governmental services” to its citizens within its means, but does not have an obligation to keeping individuals employed so that they can retire with life with lavish pensions and benefits.

Any business owner knows that to reduce services diminishes their value. They also know that the single highest AND controllable expense is labor. Maybe the theme of “Living Within Our Means” needs to be better defined. Reducing services and programs should only come after a reduction of staff levels reached the bear minimum.

Five years ago, the claim was “we have cut expenses to the bone and there is no where else to cut.” Today, the City has reduced the workforce by 16% AFTER they made that claim. Sounds like the story of the “boy who cried wolf”. Enough on the budget for now. All we know is the reduction of services has long been a ploy to get the citizens to sympathize with public employees.

WAS IT $10,000,000 or $20,000,000 LOST?

[Monetary Investment Too Risky]

In March and April 2009, VREG discussed the loss of $10,000,000 in Washington Mutual and Lehman Bros. investments.

The City  father’s took refuge [seemed proud?] that they only lost $10 million in investments in 2008, they defend their loss by comparing the loss to the average citizen’s 401K losses.   Hardly a realistic comparison given that the investment policy for a municipality is and should be much be more conservative and restrictive.  Some at the City make it sound as if it is heresy to suggest that they should not have lost anything.

The City Attorney on the other hand is crying “fraud” on the part of Lehman Brother and WaMu — a distraction at best.  The decision to invest in these financial institutions was made by a committee of four. None of the four members of the Investment Committee has investment licenses, nor the experience and qualifications to oversee a $200 million portfolio in this current financial market. Months before the Lehman and WaMu debacle, the City had a prior warning of problems due to a potential $10 million loss they had invested with Bear Stearns.  It turned out that the Bear Sterns was acquired by JP Morgan and thus avoided bankruptcy, however at this writing we do not know how much JP Morgan is willing to pay the City of Ventura on that investment.

How is the recovery of the loss of $20,000,000 by the City of Ventura with their investment in Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual and Lehman Brothers going? We do not know. Was anyone fired for losing $20 million?  Nope. And we predict no one will not be fired.  What the Council should do is appoint people who are qualified AND do not have a potential conflict of interest in making investment decisions to insure that income from the investments will be available to feed the general budget.

THIS FROM A READER OF THE LAST EDITION

[CalPERS Investment Underperforming]

It is interesting that when I attended the PERS conference in Los Angeles at the Convention Center in February, the strongest criticism of PERS [CALPERS] came from the representative of the Governor’s office, who had been a former member of the CalPERS Board. His critique was focused on two  things:

  1. That PERS consistently and incorrectly utilized a projected return of investment (7.75%) that was grossly overly optimistic of their likely actual long-term results
  2. That PERS was virtually impenetrable and as dark as a lead lined coffin when someone attempted to secure information from it.

I reported this critique to both the Compensation Task Force and to Council Members…I have also reported repeatedly on the losses that PERS has incurred in their investment portfolio, that they are the subject of criminal investigations over potential fraud and kick-backs form their relationships with placement agents (former Board members using their old connections to get rich), and that at least several current Board members have incurred serious fines because of their consistent failure to report publicly on their investment holdings and sources of income as required by law… Needless to say, our union representatives constantly run with the official PERS line that PERS is sound and in good health.”

—Neal Andrew

EDITORS’ COMMENT: 

We have previously reported on the failed investment policies of PERS.  This organization invests our pension dollars using failed economic models and fallacious investment return calculations. It is easier said than done, but the sooner we can distance our City from this organization the sooner we can be on the path to economic recovery.

Editors:

B. Alviani           S. Doll                 J. Tingstrom

K. Corse              B. McCord         T. Cook

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City Council Lacks Financial Literacy

City Council Lacks Expertise On Pension And Budget Matters

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
—Albert Einstein,

THE FIREFIGHERS PENSION INCREASE – A CONTRACT?

[ NOT!]

In previous editions we informed you that in 2008 the City Council, on a vote of 4 to 3, increased the Firefighters salary and retirement benefits.  They voted to increase those benefits from 2% to 3% even though they knew (were told) they did not have the money to fund it.  The vote resulted in an approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the union.

bad city council contract

City Council approves an 11% increase in firefighters’ pension.

