Thursday, January 26, 2012
Monday, June 27, 2011
Speech before the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association by
Stephanie Gomes, City Council Member, City of Vallejo
June 24, 2011
One main question I was asked in coming to speak today: is Chapter 9 (Municipal Bankruptcy) a “way out” from the financial crisis facing our cities and counties?
The short answer is: No.
Unfortunately, just like weight loss, no matter how much we desperately want one, there is no magic pill that will solve our financial problems. It’s a simple math problem: revenues in, expenditures out.
Many cities, counties, states and indeed our country have been living beyond our means for quite a few years, gorging on the money filling our coffers during the bubble, and committing those coffers to living off that same amount of excess in perpetuity. There’s one problem with that – the good times never last forever. But our leaders failed to account for that.
And the good times are gone. At least for the foreseeable future.
So that leaves cities and counties asking that million dollar question – how do we hit the “reset” button and make our budgets sustainable again? Many of us are getting deeper into the red, with sales taxes and property taxes on the continual down slide, unions are digging their heels in to more concessions, and the voters are loathe to agree to pay more taxes for increasingly fewer services.
So we’re back to that collective problem that cities and counties across the U.S. are experiencing: “revenues in, expenditures out”. The revenue side is a bit trickier given this Great Recession that we’re slogging through. Some agencies will try to ask the voters for more taxes. When the economy picks up again, we will all be focusing on economic development. That’s an “easier” side of the equation given the right conditions and good planning.
The tougher answer, and the one that got Vallejo into so much trouble, is reigning in the expenditures. Given that local government is labor intensive, our general fund budgets are consumed by salaries and benefits of the employees who provide vital city services. And in Vallejo our public safety employees were some of the highest paid in the Bay Area. So when we need to address budget deficits, we have to look to employee costs. Anything else is just kicking the can down the road.
Vallejo should serve as a cautionary tale not so much about bankruptcy, but of the real and painful repercussions of financial mismanagement, poor planning, and giving control of the purse strings to our public employee unions. Vallejo was indeed unique in almost every aspect. I doubt that many municipalities will face our perfect storm. But many will face several parts of it:
- Years of wage and benefit deferrals coming due
- Closure of MI Naval Base – huge loss of jobs/economic impact
- Employee union influenced City Council
- Crash of the housing market
- Crash in sales, property, transfer taxes
- Budgets based on rosy economic forecasts
- Revenue sources not identified for new expenditures
- Huge unfunded liabilities
I will state a disclaimer here before I go further and say that I do not believe the whole problem in Vallejo is our public employee unions. Management in Vallejo failed on many levels over a period of many years to get the city to the brink of bankruptcy. They failed to invest in good, smart economic development when the iron was hot. They agreed to the public safety union’s requests, didn’t cost them out, and left the results to future leaders.
But the public employee unions, especially our public safety unions, helped engineer this unsustainable system, with the compliance of weak leaders, and ultimately they could have saved Vallejo from filing bankruptcy. They could have made real, hard concessions on pay and benefits. They could have saved Vallejo millions in legal fees arguing whether the city was hiding money and indeed was bankrupt. But Vallejo was the epicenter of failing cities, and we were first. The public employee unions didn’t have a “Vallejo example” to urge them to cooperate and negotiate reductions that were distasteful but preferred over the bankruptcy experience.
The law of unintended consequences. Cities like San Jose and Stockton and Oakland are using Vallejo’s bankruptcy experience as a bargaining chip and extracting huge givebacks from their employees that were unthinkable three years ago.
So in the drunken halcyon days of the bubble, the public safety unions in Vallejo grew extremely powerful by putting their union dues into local elections and to buy favor with the city councils. (and if you don’t believe this happens, when I first ran for office in my endorsement interviews, the coalition of unions asked me point blank: “If we endorse you, will you stay bought? My answer was, “You couldn’t buy me in the first place, so how could I “stay” bought?”)
Before I was elected, the City finally hired a city manager who was tough and willing to demand changes from our public safety unions. Ultimately, he was sued by the IAFF 1186 President, along with two other council members, for defamation of character (that was a practice used or threatened against community members and council members before). This case was thrown out in court as a SLAPP suit (a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition (Wikipedia definition).) The legal fees for that SLAPP suit, for both sides, was approximately $140,000, and the IAFF 1186 President was ordered to pay it all. Amazingly, they turned around and tried to incorporate that $140,000 into their next round of contract negotiations, right after I was first elected. I said that I'd climb to the top of the tallest building and tell the entire city if they tried to fold these legal fees into any new fire contract. Ultimately, the members of IAFF 1186 were on the hook for the legal fees -- why they voted to cover this SLAPP suit is beyond me.
Soon thereafter, we hired one of the best city managers we've had, Joe Tanner (who is in this audience), who also had the courage to take on our powerful public safety unions and help us solve our crushing financial problems. He was beaten up in the local newspaper repeatedly, targeted by nasty union propaganda, and ultimately became a victim of the dark side of politics.
