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How to improve the Permit Services Department in Ventura

How The Permit Services Department Can Improve Building Code Enforcement

Thomas Jefferson would have found Permit Services tyrannical

When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

Thomas Jefferson

Permit Services Wraps Property Owners In Red Tape

It’s true what they say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At least, that’s the case within Ventura Permit Services Department.

Nine years after the Ventura Grand Jury ruled that Ventura’s Code Enforcement Division was too aggressive, change has been slow in the Permit Services Department. So much so that during the 2020 City Council elections, three candidates ran on platforms to improve the department’s behavior. Now the City of Ventura believes that things will get better if it follows the consultant’s report titled the Matrix Report. However, those changes don’t go far enough. There needs to be a change in the philosophy within the department to make meaningful changes.

How Residents Interact With The Permit Services Department

One way to get involved in Ventura’s code enforcement is through the building and safety portion of the Permit Services Department. When a property owner applies for a building permit to perform some work to build or make home improvements, plans are required, and once a property owner starts the process, complications and delays begin.

For simple tasks, the owner pays a scheduled fee and the city issues a permit. An example of an easy job is replacing a water heater. After installing the heater, the property owner calls for an inspector.

A second way that owners can enter the system is through the involuntary Code Enforcement branch of Permit Services. In this scenario, someone complains about what the property owner is doing and calls City Hall and a code enforcement officer arrives on the scene to investigate the complaint.

The Process Breaks Down

It was clear to residents that a problem existed in 2012. Camille Harris, a concerned citizen, presented solutions to the city’s unfair code enforcement practices on CAPS TV. The feeling among residents was to avoid the building process as much as possible.

The 2011-2012 Ventura County Grand Jury opened an inquiry into the City of Ventura and its Code Enforcement Department’s practices and fee policies. At the time, many citizens complained of aggressive enforcement actions, verbal threats from code enforcement officers, unauthorized searches, threatening documents, preferential treatment, and an unfair appellate system. The Grand Jury condemned these code enforcement practices.

Changes within Ventura Code Enforcement Since 2012

The consultants made several recommendations in the Matrix Report. Click here for a complete listing of the changes.

Structurally, personnel and the department have changed. The Planning Department is now the Permit Services Department. Jonathan Wood is the Permits and Enforcement manager, and he oversees both permit issuance and code enforcement. Mr. Wood reports to Peter Gilli, the Community Development Director. In turn, Mr. Gilli answers to Akbar Alikhan, the Assistant City Manager. (see the Organization Chart)

Permit Services Organizational Chart

What Hasn’t Changed With Ventura Permit Services

By the end of June, the city will have completed 50% of the recommendations in the Matrix Report. Despite that, several things remain troublesome within Code Enforcement and Permit Services.

  • To residents, Code Enforcement and Permit Services appear to be punitive. For 40 years, department managers have said, “We work with people to make it user-friendly.” However, that statement is no more than ‘lip service.’ In reality, inspectors act as if they were police officers. They flash an official badge and demand entry, or they will get a warrant—the same behavior listed in the Grand Jury report. Several property owners told us disturbing stories. In some instances, one or more code enforcement inspectors arrive on-site uninvited. They videotape the scene and then write the property owners up.
  • Code enforcement employees defend their actions by saying they are looking out for everyone’s safety by enforcing state building codes. They didn’t create the regulations; they enforce them—the Nüremberg Jonathan Wood leads the Permit Services Departmentdefense.

When asked about judgment on the job, Mr. Wood puts it this way. “If there are areas with no life safety concerns that we can refer to the spirit of the law through common sense and judgment, we will.” Yet, we heard stories to the contrary. Property owners told us about inspectors that enter older buildings. They try to apply current building standards to them instead of researching the building standards at the time of construction.

It’s Not Easy To Protest

Protesting an accusation is difficult, time-consuming and frustrating. Once Code Enforcement receives a complaint, they assume the property owner is guilty until proven innocent. This mindset is contrary to the legal system in our country.

Inviting New Problems Into Your Home

Permit Services InspectorPermit Services still uses intimidation as a weapon. For example, the property owner calls for an inspection after installing a water heater replacement. The inspector arrives to make sure the water heater is hooked up correctly, the gas connection is correct, and the heater is strapped for earthquake protection. While there, the inspector looks for other building issues such as electrical, gas, venting, unpermitted structures, and more. If they see something, then off it goes to Code Enforcement. The homeowner soon receives a letter demanding corrections and threatening penalties unless the property owner makes changes within a limited time.

