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Why You Should Worry About VenturaWaterPure

And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Examing Conferences Expense

For the second time in four years, Ventura Water failed to present scientific findings that challenged its decision on VenturaWaterPure. Either Ventura Water withheld this pertinent information from the Ventura Council, or it is unaware of the reality that Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR) is unhealthy.

IPR presents a danger to humans. The September 2019 study from the University of Southern California (USC) concludes that IPR contaminates water with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Once infected with the bacteria, medical science cannot combat these antibiotic-resistant strains.

Reasons VenturaWaterPure Is Not Ideal

There are several reasons VentuaWaterPure is not an ideal solution. For whatever reason, Gina Dorrington, Ventura Water’s Assistant General Manager, neglected to tell the Council about these findings at the October 14th meeting.

It appears that the health of Ventura’s citizens is not a priority in these decisions. Furthermore, it begs the question, “What is the motivation for a misguided recommendation?”

VenturaWaterPure project will need an extra 20-27 employees, according to Susan Rungren, Ventura Water’s General Manager. Each employee will earn a pension. At a time when rising unfunded pension liabilities threaten the city’s finances, the prudence of adding 20%-27% more employees to Ventura Water is questionable.

VenturaWaterPure will cost $1 billion over 30 years. That’s a considerable sum of money for the community to absorb. Water bills will double to pay for VenturaWaterPure’s infrastructure alone. Operations and maintenance costs will add even more. Remember, water costs already went up by $220 million with water and wastewater increases in 2012-13.

To recommend anything contrary to moving forward on this project would not only jeopardize many jobs, but it would also imply that past City Councils and City Managers were wrong with previous decisions, and we have wasted millions of dollars in the process.

City Council Has Its Motivation To Approve Plan To Spend $1 Billion To Drink Wastewater

The City Council has been rushed by Ventura Water to comply with a Consent Decree Ventura agreed to in 2012. The 2012 Consent Decree with Wishtoyo Foundation contended that Ventura Water was dumping its waste into the Santa Clara River Estuary and harming the Santa Clara estuary. The decree requires Ventura to divert seven million gallons a day beginning in 2025 and concluding no later than 2030. What better way to justify a horrible decision than to convince people that it was for their good? They pointed to drought conditions and offered VenturaWaterPure as the solution.

When anyone is looking to justify a bad or ill-conceived idea, they look for another similar decision to defend their own. A case in point is finding other locations in California that have made bad decisions. Misery (bad choices) enjoys company. Two locations in California, Orange County and Monterrey, use Indirect Portable Reuse (IPR). The real question should be ‘Why only two?’ It took Monterrey 10 years to get a permit and build it. That alone is not a sound reason to pursue this premature direction to recycle wastewater in drinking water.

By misdirecting attention to drinking water—fundamental to life—it created the misperceived need for VenturaWaterPure. Complying with the Consent Decree is not the same as providing drinking water. Yet Ventura Water has been mingling the two needs since 2011. Separating the two issues helps make decisions more transparent.

Conflating Two Issues To Achieve The Desired Result

Ventura Water has confused the City Council by combining two different ideas to falsely heighten the urgency to drink wastewater. Since 2011, the campaign has been “We are short of water,” they say, “and the best way to meet that shortage is to drink wastewater.”

Ventura Water was quick to adopt DPR as the solution for an alternative water source.  Then-Ventura Water General Manager Shana Epstein had no data to support that assertion, except for the representations of the sales company designing the hardware for VenturaWaterPure.  Ms. Epstein repeatedly announced it was good water to drink. She and the other supporting that view were dead wrong.

Dispelling the Myth about Drinking Water

Ventura has enough drinking water for the next 15 years at current consumption rates, according to the 2019 Ventura Water Report (Table 4-3, p. 65). Unlike most cities in California, we are fortunate to be bounded by Ventura and Santa Clara rivers, Lake Casitas, plus groundwater basins.

To add more reserves, in 2018, the City Council approved a project to construct a pipeline to access a new water source—State Water. Besides providing more water to the city, we can mix State Water with our existing water to improve the taste of Eastside water. Ventura has had this option for the last 47 years.

Ventura Water’s public objection to State Water as a primary source has been that it is not available in dry years. They contend that State Water is thus “unreliable.” However, allocations of State Water over the past five drought years have averaged 55% of the contracted allowance. Ventura Water also conveniently ignores the fact that 75% of Ventura County relies on State water as a primary water resource.