The issue had to be revisited because of the failure of the City Council to obtain an actuarial report from CALPERS on what it would cost to increase these benefits.   To “try” to fix the problem the Council, at their regular meeting on April 26, 2010, was presented with a report from the CALPERS actuary, Bill Karch.  He informed the council that the “present value” of the cost of the increased benefits (in addition to what we are already obligated to pay) would be $5,047,760,  that the city would have to pay $548,271 this year, and a sum yearly thereafter to fund the $5.4 million increase.  He didn’t say how much we would have to pay beyond 2010.

An actuary is a specialized, mathematical expert trained to compute values for present and future events. Actuarial “present value” calculations convert future occurrences, such as retirement payments, to a present dollar value.   The “present value” of benefits represents the total dollars needed today at an estimated investment rate of return to fund future benefits for members of the pension plan.  The lower the rate of return (say 4.5%) the more you have to pay up front now to meet the future payment demands.  The higher the rate of return (say 7.75%) the less you have to pay now.

The CALPERS actuary used a rate of return of 7.75%.  Interesting choice given that CALPERS lost $55.2 billion (25% of its value) in 2008-09, and just billed the State of California f $600,000,000 this year to pay for unfunded pension liabilities, but we digress.  None of the Council members asked about the investment rate of return that was used to make his calculations and/or whether the 7.75% rate of return of interest was a reliable dollar estimate in today’s market, and/or whether we should use a lower rate of return, to predict how much our present pension obligations would have to be increased in order to fund and pay future pension obligations.

Subsequent to the Council meeting Mr. Karch was asked in an email from VREG if he could calculate what the present value of the increased obligation if 4.50% was used, and how much more Ventura would have to pay this year. That number was selected because actuaries today conservatively use 3% to 5% as the investment rate of return in making such calculations. Mr. Karch declined.  His response was that we could get that the data if VREG made a Freedom of Information Act request through formal channels; and, by-the-by send a large check to pay for the voluminous computerized report.  Well Bubba I guess we know who that fella works for!

So in a state of blissful ignorance Council members Fulton, Brennan, Monahan and Tracy voted yes.  Council members Andrews, Morehouse and Weir voted no.  The deciding vote was that of Deputy Mayor Tracy, who in casting his yes vote stated:

“…what is clear tonight is that we are not deciding on whether or not we give our firefighters an enhanced retirement program.  That decision was made two years ago.  We have received (a) very competent legal opinion that frankly we have no choice but to honor that contract…”

Bad city council contract

City Council negotiates questionable contract with Ventura firefighters.

What the Deputy Mayor was referring to was a letter from a law firm named Liebert Cassidy Whitmore of San Francisco, attached to the Administrative report for Agenda item #8, which concluded – “Once approved by the City Council, the memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the City and the Association (firefighters) became a binding and legally enforceable agreement…”.

Just prior to the vote the City Manger, Rick Cole, advised the Council that the reason for the public hearing on the actuarial valuation was to let the public know about the cost of the increase, referring everyone to Government Code section 7507.  Connect this reference with the Deputy Mayor Tracy’s statement and we arrive at the crux of the problem — was there a valid contract?

Read Government Code § 7507 and you decide.  That code provides:

“The legislature and local legislative bodies shall secure the services of an enrolled actuary to provide a statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs before authorizing increases in public retirement plan benefits…”

The future annual costs as determined by the actuary shall be made public at a public meeting at least two weeks prior to the adoption of any increases in public retirement plan benefits”.

The letter written by the San Francisco attorneys, LIEBERT, CASSIDY WHITMORE does not address this error. For reasons that are not apparent, these high priced legal types did not even discuss this issue.

A mutual mistake of law and/or fact is always a good defense to breach of contract action.  If both parties to a contract operate under a mutual mistake of fact that there has been compliance with the law, and in fact there has been no compliance with the law, there is no contract

Questions for our readers:

  • Why a letter, bearing the legend “CONFIDENTIAL—ATTORNEY CLIENT PRIVILEGED”, which does not discuss a critical legal defense, would be attached to a public document?
  • Why not a single firefighter asked to speak in support of the measure when the room was packed with the fire folk, who were straining at the bit to get more benefits?

Curious that , but we leave “that” to your speculation.