Permit Services Turns Neighbor Against Neighbor

Ventura Permit Services relies on snitchesComplaints drive almost all the code enforcement investigations. Reacting to accusations leaves little time for inspectors to discover infractions on their own.

Code Enforcement now forbids anonymous complainers. Anonymous informants were a source of irritation to property owners in the past. Yet, even if the informant identifies himself, it doesn’t prevent mischievous acts. One individual complained about a downtown business. It turns out the complainer owned a competing company and didn’t want his competitor to get an advantage.

Fear of Retaliation and Horror Stories

We heard many horror stories researching this topic, yet we cannot write about them because the property owners feared retribution or retaliation. Inciting fear seems contrary to creating a cooperative environment to improve the city. One theme was universal among the people we interviewed. No one sees a change in the mentality in Permit Services.

The Building and Planning Process Gets Longer

In the recent past, it took about 90 days to get a construction permit in Ventura. Today, it could take years. One contractor put it this way, “Ventura takes homeowner’s dreams and crushes them.”

Permit Services slows down construction plan approval

More Promises of Change in Permit Services

Changes are happening, but will they be enough? Two examples in 2020 illustrate some possible deficiencies.

First, the Matrix Report recommends that the city digitize its planning and permitting processes.

When COVID-19 hit, the city accelerated the conversion to digital. With change come problems. There was a two-month period when the system misplaced plans. Residents might tolerate hiccups during the conversion under normal circumstances. But this delay affected homeowners rebuilding after the Thomas Fire. The City Council promised the victims a speedy return to their homes. This delay was contrary to the Council’s stated intent.

Second, the city decided to streamline the communication process with Permit Services. The idea was to limit the points of contact to the department. For example, there is now only one telephone number and one email address to reach Permit Services. City managers thought a single point of contact would make communicating more straightforward. Yet, it has had the opposite effect.

Triaging the incoming communication can be slow. Then, when assigning the case to a caseworker, they will have to rank the request based on their workload. To anyone outside the department, the situation is not transparent. The name and contact information for the caseworker isn’t known until that person contacts the property owner. There are also times when a case isn’t assigned immediately, and it sits in limbo. With only one phone number or email, it’s impossible to follow up.

Editors Comments

Nine years ago, the Ventura Grand Jury recommended changes in Ventura’s Permit Services Department. Today, the city is making changes slowly. Unfortunately, stifling regulations, protracted processes and fees provide property owners no compelling reason to improve their properties. Little wonder that property owners are skeptical if any lasting change will happen at all. As a result, development in the city has been slow and difficult. Some victims of the Thomas Fire still are not returned to their rebuilt homes. That is unforgivable.

Permit Services rejoices at completing half the Matrix ReportThe city is implementing the Matrix Report. Yet, according to the timetable, the implementation will be 50% complete at best at the end of June 2021. And nothing in the Matrix report addresses the core problem: the attitude within the department.

The current philosophy in Permit Services is that the employees are there to enforce the rules—like the police force. Enforcement officers and inspectors carry badges and threaten penalties and fines as if they were the police. Nothing in the current process encourages the property owners to want to get permits and to have a qualified inspector look at what they are planning to do. That’s a shame.

If the department changed their attitudes ever so slightly to work with people and make the permitting and building process user-friendly, citizens wouldn’t fear working with Permit Services.

Seriously Consider Another Option

Some residents have suggested a citizen’s board or commission to oversee Permit Services. This idea would only create another bureaucratic and ‘toothless’ political group that the city staff will marginalize.

Any Board or Commission still does not alleviate the fear of retaliation. There must be anonymity.   The city needs an independent body, not controlled by the City Council, but with some ‘enforcement power.’ The details of such a body are not precise, but there is a model of an independent body called the ‘Long-Term-Care Ombudsmen program’ that creators can emulate and modify. Property owners could appeal to a state agency in case of a dispute. A single hearing could rectify abuses and award punitive damages.

Now is the time to act before the city loses focus on making the needed changes to Permit Services.

Demand The City Council Makes Meaningful Changes To The Permit Services Department

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.

Didn't receive money from the Ventura Fire Department Received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department
Mike Johnson received no money from the Ventura Fire Department Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios received no money from the Ventura Fire Department
Jim Friedman received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department Lorrie Brown is a Ventura Fire Department apologist
Joe Schroeder received no money from the Ventura Fire Department

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Ventura Fire Department Wants More Money

If Ventura Fire Department Is So Terrible, Why Don’t Statistics Show It?