Missing the Consent Decree Deadline

We may not be able to meet the timing of the Consent Decree if we pursue VenturaWaterPure. It took Monterrey ten years to apply for permits, be granted permission from the different agencies and build its IPR plant. Ventura has not applied for a single permit to begin constructing its plant. If it takes ten years from today to complete our plant, we will miss the Consent Decree deadline by five years. There’s no reason to believe Ventura will apply for permits and build its plant faster than ten years. VenturaWaterPure is destined to miss its target date.

A Waste of $1 Billion For VenturaWaterPure

IPR is inefficient and will not meet Ventura Water’s projections. Orange County and Monterrey use IPR already. IPR shows a net water loss of 23%, based on Orange County’s experience. If VentuaWaterPure treats 4.5 million gallons per day of tertiary water, this will yield approximately 3.5 million gallons per day of drinking water, or about 3,900 Acre-Feet per year (AFY). According to the Final Environmental Impact Study, that is 1,500 AFY short of the 5,400 AFY needed to meet Ventura’s estimated demand.

The fact is that Ventura reduced its wastewater by 17% from 2009-2018, despite increasing water connections by 3.5% (according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report). The amount of wastewater sent to VenturaWaterPure is decreasing. We can reduce the affluent further by using more tertiary water for irrigation in the city. Ventura could increase to 1,200 AFY for irrigation from the current level of approximately 500 AFY. The cost to ratepayers is only the cost of a pipeline for the delivery of tertiary water.

Ventura’s Imprudent Decisions

This City Council has shown a propensity to pay for the same outcome they could have gotten for less. We saw this when the city placed its high-use electricity accounts in the Clean Power Alliance. We may be witnessing it again with VenturaWaterPure.

The opportunity exists to adhere to the Consent Decree at half the cost to ratepayers compared to VenturaWaterPure. For the price of a pipeline, Oxnard will take Ventura’s treated tertiary water. They may even provide Ventura clean water credits. It’s unthinkable not to consider Oxnard Advanced Water Treatment Facility (AWTF) as an option.

Editors Comments

Every citizen should have serious doubts about the pragmatism of the City Council’s decision to fund VenturaWaterPure. It’s time to slow down. Some studies show that VenturaWaterPure is unsafe. Ventura Water for six years has continued to announce that it is safe for human consumption. Yet, the fact that there isn’t a consensus among scientists should be a warning flag to Councilmembers. Do they want to be remembered as supporting VenturaWaterPure if it’s shown to be unsafe, unregulated and unhealthy in the future? Let’s hope not.

One billion dollars is a large bet to place with the taxpayer and ratepayer money for a process that is questionable among scientists. There are cost-effective alternatives available, but it’s unlikely they’ve been examined since the initial decision to create VenturaWaterPure was made in 2011. Times change. Circumstances change. Now is the time to reconsider options to be sure we’re making the best choice available.

Reverse the decision to proceed with IPR, and certainly DPR, until there is more investigation on its safety. The Council is dealing with public health. The Council reversed its decision on DPR in 2018 when they learned a state expert panel deemed DPR unsafe. The Council should be prudent with IPR and change or pause that decision, too.

Finally, the City Council should more rigorously question Ventura Water on its proposals and actions. Twice, Ventura Water has failed to present scientific findings that challenged its direction with VenturaWaterPure. The Council would do well to keep in mind the adage, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.”

Tell City Council, “Slow Down On VenturaWaterPure!”

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Scrutinizing Travel Expenses From Conferences

Do You Know The Truth About Ventura’s Spending On Conferences?

Conference spending

Three groups spend other people’s money:  children, thieves and politicians.  All three need supervision.”

—Dick Armey

Examing Conferences Expense

The cost and benefit of every spending decision by Ventura’s City Council is magnified as the city faces budgetary losses for the next five years. The city is projecting to have a $10-$25 million shortfall during that time, so the City Council should be more careful how it spends tax dollars. Are we getting our money’s worth from our Councilmembers’ travel to conferences and seminars?

The City Councilmembers don’t think anyone is watching their spending or cares what they do. They believe voters gave them the mandate to be concerned with the details of how and where the city spends money. And, they’re right—to a degree. While citizens fret over the large expenditures on pensions, water, public safety, and staffing, it’s easy to overlook the spending habits of our elected officials.

Conference Boondoggles

The city publishes the expenditures by each sitting Councilmember quarterly. Here’s a summary of the expenses for the past three full fiscal years of the active members of Council:

Councilmember Spending On Conferences

It’s immediately clear that the spending by the active Councilmembers is rising year-over-year. It jumped 32% to $15,964 from $12,039 from Fiscal Year 2016-2017 to Fiscal Year 2017-2018. It increased 76% to $28,098 from $15,964 from Fiscal Year 2017-2018 to Fiscal Year 2018-2019.