Editors Comments:  

An actuary report was NOT presented prior to the decision to increase benefits in August and October of 2009, thus was not enacted as required by the California Government Code. The attempt to finesse this critical error, by pretending it could be presented after the fact, on April 26, 2010,  ignores the underlying issue – THE RIGHT OF THE CITIZENS OF THIS CITY TO KNOW IN ADVANCE WHAT AN INCREASED PENSION BENEFIT WILL COST BEFORE THE CITY COUNCIL MAKES A DECISION.   The firefighters’ will of course dismiss this as a mere formality.   This contract should be rescinded and an accurate and reliable actuarial report provided to the citizens of this community.

 

FROM READERS OF THE MARCH EDITION OF RES PUBLICA

[THE PIPER WOULD PLAY A FAR DIFFERENT TUNE IF THREATENED WITH THE LOSS OF HIS PIPE]

This regarding the Pension Reform Committee appointed by the Ventura City Council:

“Very interesting news letter this time as always.  Only one public member appointed to the “ad hoc” committee. All the rest have a vested interested in the system. What would happen if the no guts council just plain and simple told the unions that from now on the fire and police will have to pay at least 1/2 of their contribution. Would the fire and police walk off?  If so I am sure they can replace the lot.  The problem as I see it is that all the cities have to ban together so that there will be a closed door to bouncing around of personnel.”

—K. Weber

THE COUNCIL ACCEPTS VENTURA’S NEW BUDGET

[A SORRY EXCUSE, AT BEST]

            Another letter concerning the current budget format mandated by the City Manger for use in 2009-2001 (called a Budget Book).  We mentioned in our last issue that the current “Budget Book” looked useless and appealed to you for help.

“Regarding the City’s budgeting process and the budget document itself, I spent some time looking at it after reading your latest publication and you hit the nail right on the head.  It is most assuredly not a decipherable budget document.  It lacks clarity and the detail required for the average lay person to begin to understand it, much less a person with a financial background.  I’m not even sure that it meets the minimum legal requirements, as promulgated by the State Controller’s Office.

I am a C.P.A., have a Masters degree in Public Administration, and have worked in government finance and budgeting for the past 29 years and, without a doubt, this is the most sorry excuse for a budget document that I have seen in my life.

In Santa Barbara County, we have developed a true program/performance-based budget that actually links dollar amounts with stated goals and performance measures.  Not only can you clearly and easily see the amount of money, staffing, and other resources allocated to each program area within each department of the County, but you can also see the performance and outcome measures associated with each individual program area.  In other words, as a taxpayer, you can actually see what you’re getting for your dollars.

The firefighter pension increase is just another example of the arrogance and disconnect with reality coming out of City Hall these days.  I certainly hope we can make some changes in the next election.  We definitely cannot continue down this path or bankruptcy becomes an inevitability”

—M. Gibson, CPA and 2009 candidate for Ventura City Council

 

EDITORS’ CORRECTION

Last month we reported that the Firefighters pension increase was 50% (2% to 3%). The City Manager corrected us and pointed out that it was ONLY 11%. .  After his response we received the CALPERS actuary report and confirmed that our report was in error. Under the current pension plan it is a 20% increase if the Firefighter retires at age 50, and an 11% increase if the Firefighter retires at 55.  That aside, this correction does not excuse the ridiculous statement by former Councilmember Ed Summers that it was only a 1% increase. It is still hard to believe he wants to be the County Treasurer.

 

EDITORIAL

The City Council is called upon to make many difficult and complex decisions concerning the financial welfare of this community, but one of the greatest decisions they will have to make concern the pension contracts with the public employee unions now and in the future.   Except for members of the public employee unions there is not a single informed individual in this society that would disagree with the conclusion that our pension system is bankrupt and unsustainable. The collective decisions of our City Council are costing the citizen’s of Ventura for decades in the future. Not to ask the hard questions, when asked to approve a new liability of $5.4 million dollars, such as the interest rate used for the assumptions of a pension increase, or to discuss if the right questions were asked and answered in a legal opinion statement, borders on malfeasance. It is not enough to say, “the report was too lengthy” or “we didn’t have enough time”. If decisions need to be delayed and other opinions sought, the City Council needs to control that process and remember the admonition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to ”keep your experts on tap and not on top”.

 

Editors:

B. Alviani       S. Doll           J. Tingstrom

K. Corse         B. McCord    T. Cook

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