Einstein comments on Ventura Fire Department

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Ventura Fire Department isn't keeping up with the times

Ventura Fire Department (VFD) is asking the City Council for more money so they can maintain the inertia they’ve had for the past fifty years. The basis for their demands is an operational assessment of Ventura Fire by Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI). Another multi-million decision based on flawed data faces the City Council. And it appears that they’re in a hurry to make it.

How We Got Here

In 2019, Ventura Fire confronted newly installed City Manager Alex McIntyre with a massive overtime bill. This prompted Mr. McIntyre to recommend a thorough evaluation of VFD’s operations. He told the newspaper he proposed a report to determine if Ventura Fire’s activities were “consistent with contemporary fire services practices.” The Council concurred, and they selected ESCI to do the evaluation.

Things Have Changed For The Ventura Fire Department

Fires are only 3% of Ventura Fire Department callsVentura Fire was initially designed to fight fires. Over time, their duties expanded to include safety inspections, and they built their processes to meet those needs. It was a model that had worked. After all, it was a 100-year-old tradition. Firefighters waited in the firehouse to be dispatched to an emergency.

The problem for VFD is that the community’s needs changed. The ESCI Operational Assessment of the Ventura Fire Department shows that only 3% of the calls were for fires. The majority, 73%, were for emergency medical service (EMS). Another 15% were “good intent” calls, or what ordinary people call false alarms. Ventura Fire is using an outdated business model to address modern challenges.

What Hasn’t Changed For Ventura Fire

The response time for VFD to respond to a call is in the 90th percentile compared to other fire departments nationally, according to the ESCI study. That’s good news for Ventura citizens.

Confronted with the changed requirements of what Ventura Fire does, one would expect the fire department to rethink its role. Yet, it still clings to the 100-year-old way of doing business. There is no new thinking within the department and no original ideas in the operational assessment done on the department.

The Flaws In The Study

The Ventura Fire Department seized on the ESCI assessment to lobby the City Council for more money. How much money? They’re asking for between $3.9M and $14.9M in the first year, with more in subsequent years. The study outlines several short-term, mid-term and long-term recommendations. (See attachment B)

Close examination of the ESCI report reveals several flaws. First, the ESCI is the consulting service of the International Fire Chiefs Association. The people interviewed to gather data for the assessment were Ventura firefighters. The report is built on fire chiefs asking firefighters what they need, then comparing that to what other fire departments across the nation have. The potential for inherent bias exists in this report.

For instance, when asked in an online survey (page 219) about how city firefighters feel: 75 percent of City Firefighters say more tax money “would allow us to better support fire prevention in our community.” Unsurprisingly, ESCI concluded that Ventura Fire needs more money.

ESCI’s Assessment Lacks Local Context

Ventura Fire Department Second, the review presents detailed costs associated with each of its recommendations. What it fails to offer are the benefits to citizens that each proposal represents. For instance, the report calls for adding eight more firefighters. What benefit is there to hire eight more firefighters?  VFD is already in the 90th percentile in response time. Page 21 of the report says, “VFD call processing time and turnout response time performance are excellent compared to other agencies studied by ESCI.”  The actual turnout time is one minute and 21 seconds (81 seconds).

To support their recommendation for more firefighters, ESCI compares firefighting personnel per 1,000 population based on the 2016 National Fire Protection Association Study for the Western United States. By that measure, ESCI concludes Ventura Fire Department staffing is 38 percent below the Western US median. There is no support for the formula by any data, and it appears to be irrelevant.

Third, the evaluation fails to recognize the number of firefighters added since Measure O passed. In that time, the Ventura Fire Department added twelve sworn officers, bringing its force up to 75—a 19% increase in the workforce. Compare that to Ventura Police (VPD). They added ten sworn officers, bringing the force up to 137—a 7.8% increase.

Fourth, the ESCI recommendations don’t mention the long-term financial impact of adding new firefighters to Ventura’s pension obligation. One estimate is that the city needs to set aside an additional $42,000 a year per firefighter to grow enough over 30 years to cover the pension benefits.

Ventura Fire Department Looks For More Money

Ventura Fire Department wants more moneyFifth, ESCI recommends on page 195, “Recommendation 1-G: Explore the option of an additional special measure to support (V)FD operations and to obtain a larger share of Measure O to support recommendations to increase staffing.”