Highlighted in yellow is the amount spent each year to attend the National League of Cities (NLC) Conferences. The NLC holds regional conferences and a national conference in Washington, DC.

Where’s The Value From The Conferences?

Ventura taxpayers get little information about the benefits the city derives from these conferences. There are no written reports of what the attendees accomplished. Sometimes, there is a verbal report made to the Economic Development Committee of what happened, as we see in the Agenda for the April 2nd meeting.

No Value for Attending Conferences

There are no meeting minutes posted for the public of the Economic Development Committee meetings. Nor are the sessions videotaped. There is no permanent record of what happened. There are no archives to refer to in the future. What’s more, the entire City Council doesn’t hear about the findings.

If all the value we receive is a report on the “relevant legislative issues from the NLC,” do we need to send representatives to Washington, D.C.? Couldn’t we get the same information by email or in written form? If we did, there would be a permanent record of the discussions for others to review.

The Value Is In The Connections

The attending City Councilmembers may claim the value of attending these meetings is in the contacts Ventura nurtures with other politicians throughout the country. That’s a specious argument. The relationships are personal between our serving Councilmembers and the people they meet. Those relationships break whenever our Councilmember or his/her contact leaves the office. What’s more, the value in a relationship with a politician in another city has a small direct impact on Ventura.

Auditing ConferencesThe justification may be to learn the “best practices” from other cities attending the conferences. What best practices did we learn on homelessness from representatives from Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle? Homelessness in those cities is worse than it is in Ventura, and it’s not improving. Or did we learn something about water from Sacramento? Except, the California River Tunnel isn’t working out so well. Or did the reps from Washington, D.C., or Sacramento teach us about budgeting? The fact is, our reps need to convey any best practices we learned at those conferences need to city staff. The staff are the ones to put in place new ideas in City Hall. And without written guidelines, implementing the changes is nearly impossible.

The truth is any networking with others at these conferences is nothing more than socializing. Should we pay the expenses for two Councilmembers to hobnob with politicians? No.

Next Conference

Attending Conferences

Mayor Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor Sofia Rubalcava, and Councilmember Brown are attending the National League of Cities Regional Meeting in Long Beach, CA, on October 16-18, 2019. What value will Ventura get from sending three Councilmembers to this meeting?

Editor’s Comments

In the best of times, these conferences may benefit Ventura, but these are not the best of times. The city faces a multimillion-dollar shortfall over the next five years. Frivolous spending of any kind must not happen, regardless of the dollar amount spent. Spending taxpayer money on these seminars and conferences may appear to be harmless at first. Still, scrutinize each trip to decide whether it’s a necessity. And if it is determined to be necessary, the value must outweigh the expense.

Tell City Council, “Spend Better On Conferences!”

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What You Should Know About Seaward Sushi

“I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Seaward Sushi battled to reopen

Is Ventura Open For Business?

When the city needs money, they go to the old trope, “We’ll attract new business.” After all, Ventura is open for business, according to this Council. Actions speak louder than words, however. The recent incident with Seaward Sushi illustrates the confusion and shortsightedness in City Hall.

In June 2019, social media blew up over closing of 40-year old Seaward Sushi. After owner Rachel Woodward closed her doors June 14th, for the final time, her story spread on the internet. Based on what Rachel posted, it would have easy to jump to conclusions. One could conclude that Ventura’s permitting and code enforcement’s strict policies and slow processing time were the villains in this situation.

After telling her story on social media, it got the attention of several people like Jim Friedman, Stephanie Caldwell at the Chamber and others at City Hall. While we don’t know all the facts, only after this story attracted attention on social media, the City of Ventura hastily arranged a meeting on June 24th.

What the Seaward Sushi Situation Revealed

No City Staff Owned Seaward SushiIn an interview with Rachel Woodward, she revealed that she kept meticulous notes. She has a complete phone and paper trail of all dates and times that someone spoke to her, and a list of appointments and promises broken from representatives from City Hall. Rachel felt she needed to keep these records. She got the impression that everyone at City Hall was “very defensive,” and nobody wanted to be “held responsible” for what had occurred before the June 24th meeting.

The city gave Rachel a temporary permit on June 24th to reopen on June 28th. Without the privilege of knowing what they discussed in that meeting, we do know that Ashley Batista from the city was able to provide a permit to reopen June 28th.

