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Beaten Up Dollar: Deficit

The Best Thing The Council Can Do About The Deficit

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

Mark Twain

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

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

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

The Covid-19 Impact

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

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

What Faces Ventura

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

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

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

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

A Daunting Deficit

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

Plans To Address the Deficit

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

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

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

Working with the Unions To Bridge The Deficit

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

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

Hurrying City Councilmembers Up the Learning Curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voters Elected the Councilmembers to Set Policy

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

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

Get Everyone Safely Working Again Safely

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

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

Editors Comments

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

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

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

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

Tell City Council To Let The City Manager Do His Job

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

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

COVID quote

Wealth Is The Ability To Fully Experience Life.”

Henry David Thoreau

COVID-19

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

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

Lost Sales Tax Revenue From COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions Will Require Creativity

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

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

City Major Expenses

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

CalPERS Damaged By The COVID-19 Pandemic

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

Editor’s Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politicians Expect You To Pay A Little Bit More

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

The Ventura County Star Mentions VREG

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

Click here to go to the article.

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

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

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

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

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

How Bad The Situation Is Depends On Who You Talk To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IF THIS UPSETS YOU, WRITE YOUR COUNCILMEMBER

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

Erik Nasarenko,
Mayor

Neal Andrews,
Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere

Jim Monahan

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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