Over time, the purposes of Measure O get fuzzy. None of the current City Councilmembers were on the Council when voters passed Measure O. The Measure O literature specifically said the city would not use the money to supplant existing positions. Yet, the Ventura Fire Department is asking for more employees paid for by Measure O. VFD seems to forget that at the time, Ventura Fire received funds from Measure O to keep Fire Station No. 4 operating. They have also received a 19% increase in firefighters since Measure O.

With the city’s other needs—aging infrastructure, pension liability obligations, homelessness, and more—Ventura Fire’s requests seem self-interested.

Sixth, on page 197, ESCI presents, “Recommendation 2-H: Explore the implementation of a fire services subscription program, where residents pay an annual membership fee for the fire department service.” This recommendation seems insensitive. It wasn’t that long ago that the City of Ventura tried to impose a 9-1-1 fee on all emergency calls. That decision was abruptly reversed, but not before the city collected the fee from several residents and never returned it.

Open Debate On The Issues

The ESCI report is 227 pages long. There is much detail to comprehend. Mayor Sofia Rubalcava introduced a motion to create a subcommittee for a more detailed of the fire department’s report and recommendations.

Jim Friedman objected, saying, “We made it clear we’re not interested in kicking the can down the road. Why a whole layer of discussions and subcommittee? That part I don’t understand.”

Councilwoman Lorrie Brown said she wanted the council to take action on the study and was not in favor of a committee taking months to make a recommendation.

Councilman Mike Johnson said he didn’t want to wait and see if a sales tax gets passed.

“There are things we can do,” Johnson said. “I look forward to really getting into the numbers. I’m not looking forward to making the hard choices, but I’m looking forward to having that discussion with my colleagues.”

It bears mentioning who has received campaign money from the Ventura Fire Department.

Ventura Fire Department contributions to candidates

In the end, Mr. Friedman won. There will be no subcommittee to do a thorough evaluation of the recommendations.

Editors Comments

There are too many flaws in the ESCI Operational Assessment of the Ventura Fire Department for the City Council to decide where and how to spend the money. We urge the Council to be extremely skeptical of the data presented. We hope they will see the same flaws and incompleteness in the report that we’ve reported here.

More money won't make Ventura Fire Department betterThe crucial, objective metric on which residents can judge Ventura Fire is response time. And VFD’s response time is in the 90th percentile. It will be hard to improve on that.

The City Council must realize from this study that Ventura no longer has a Fire Department. It has a medical triage team in red trucks. It’s irresponsible to focus on new fire trucks and adding new fire stations when 73% of their work is emergency medical services, not fighting fires.

To ask citizens to pay an additional tax to support the fire department is untenable. Residents will be paying higher water and wastewater bills, and they’re already paying higher electricity bills to support the Clean Power Alliance.

The notion of a subscription fee for fire department services seems absurd. Ventura already tried a similar idea with the 9-1-1 fee, and citizens rejected it.

Suggesting the Council divert money from Measure O to support the Ventura Fire Department violates the spirit—and the stated purposes—of Measure O. If the city does use Measure O money, it will send a clear message to voters, “All political promises are worthless.” The Council will use Measure O for whatever purposes it wants. Councilmember Friedman will appear prescient when he said, “It’s all green and it’s all spendable.” Measure O and the General Fund are really all the same money.

In the end, progress will happen if Ventura Fire rethinks the role of VFD. They can no longer rely on a 100-year-old tradition of firefighting. Trying to extort more money from residents to pay to continue doing things the way they’ve always been done is unconscionable. It gives the appearance that Ventura Fire is more interested in fighting change than fighting fires. Citizens should expect more from our fire department. We should expect thoughtful solutions, not ones that throw more money at existing problems.

Insist The City Council Seek More Original Solutions

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.

Didn't receive money from the Ventura Fire Department Received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department
Mike Johnson received no money from the Ventura Fire Department Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios received no money from the Ventura Fire Department
Jim Friedman received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department Lorrie Brown is a Ventura Fire Department apologist
Joe Schroeder received no money from the Ventura Fire Department

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step and merit increases were premature

Ventura’s Imperfect Evaluation On Step And Merit Increases

Confucius on Ventura's step and merit increases

The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.”

Confucius

Time will tell if Ventura made a good choice with step and merit increases

No one makes a lifetime commitment based on a single moment in time. Yet, the Ventura City Council made just such a commitment. In November 2020, they awarded step and merit increases to city employees based on revised sales tax figures. This decision is disturbing on several levels:

  1. The city staff led the Council to believe financial conditions were improving based on very short-term statistics.
  2. The people benefiting from the salary increases were the ones making the recommendation.
  3. Our elected officials failed to question the rosy picture the staff presented during the pandemic economic shutdown.