Rachel voluntarily agreed to a hearing on August 6th. At the August 6th hearing, there was zero opposition, and the city granted a permanent permit. She has been in business ever since. Business is still down, but it can only get better.

Nobody took responsibility for Seaward SushiRachel further felt that it was also apparent that few, if anyone, was in the community visiting businesses. And, when someone visited a company, there weren’t clear directions on how to streamline the process.

The story does not end here, in any case. If it took one meeting to find enough support to justify reopening, how did the original staff fail to reach a similar conclusion in the first place?

From this experience, Rachel learned a few things. She felt that before the June 24th meeting, nobody wanted to take ownership of the situation.  It seemed to her that nobody in City Hall knew the specifics, and no one was clear on the process to follow.

Editors Comments

If Ventura is open for business, maybe the city staff involved in the process did not get the memo. The city needs to do a post-mortem on the Seaward Sushi approval process to find ways to improve if they are going to claim to be open for business. We recommend changing the current approval process to one that requires two employees to examine and approve exceptions to ordinances or policies.

Insist The City Council Reduces Overregulation For Businesses

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Irresponsible With Your Money On The Clean Power Alliance

When in doubt, don’t.

—Benjamin Franklin

Clean Power Alliance Good Intentions, Bad Decision

Thank the Councilmembers Cheryl Heitmann, Christy Weir, Lorrie Brown and Sofia Rubalcava for higher electrical costs, higher water, and wastewater rates. Also thank them for less police protection, fire safety and street paving, all so the City Council can save face and make all residents’ environmental champions.

Every citizen will now pay far more for electricity than if they stayed with Southern California Edison. The City Council had the option to keep your rates the same, but they didn’t. Too bad, because citizens will pay the increase and they will not get a vote.

When Choice Is No Choice At All

The City Council voted to enroll the entire city in the Clean Power Alliance program by a 4-2 vote on February 26th, 2018. During that meeting, our acting City Manager repeatedly advised the Council members they should wait because of financial uncertainties and undetermined costs.

They rejected the City Manager’s advice. Only Mayor Andrews and Councilman Tracy agreed with the City Manager’s recommendation and voted no. The other four members of the Council (Ms. Heitmann, Ms. Weir, Matt LaVere and Erik Nasarenko) committed the entire community to pay the additional costs for 100% for renewable solar energy.

Clean Power Alliance Quotes

In October 2018, the same four Council members (Ms. Heitmann, Ms. Weir, Mr. LaVere and Mr. Nasarenko) approved a contract with the Clean Power Alliance (CPA), enrolling every citizen and all city accounts in Ventura into the Clean Power CPA, in place of Southern California Edison. However, you were always free to reverse what the City Council decided if you took steps to opt-out. Otherwise, the change took effect in February 2019.

Remember, at the time the City Council voted to approve the Clean Power Alliance they didn’t know what it was going to cost. They committed the entire city to higher energy costs without knowing what those costs were going to be.

Who is the Clean Power Alliance?

Clean Power Alliance LogoThe Clean Power Alliance is a 2-year-old electricity provider in Southern California. They claim to bring clean, renewable energy at competitive rates. They compete with Southern California Edison (SCE), which has been around for 111 years and has been continually working on renewable energy for over ten years.

The City Council bought into the Clean Power Alliance’s message. You were “automatically enrolled in 100% Green Power which provides 100% renewable energy,” allowing all “residents to be environmental champions, leading the way to a greener future.”

You’re In Unless You Opt-Out

You were in the Clean Power Alliance unless you opted out. To opt-out, you needed to go to cleanpoweralliance.org, or call 888-585-3788. Whichever method you chose required your last utility bill and your SCE account number. Without those, you got nowhere. If you opted-out by telephone, you spent considerable time listening to recordings, ad nauseam, extolling green power’s virtues.

Six Months Later, The City Manager Learns The CPA Power Costs Are Greater Than Expected

In June 2019, the circumstances changed with the Clean Power Alliance. The cost of “green energy” went up—a lot. City Manager, Alex McIntyre, requested that the Council opt-out of the CPA program and return to SCE for the “high user accounts” of the city (like the street lights). Residents would remain enrolled in the 100% increased renewable rate with the CPA.

Clean Power Alliance Weighs Down Homeowners' Bugdets

The Clean Power Alliance Weighs Down Homeowner’s Bugdets

He recommended returning to SCE for at least a year until more was known.  He demonstrated that the costs to large energy use accounts within the city, such as street lighting, water, and wastewater, are 20.8% greater than represented a year earlier.  The total increase in costs for these high user accounts could be an additional $571,476.