How Did We Get Here?

In the city’s fiscal year 2020-2021, the Ventura City Council faced a $12.0 million budget deficit due to California’s coronavirus shutdown. The city staff recommended a dozen possible solutions to the problem. Among them was the option to ‘defer’ $1 million in employee salary increases for step and merit increases until financial conditions improved.

As a provision of the FY2020-21 budget, former-Mayor Matt LaVere, the City Council and all the bargaining units agreed to freeze employee step and merit increases as a down payment on the massive reductions necessary in the year ahead.

Mid-Course Correction

The City Council receives regular updates on sales tax revenue collected. These reports include recent figures and may also include projections based on current trends. The updates are very short-term, especially in the early part of the fiscal year. Predictions made from these limited data may seem overly optimistic. Any upward trend tempts city staff and the Council to overreact. Past City Councils have been guilty of spending money from these projections because they seemed ‘good.’ The tendency is to see these projections through rose-colored glasses.

Step and merit increases were part of a mid-course correction

What Was The New Projection That Justified The Step And Merit Increases?

To everyone’s surprise, the September sales tax report update was higher than anticipated. The city staff projected that General Fund would be $1.657 million higher than forecasted. The City Council seized this as the ‘green light’ to reinstate the employee step and merit increases.

At the November 9, 2020 meeting, the Council rescinded the suspended step and merit salary increases for city employees. The suspension lasted only eight months, from March to November 2020.

Was The Decision To Grant Step And Merit Increases Logical?

Awarding step and merit increases puts Ventura on thin iceThe Council made its November decision based on data presented on September 23, 2020, a month and a half earlier. The Council received no updated data on which to decide. If they had, the decision might have been different.

In a report prepared by Michael Coon, the Director of Finance & Technology, after the Council’s November 9th decision, the $1.657 million surplus became a $483K deficit.

By the January 2021 Budget Workshop presentation to the new Council, the General Fund was positive again by $264,000. Mr. Coon admitted that $264,000 is a slim margin on a $116 million budget (0.2%).

What’s Happening With The General Fund?

The $1.657 million General Fund surplus presented in September 2020 was misleading. Yes, sales tax revenue was higher, but that didn’t account for the excess. Two unique, one-time events inflated the figures.

The General Fund received $2.0 million from the CARES Act funding. The city also received a donation from the Marion Schwab Trust.

Without these two rare revenue infusions, the city would have had $2.4 million less revenue than the city staff led the Council to believe when deciding to award the step and merit increases.

What’s more, on September 24, 2020, the city staff failed to mention the City Council’s risks to the General Fund. Player’s Casino Card Room sales taxes, parking violations, and Parks & Recreation programming were below budget. Mr. Coon’s November 2020 report shows revenue fell more than $5.2 million below budget in those three areas.

The Result Of Their Actions On Raises

In June, Councilmember Jim Friedman warned of an “absolute financial disaster” in the coming years if the city doesn’t continue to cut spending. Yet, the City Council reversed their earlier spending restraint and awarded over $719,000 in pay increases to city employees.

In June 2020, City Manager Alex McIntyre spoke of “shared sacrifice” when announcing the step and merit increases. Today, thousands of Ventura residents are not working. And those private-sector workers that remain employed may experience outright cuts in their pay and hours. Scores of businesses are closed by the pandemic and face bankruptcy. At City Hall, where jobs and salaries are guaranteed, things look very different, however.

What Can We Do?

Every budget cycle, the city goes through the same experience. The budget process begins in January and ends in June for the following year’s budget. Each year, the city staff presents their best estimate of what next year will bring. Often, those Staff recommended step and merit increases and the Council followed like chickens with their heads cut offestimates are optimistic. “We believe we’re conservative not to paint too bleak a picture,” Mr. Coon told the City Council on January 11, 2021. And, our City Council makes long-term decisions based on the short-term data they receive.

Staff isn’t always right. No one has examined the budgeting process for a long time. Periodically, it would be a good idea to have independent, outside consultants provide an unbiased analysis of Ventura’s budgeting. This evaluation should be different from the accountant’s review of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), which is always 18 months in arrears.

Editors Comments

We believe the City Council made the November decision to award the step and merit increases on flawed forecasts from staff. The City Council accepted the General Fund revenue would be $1.657 million higher in the middle of a pandemic. The Council decided based on a September bump in the sales tax revenue for the first four months of the fiscal year 2020-21. And, the data didn’t include the all-important Christmas season sales tax revenue. The Council made long-term decisions based primarily on short-term data.

Step and merit increases were justified by improved sales tax revenueIt seems clear that city staff provided fluid, optimistic data to the Council for their decision. Mr. Coon explained the projections, saying, “We are feeling alright with the additional projection of $1.5 million in Sales Tax for the current fiscal year. It is something that we definitely want to keep an eye on, especially if we start to see more businesses close.

“Currently, we are basically projecting that we will receive the same amount of Sales Tax this fiscal year that we received last fiscal year…the city would have received about $30 million in sales tax for FY 20-21 without the pandemic. So, the projections do factor in about a 10% decline from the activity that was seen in Jul-Dec 2019. This decline isn’t on the higher end because online sales tax collection is doing so well and offsetting the losses of some of the brick and mortar stores that are experiencing losses at the higher end of the spectrum.”

At a higher level, citizens should be concerned about this process. The same people who prepare the reports used to decide salary increases are the same people who get the raises.

Our concern isn’t with the exact budget numbers. We question using numbers provided by the very people who enjoy the increases. We also have reservations about the Council relying on unseasoned numbers over time.

And, we’re disappointed by the elected officials that failed to question staff’s rosy projections when we’re in the middle of a pandemic. There were variations in the General Fund projections from September 2020 to November 2020 to January 2021. Two different City Councils spanned that period. One would have hoped that at least one Councilmember would have remarked on the General Fund’s changes from positive to negative and back to slightly positive over that time. Yet, no one did.

Only four Councilmembers remain from the group that awarded the increases. They are Lorrie Brown, Jim Friedman, Erik Nasarenko and Sofia Rubalcava. At the January 2021 budget workshop, two Councilmembers (Ms. Brown and newcomer Mike Johnson) expressed concern about the COVID-19 impact on the city’s finances. One wonders why the other five didn’t share the same anxiety. We hope that the new Council will be more rigorous in asking questions when preparing next year’s budget.

Write Directly To Your City Councilmember To Insist They Ask More Insightful Questions During Budgeting

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.

Sofia Rubalcava voted for step and merit increases Doug Halter wasn't on the Council when they voted for step and merit increases
Mike Johnson wasn't on the Council when they voted for step and merit increases Erik Nasarenko voted for step and merit increases
Jim Friedman voted for step and merit increases Lorrie Brown voted for step and merit increases
Joe Schroeder wasn't on the Council when they voted for step and merit increases

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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

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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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2019 State-of-the-City

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

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

—John F. Kennedy

2019 State-of-the-City Address

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

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

VENTURA’S HOMELESS CENTER

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE THE GENERAL PLAN

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

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

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

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

2019 State-of-the-City Address

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

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

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

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

VENTURA BEAUTIFUL

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

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

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

COASTAL AREA STRATEGIC PLAN

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

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

BUILDING COMMUNITY

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

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

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

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

STOPPING THE BLEEDING

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

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

EDITORS’ COMMENTS

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

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

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

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

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ventura water

Ventura Water Has A Wonderful Opportunity To Be More Transparent

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

— George Bernard Shaw

 

In Ventura, the city staff uses the Brown Act to do precisely the opposite of what lawmakers created it to do.

The California Brown Act guarantees the public’s right to attend and take part in meetings of local legislative bodies. Legislators designed it to end “back room” deals and bring local government out into the open. Ventura Water uses it to throttle the flow of information instead.

Oversight By The Water Commission

Ventura established a Water Commission to advise Ventura Water.  The Commission is to review and make recommendations about:

  • Water rates
  • Water resources infrastructure projects
  • The integrated water resources management plan
  • Water supply options
  • The Urban Water Management Plan approval process
  • A water dedication and in-lieu fee requirement
  • Other water resource issues

Before the Commission, Ventura Water operated with little oversight. Even with the Water Commission, it continues to control all meeting agendas and minutes. At best, this restricts the flow of information to the City Council. At worst, information flow is non-existent. The City Council doesn’t receive any meaningful information that may help with their future choices.

Here is how Ventura Water does things today:

  • Ventura Water’s General Manager and the City Attorney make and approve all agendas. The Commission can only discuss agenda items at the meeting. Any deviation may violate the Brown Act.
  • The General Manager controls all minutes for all sessions. Minutes reports only action items, eliminating the record of any discussion.