After a lengthy discussion, filled with rampant confusion, misunderstanding, and punctuated with illogical statements, four members of the Council (Mses. Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava) rejected the City Manager’s recommendation.  These four voted that all of the smaller city accounts would remain in the CPA program at 100% green power.  As for the six large City accounts, they voted to opt-out the street lighting account, and reduce the other large accounts to the 36% wind rate.

The result is that City government will be paying $228,086 more for electrical power through the CPA program than they would have paid through SCE.  Of that number, water and wastewater account will be paying $157,148. What’s more, they didn’t know the actual costs when they voted.

As for what residents will pay, the City Council confirmed that they would stay in the program at the 100% rate.

That gives all residents “the opportunity to be environmental champions, leading the way to a greener future.”

What Impact Will The Clean Power Alliance Decision Have?

The costs of participating in the Clean Power Alliance are becoming more visible, and it’s hurting the city. Southern California Edison increased its rates to the CPA, who is now passing those costs on to Ventura. The timing of the rate increase pressured the City Council into making a rushed, imprudent fiscal decision.

In the 11th hour, our solar power provider was now going to substitute wind power for solar and presented a $228,086 rate increase to power city departments. All of this came on the same evening that the City Council gave final approval to the 2019-2020 budget. Now this $228,086 increase, at a minimum, will shortchange police, fire and street paving, all so the city can have wind power.

Police, Fire and Street Paving Gets Shorted

Clean Power Alliance Leaves Less for PoliceCouncilman Jim Friedman got it right when he voted no.  When he expressed that, “The budget is $3.5 million in the red now, and this just makes it worse.” By voting to pay more to the CPA—money the city does not have—city services will suffer. Your streets won’t get paved.  The city doesn’t hire a police officer. Your water and wastewater rates increase. The police and fire departments don’t respond in time to save a life. If any of these things happen, you only need to look to four members of our City council for their budget decisions. (Mses. Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava)

The city staff recommended opting out for one year until Ventura got a clearer understanding of what their fiduciary responsibilities would be. The City Manager recommended the City Council opt-out for one year. Councilmembers Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava disregarded the staff’s recommendation to protect past votes to join the Clean Power Alliance. They voted to “save face” over the public’s interest.

Making Your Decisions for You

Council Pushes Clean Power AllianceThe City Council chose your electricity provider for you. In so doing, they shifted the burden of “Green Power” to every homeowner in the city. So, if you did not opt-out, you’ll pay higher electricity bills. We should resent the City Council forcing this upon the community. The CPA program should be a decision for each citizen to make. In this case, the government effectively enrolled everyone automatically without any consent from the citizens who will be paying the bill.

Four members of the City Council  (Heitmann, Weir, Brown and Rubalcava) were caught up in the “Save the Planet” message and hysteria. They believed that recyclable energy is the better choice, regardless of the cost. The Council should have taken a more cautious approach with an unproven, start-up company offering power whose benefits and costs are unknown. Instead, they let ideology cloud their decision instead of being fiscally prudent with taxpayer money.

Editor’s Comments

Should Ventura be concerned about a City Council that doesn’t plan, and spends money they don’t have? So far, they act with an attitude that ‘we’ll find the money somewhere.’ Obviously not from their pockets.

The highway to Hell is paved with good intentions. The City Council would do well to remember that. The city’s finances can withstand fiscal irresponsibility because of the Council’s financial ignorance only for so long. A day of reckoning is coming. Ventura faces six years of negative budgets. Perhaps that day is sooner than the City Council realizes.

As citizens, we must ask, “How long will we live with the Council’s bad financial decisions? For how long will we accept Councilmembers with political agendas that disregard city staff recommendations to make a ‘statement’?” Should Ventura be concerned about a City Council that doesn’t plan and spends money it doesn’t have?

Carefully examine your expenses and your beliefs to determine if the Clean Power Alliance is for you. If not, opt-out.

Moreover, when you go to the polls next November, do not reelect Councilmembers who exhibit no fiduciary responsibility with your money.

It’s time we examine our City Council’s performance and ask why they do the things they do. If we don’t diligently watch our money now, there may not be any money to watch in the future.

Demand More Fiscal Responsibility On The Clean Power Alliance

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How The Right Steps In The 2019 Budget Make Your Tomorrow Better

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

—P.J. O’Rourke

Ventura faces severe revenue shortfalls in six of the next seven years, the size of those during The Great Recession. Ventura is on pace to lose over $9.07 million over the next six years. You should be concerned about the financial conditions in the City of Ventura, and you should also know this budgetary crisis is avoidable if the City Council acts this year.

Ventura’s General Fund Financial Outlook For The Next 10 Years

Ventura city staff calculate the city’s revenue and expenses for the next ten years [see graphic]. Costs will exceed income for six consecutive years beginning in the fiscal year 2020-2021—that’s next year.

Budget projection shortfall

Pensions are the main reason for the rise in expenditures. Annual pension costs will climb to $31.48 million from $19.71 million by the fiscal year 2025-2026. That’s an $11.63 million increase. The city projects property and sales taxes to increase by only $10.6 million over the same period. Not a rosy outlook.

Budget negatively impacted by pensions

Next year (the fiscal year 2020-2021), Ventura faces a $2.52 million deficit because of the $2.17 million in rising pension costs.

Pensions cause budget deficits

The city staff estimations are optimistic. They do not factor in a recession, which some believe is imminent. If a recession comes, people will lose jobs. Also, if a recession hits, property and sales tax revenues will suffer and projected losses may be even worse. What’s more, the city plans to add no money to reserves in the fiscal year 2019-2020. Current reserve levels for the City of Ventura will keep the city government running for only 45 days.

Wasn’t Measure O supposed To Save The Budget?

Measure O passed three years ago and will continue for the next 22 years. It brings in $10.8 million in additional sales tax revenue each year. Still, it isn’t enough to cover the projected shortfalls. Why is that?

There are several reasons why Measure O can’t save the city’s budget. First, there is no consensus among the City Councilmembers about how to use Measure O money. Alex McIntyre, Ventura’s new City Manager, asked all seven Councilmembers individually how they would spend it. All seven Councilmembers gave differing opinions on how to use the Measure O taxes. Without clear direction, it’s difficult for the City Manager to focus the city staff on what’s most important for our city. Confusion over Measure O is one example of how the City Council is dysfunctional on the budget’s priorities.

vultures eyeing the budgetA second problem is how special interest groups lined up to get their share of Measure O. At the May 20th City Council meeting, Councilmembers Lorrie Brown, Jim Friedman and Mayor Matt LaVere tried to move funds from Measure O to the General Fund for Fire Station No. 4. The Star report said the Fire Department union members felt insecure (sic) about Station No. 4 funding coming out of a temporary tax fund. (The tax lasts for 25 years)

In 2016, The City Council sold Measure O to voters with the promise that Fire Station No. 4 would remain open with its funds. Voters agreed to the idea of a temporary 25-year tax. VFD is now trying to persuade the City Council that when Measure O expires, there may not be funding for Fire Station No. 4. They fearmonger that response times to calls will increase, and lives could be lost. A 4-3 vote defeated the motion.

While this City Council takes precious time debating moving funds from one column to another, the growing unfunded pension obligations put pressure on the entire city budget, even with Measure O.

The Canaries In The Coal Mine

The canary in the coal mine foretells budget problemsEconomic disasters are all around us. There is no reason to think that Ventura is immune to them. The City of Oxnard is preparing to lay off hundreds of employees. They also plan to close a fire station and reduce the number of fire personnel available to respond to emergencies. The Oxnard City Manager says, “We are down to bare bones.” What’s happening in Oxnard is a preview of what could happen in Ventura unless the City Council acts quickly.

Ventura County Medical Center is losing over $40 million per year. That adds more unemployment to our community. With the City of Ventura own forecast of financial shortfalls, the City Council would do well not to ignore the economic disaster warning like ‘a canary in a coal mine.’

How Do We Fix The Budget?

Ventura's budget has always been suspectThe budgetary crisis is entirely avoidable if the City Council acts now. The solutions are simple, but they are not easy. It requires significant political will and resolve.

Improve The Budgeting Process

Currently, the City Council approves the city’s annual budget one year at a time. It doesn’t consider subsequent years’ financial demands. Given that the 10- year forecast shows losses for the next six years’ budgets, to ignore the next six years will be pushing the problem “down the road.”

Now is the time to change this systemic shortsightedness. City Councilmembers have the opportunity to discuss budgeting on at least a 3-year basis, not one year at a time.

Not Filling All Open Positions In City Hall

To balance the budget over the next six years, the city staff has two potential solutions. They can increase revenue through taxes and fees or reduce expenses. Since it’s not easy or popular to raise taxes and fees, the alternative is to cut costs.