Circumventing The Water Commission

Ventura Water forces the City Council to get their information from the General Manager. Thus bypassing the entire reason the city established the Water Commission.

Rarely does Ventura Water share the discussion on relevant topics—if ever. Debates over issues are not reviewed or scrutinized. Important issues never enter the public record such as water quality, testing quality results, fees, costs, timelines, water capacity, water usage, what other agencies are proposing, and deposit account balances.

Because minutes show only action items, all discussions of issues are as though they never happened. So, when the City Council looks to the minutes for any records of problems or concerns, the minutes are no help. Nor are they sufficiently transparent to Ventura’s citizens.

Communicating Clean Water Safety Violations

Ventura Water deals with a water system that impacts all Ventura citizens directly. In August 2018, the department violated the Federal Clean Water Safety standards. Ventura Water breached the Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) drinking water standard in August. The U.S. EPA regulates TTHM at a maximum allowable, annual, average level of 80 parts per billion. Any amount above 80 ppb results in harmful health effects over time. Ailments such as cancer and adverse reproductive outcomes can happen. Ventura Water has corrected the problem, but that’s not the issue.

At issue is how the utility communicated the problem and the solution.

Why You May Not Have Heard Of This

You may not have heard about the incident. It’s not because Ventura Water didn’t announce it. They did. Ventura Water fulfilled the letter of the law, but it may have missed the intent behind it. Meeting the legal requirement seems to be the minimum standard.  Yet setting the bar at the lowest level may place everyone’s health at risk in the future.

What wasn’t said is as important as what was said. Bathing in or cooking with the TTHM water was not mentioned, for instance.

Open communication is what builds trust with a public utility during a crisis. The TTHM violation happened in the Pierpont Area. Unless you live in the affected area, Ventura Water would not have contacted you by mail. Ventura Water notified the schools and nursing homes in the area. Schools and nursing homes informed the parents or residents at their discretion.

Ventura Water obeyed the “letter of the law,” but failed to respect the spirit of the law. They reported the incident to residents in the affected area by mail, posted it on their website, and took out an ad in the Ventura County Star.

Not The Only Incident In 2018

In July, Ventura Water withheld information from the Water Commission. A panel of experts examined Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) of treated wastewater. There are no quality standards or guidelines today. The experts found DPR (for drinking purposes) was a threat to public safety. The City Council did not know that. They were only alerted to that fact after private citizens brought it to their attention. The result was, the City Council decided not to use DPR as an alternative for now. Still, the staff soldiers on asking for large sums to build projects for DPR.

There are many laws to protect citizens and keep them informed about what happens in city government. When a government agency does the bare minimum but goes no further than the law requires, regardless of the impact and financial consequences, citizens mistrust it.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water needs to be more transparent. The City Council allows it to operate in secrecy and subterfuge. Stop. Ventura’s citizens deserve and expect open communication. Here’s what the Council should do:

First, make hiring the next General Manager a priority. Insist City Manager Alex McIntyre interview the Water Commissioners. He should do this without Water Department staff present. The goal is to get the knowledge and details of Ventura Water over the past fifteen years. He’ll gain the perspective to understand what lies ahead in the next six years.

Second, have the Water Commission’s Chairman set the meeting agendas, with input from all commissioners.

Third, ensure all Water Commission’s minutes reflect topics and discussions from all meetings.

Fourth, have the Water Commission Chairman provide a written report to the City Council on a quarterly basis.

Fifth, expand the communication channels Ventura Water uses to inform the public. Set the standard higher than the minimum legal standard.

Insist The City Council Makes Ventura Water More Transparent

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It Was The Best And Worst Of Times For Ventura In 2018

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”— Winston Churchill

Last year was a most transformational year in Ventura’s history. Every aspect of life in Ventura was affected. The city was in the national spotlight, twice. Leadership changed but at a high price. Old ways of doing business didn’t change, though. Overall, it was a year to remember.

December 2017

To understand 2018, you must appreciate December 2017 and the Thomas Fire. The fire destroyed 535 houses in Ventura. The city was the epicenter of the national news.

Thirteen months later, Ventura had the opportunity for the most significant economic stimulus since the oil boom but failed to capitalize on it. Rebuilding the homes will stimulate the local economy by $350 million. The only thing standing in the way of that economic windfall is the city.