Ventura City Hall, city budget

The single largest expense category is city employees. Cutting staff is the obvious choice to reduce expenses. To avoid the unpopular cutting of current employees, the City Council can take a less unpleasant path and cut positions in the budget that the city never filled.

There are currently sixty unfilled positions at City Hall. If each vacant position costs the city $100,000 per person (salary, overtime, retirement and benefits), the cost to budget for these open positions adds to the projected deficit (losses).

If the city reduces the unfilled positions to thirty instead of sixty, the savings to Ventura would be $3 million per year. A $3 million reduction in expenses will balance the budgets for the next six years.

This decision puts the City Council on the horns of a dilemma. Should they hire all sixty positions now and later fire employees during the budget shortfalls? Alternatively, should they hire only thirty people knowing they can add personnel if the city’s economic situation improves? Eliminating unfilled staff positions is less disruptive to city government than laying people off.

Economic Development

An alternative toward improving the budget is to attract new or expanding businesses to Ventura. Several Councilmembers understand this and agree. More business and local jobs are the best solution for filling the budgetary shortfalls. More jobs generate more sales tax, encourage community spending and increase property values. Higher property values increase property taxes and reduce blight.

economic development adds to the budgetImagine the stimulus to the community of filling the old Star Free-Press building or the Toys-R-Us location would have.

The city has already taken the first step in this direction. City Manager, Alex McIntyre, has moved the Economic Development division under the City Manager from under Community Development. Elevating the reporting of this department to the City Manager signals the increased importance economic development has for the city.

Empower The Economic Development Manager

Another simple step the city could take would be to empower the Economic Development Manager (EDM). The EDM must have readily available an inventory of all commercial locations, complete with square footage, zoning, parking, pricing, and a list of commercial real estate agents and contact information.

The City Council must be ready to provide incentives to new or expanding businesses. The incentives must include fee reductions and process simplification to entice the companies. One such motivator must be a single contact within the city who will guide the relocation process through the bureaucracy.

Finally, the EDM must identify and target new commercial business to locate in Ventura.

Each of these positive steps toward economic development has one drawback. They are long-term solutions. None of them will happen quickly enough to fix a budget by next year.

Streamline the City Hall Experience

The city has started reorganizing boards and commissions that oversee Planning, Design Review, Historic Preservation, and other committees filled by residents appointed by the City Council. While this is a good start, it must go further.

Reducing boards and commissions saves staff time in preparing and attending meetings. The staff attends about 20 meetings a month. Fewer meetings will allow more time for the employees to better supervise operations in planning, design review, code enforcement, etc.

The city must look at other ways to reduce staff time in other duties—especially if the city hires only thirty of the sixty unfilled positions. All staff operations should be scrutinized to end obsolete or redundant activities.

Revamp Ventura Fire Department

Now is a good time to modernize the fire department. Ventura Fire operates in much the same way it did 100 years ago except the needs are far different:

  • Building codes are stricter making fires less frequent
  • More buildings have sprinkler systems
  • Over 75% of calls are for paramedics

Each fire station has paramedics on duty to serve those calls. In addition to Ventura Fire, each medical emergency requires an ambulance from a private company in case a victim needs transporting to the hospital. Rolling a fire truck plus an ambulance seems like duplicated efforts.

VFD adds pressure to city budgetAny change to the Fire Department would likely be unpopular with the public. That makes it a subject considered by Councilmembers, to be too controversial to discuss.  The fire department union will become protective of their fellow firefighters and will want to preserve the status quo.

As they have in the past, the unions will apply pressure to the Council. Since four of the seven elected Councilmembers received campaign contributions from Ventura Fire in their last election, the politicians will likely concede as they have in the past. Ventura Fire Department needs reorganizing. Now is the ideal time to do it.

Editor’s Comments

The community will not support another tax rate increase. Pension costs already absorbed the entire $10.8 million raised by Measure. Still, citizens ask why the city doesn’t repair their streets and sidewalks. We can’t hope for an economic miracle to increase revenue, so the city must take steps to curb expenses. Ventura must:

  • Lower expenses by not filling all open positions at City Hall. Add those costs back into the budget
  • Design and target new commercial businesses to locate in Ventura
  • Offer incentives and fee reductions to bring more jobs to Ventura
  • Streamline the City Hall process and operations to reduce staff time. It will accelerate the processing time for building and licenses
  • Streamline medical response procedures within Ventura Fire. Find ways to reduce fire department costs for those calls. Dispatching a private ambulance and fire trucks with paramedics every time is expensive
  • Hold in-depth discussions at the City Council to expand budgeting to a 3-year basis, not one year at a time

INSIST THE CITY COUNCIL MODERNIZES THE BUDGET PROCESS

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Why Breaking Up Committees And Commissions Is Important

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

—Lao Tzu

For the most part, nobody noticed the change. Ventura voters paid little attention to the City Council’s revamped process for committees and commissions. That’s too bad because the new process is the first step towards improving the city.

Voters elected a new City Council in 2018 seeking bold changes in the way Ventura operates. The Council designed initiatives to save city staff time and money. Because of the revamped process, Ventura will become more business-friendly. Moreover, the new procedures will make it easier for residents to improve their homes.

Unlike in the past, the Council recognizes that the development process is cumbersome. There are too many planning and review layers to navigate and not enough certainty. Mayor Matt LaVere called the system sick and in bad need of surgery. The Council is breaking down decades of ineffective planning, permit processing and internal red tape.

Proposed Changes To Committees And Commissions

The Council has proposed some significant changes. They include:

  • Streamlining, improving and simplifying the current design review process.
  • Disbanding the Historical Preservation Committee. Replacing it with staff review and, where needed, outside consultants.
  • Allowing each council member to appoint her or his own Planning Commission member. The commissioner’s term would run concurrently with that of the elected official.
  • Merging the Cultural Affairs, Library Advisory and Public Arts commissions. Three members of each commission stay on to form a nine-member board.

The Most Notable Change

The most significant change is the appointment of Planning Commissioners.

In the past, the City Council Appointments Committee interviewed Planning Commissioners. The Appointments Committee comprised of three Councilmembers. If approved, the committee recommended the prospect to the full City Council. When approved, each appointee was sworn in to serve for four to eight years, or longer.

Under the proposed changes, each City Councilmember will appoint a Planning Commission member. Commissioner terms would run concurrently with that of the elected official. The appointing Councilmember may replace them at any time during their tenure.

Increased Accountability For Committees And Commissions

Every Planning Commissioner would be accountable to the Councilmember who appointed him or her.

Currently, the commissioners are unelected and unanswerable layers in the process. Some viewed their role as gatekeepers or an all-important citizens’ overseers. Rarely, if ever, was an appointed commissioner removed by the City Council. Entrenched commissioners support their boards but do not answer to anyone and suffer no consequence if their agenda is different from that of the City Council.

Under the new structure, each commissioner would be responsible to an individual City Councilmember whom we elected. It is less likely they will obstruct progress.

Increased Efficiency

The proposed system eliminates duplicated efforts. It also saves the city staff time in unproductive meetings.

City staff will assume the responsibility of the Historical Preservation Committee. Combining the Cultural Affairs, Library Advisory and Public Arts Commissions reduces three meetings down to one.

City staff spends time preparing, attending and summarizing the findings for these meetings. They will no longer need to do so under the proposed changes.

Cost Neutral

The new system offers less duplicated effort, fewer meetings and allows the staff to do more work. City staff will spend less time in meetings. They will save the time they’d otherwise spend preparing for, attending and summarizing the meetings.

It costs the city more to have staff acting as the Historical Preservation Committee. The increase in personnel cost is offset by the cost savings from eliminated meetings, in any case.

Feeble Objections

The proposed changes don’t please everyone. The immediate resistance came from some existing committee members and commissioners. There are two main objections.  Some complained about the process. Others believe there will be less transparency and citizen involvement.

Those annoyed by the process claim the city should have notified members in advance about the change. They assert that the staff did not inform the commissions or seek input until after the fact.

Committee members and commissioners serve at the pleasure of the City Council. It’s unimportant if the Council or city staff notified them in advance of proposing any changes.

Others feel the new process will reduce the number of voices participating. The criticism is unfounded. All the committee and commission meetings are open to the public. Any interested citizen can attend and take part. That includes all ex-committee or ex-commission members.

Editors’ Comments

The City Council acknowledged Ventura could improve. They’re taking steps to change that; starting first with the committees and commissions. No one knows what impact these changes will have. What we do know is that doing the same thing and expecting different results will not work.

Supporting these recommendations may move Ventura forward. We applaud the Council’s effort to infuse more responsibility into city government. The new initiatives will improve transparency.

WRITE THE CITY COUNCIL TO SHARE YOUR OPINION ON THE CHANGES TO COMMITTEES AND COMMISSIONS

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