What are the lessons we learned from the Thomas Fire? Good question. Thirteen months later we still don’t know that answer. The city has yet to produce a report on its findings. [Read More]

January 2018

The Montecito mudslides closed off transportation into and out of Santa Barbara along the 101. Many Venturans that work in Santa Barbara were unable to commute.

March 2018

The City Council waffles on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding Thomas Fire victims’ homes, delaying the rebuilding process and adding costs for many. [Read More]

April 2018

Jamal Jackson slays Anthony Mele, Jr. on Ventura’s promenade. Once again, the city was thrust into the national news.

Ventura Police increased patrols along the promenade. The City Council approved funds to continue the patrols. Arrests increased after the incident.

Post-incident, the Police department reviewed its procedures. There have been changes to the security camera monitoring as a result. The review also concluded the call was not improperly prioritized when it came in two and a half hours before the murder.

Since May, the community has returned to business as usual. [Read More]

June 2018

Ventura Police officers sign a new contract with a 5% pay increase. The timing of the announcement was questionable, but the contract was a fair one. [Read More]

July 2018

The City Council instructs Ventura Water to focus on connecting to State Water over Direct Potable Reuse (DPR). DPR takes recycled wastewater and injects it back into the drinking supply.

The City Council approves a $600,000 per year “roving” fire engine and three paramedics over the objections of Interim City Manager Dan Paranick. Ventura Fire hired two of the three paramedics before the Council approved the funding. [Read More]

September 2018

Ventura Water hires eight new positions. The City Council approved the department’s budget that included these positions. Ventura Water based that budget on Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) projects being the city’s top priority. When the Council realigned Ventura Water’s priorities in July, the department didn’t adjust its manpower requirements.

October 2018

Ventura Water begins installing new digital water meters. It is a $9 million project that will take three years to complete. The new meters allow more precise leak protection. The new meters also measure water usage more precisely. You can expect your water bill to be more accurate, too.

November 2018

Ventura held its first City Council elections by voting district. Lorrie Brown (District 6), Jim Friedman (District 5), Erik Nasarenko (District 4) and Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) won. The candidates raised a record amount of money, despite campaigning in districts instead of citywide. The cost-per-vote skyrocketed to win a seat from $2.75 per vote in the last election with an open position to a record-high $26.42. [Read More]

City Council Election

December 2018

Alex McIntyre starts as City Manager. He replaces Mark Watkins who resigned in November 2017. The city had operated with an interim-City Manager since January 2018. McIntyre comes to Ventura from Menlo Park where he was City Manager for six years.

Ventura’s new City Councilmembers are sworn in. The Council has four female members: Lorrie Brown (District 6), Cheryl Heitmann (District 7), Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) and Christy Weir (District 2). Ventura has its first female-majority City Council in history. It’s also the most diverse set of Councilmembers the city has ever had.

Wish The Councilmembers Good Luck In 2019

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New construction after Thomas Fire

Ventura Has Opportunity To Improve After The Thomas Fire

Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council waffled on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding victims’ homes. Indecisiveness delayed the rebuilding process for many. Councilmembers exhibited big hearts and small brains settling on the new height ordinance. They attempted to please fire victims wanting to improve their homes. Doing so delayed rebuilding for everyone. It was clear that many of the burned houses would have to come up to existing building codes. Many of the homes were built decades ago when the codes weren’t as strict. Plus, setbacks from the street had also changed. For fire victims to rebuild their houses “as is” would cost more. The new home would have a different footprint on the lot and impede neighbors’ views.

What’s more, some homeowners wanted to change the design of their new home since they were rebuilding. To please those homeowners, the Council created exceptions. They decreed restoring a home could include as much as 10% increase in the size of the structure. While well-meaning, this decision meant every house was a custom-built home. The decision put added pressure on city staff when reviewing and approving plans. And it further delayed homeowners receiving building permits.

There was another consequence of the Council’s lack of urgency. Most homeowners’ insurance provides 18-24 months of living expenses while rebuilding. The Council’s delay will force rebuilding beyond 24 months for many homeowners. As a result, those homeowners will have an added financial burden. They will pay for temporary living expenses when their insurance runs out. Plus, they will also be paying their mortgage on a destroyed home.

Don’t Miss This Chance To Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council’s inaction delayed a significant economic stimulus for Ventura. It reinforced the perception that Ventura lacks urgency and is bureaucratic. Now, there is a new City Council. We hope they’ll look at this process with a fresh perspective. If they do, they’ll see the need for change. We want them to force the city staff to streamline and simplify the building and permitting process.