So back to when I was first elected in 2005. The City had a $3 million operating deficit. The previous City Councils had tried to balance the budget by “negotiating” increasingly lucrative contracts with the employees in exchange for raise deferrals and contract extensions. Raise deferrals given in prior years to balance deficit budgets were due in 2005 – something like eight percent raises. (We won’t even go into unfunded liabilities). Our employee contracts extended to 2012, we had minimum staffing on our fire trucks and a debated minimum-manning clause in the police contract. And we had binding arbitration in our City Charter. That all added up to the fact that any changes the City needed to make to cut back expenditures and balance the budget would need to be approved by the unions. If not, then by an arbitrator. The City Council’s hands were effectively tied. I knew then that we were headed for bankruptcy.
So, the unions negotiated with the city for a year, until the then city manager gave up and declared the negotiations a failure. I am proud to say that for the first time in years, the City Council (except two newly elected union-endorsed council members) refused the unions’ offers and decided to cut the fire truck staffing to achieve the cost savings we needed to stay solvent. The city stayed solvent -- barely. The unions arbitrated the decision. But we cut the truck staffing, eliminated all funding for community based organizations, stopped funding vehicle replacements and road repair and maintenance, and exhausted the rest of our meager reserves.
Enter 2008. The perfect storm. The City lost the fire truck arbitration (the arbitrator did not have to consider the financial implications of the decision), which immediately increased our deficit by several million dollars. Development revenues dropped off, housing started to decline. Employees near retirement or able to transfer saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship – taking a $4 million leave payout with them. The City tried to negotiate last minute concessions to stave off a bankruptcy filing. I was opposed to this agreement – it was business as usual. But the Council majority resolved all union grievances in return for some temporary labor concessions that lasted a couple of months and an agreement to “come to the table” again. That was a net loss.
So our General Fund was depleted. Our reserves were depleted. Labor concessions were expiring. We were flat broke. Our closed session meetings were brutal. Those Council members who didn’t want to recognize that bankruptcy was a foregone conclusion, spent hours picking through the numbers, desperately trying in vain to make things pencil out. Trade this for that, move this here, put that there. It didn’t work because of that very simple math problem: revenues in, expenditures out.
So on May 6, 2008, the City Council authorized a filing for bankruptcy. An agonizing, painful watershed moment. The council chambers were packed with union members, community members, media…and lawyers. It was a unanimous Council decision, which shocked the unions I think. Their council members had never voted against them before. But there’s a little part of the law that says that if an official uses restricted funds to balance the budget or allows employees to work with the foreknowledge that there was no money to pay for that work, the governing body would not have normal governmental immunity for official acts and they would not be protected from personal liability. I believe the prospect of landing in jail or losing one’s home was quite persuasive.
So what happened then? It became a nasty legal battle. The unions fought our declaration of insolvency – they said we were hiding money. They said we had tons of money in our water fund, our redevelopment fund, our transportation fund. Just use that. (That’s illegal, by the way).
Eventually, the City prevailed and the judge indeed said we were insolvent. It was a very hollow victory.
So the City created a “Pendency Plan” – essentially our operating plan during the bankruptcy proceedings. We were able to do things we couldn’t do without the protection of bankruptcy. We froze wages and benefits and implemented furloughs. In 2009 we cut our interest payments to the banks to equal what we were cutting our employees – for three months our payments to the banks were suspended to conserve cash. This pendency plan allowed us to continue to operate, to provide services to the public and keep the lights on at City Hall.
We negotiated with our creditors, including our employee unions and retirees. And right here lies the exact moment of Vallejo’s failure in bankruptcy.
In February 2009, the City Council majority (excluding myself and another council member) agreed to a new police contract. You’d think that if unsustainable salaries, benefits and pensions the largest part of your structural deficit, you’d target that if you absolutely, positively had to file for bankruptcy. Right? I mean, why go through the pain of bankruptcy if you’re just going to limp out with a continued structural deficit and the same contracts and with which you went into it?
For reasons I intellectually know, but still in my heart cannot fathom, this police contract didn’t cut wages. It didn’t cut pensions. It didn’t ask for employee contribution to medical. It guaranteed RAISES for the next two years. And it agreed to pay the Vallejo Police Officers Association legal fees if the City was forced to bring that contract back into bankruptcy. And if that wasn’t reason enough to reject it, our finance director said on that very night during that discussion that we were facing another $12 million deficit next year. But the Council majority approved it. This was a huge failure of political will.
That was the most painful moment of my entire Council career. I KNEW approving that contract was wrong. I KNEW we couldn’t afford it. But worst of all, I KNEW we had just failed bankruptcy. Because every employee union that came after that said, “Me too.” It failed to address our structural deficit at THE best time to do so. And it set up one employee group against another. It gave more to police and less to fire and even less to IBEW. It just wasn’t fair.
But eventually I had to set it down and move on. So we created a five-year plan that – at this point in time – is sustainable. We should be out of bankruptcy in July or August. But I have my worries. We haven’t addressed our structural deficit, our employee costs keep climbing while we have fewer and fewer of them to do the work. Our property taxes are down 24 percent since 2008. Our sales taxes are down 22 percent. And they’re still dropping. We’ve tried to be as conservative as we can with our economic forecasts. We’re planning for the worst, hoping for the best. At this point in our economic history, a stagnant budget is a good thing. Not up, but not down. Again, I won’t even go into our unfunded liability – that’s a whole separate discussion that threatens the very core of local governments.
One bright spot of our bankruptcy experience, though, was a shift in public opinion regarding our employee unions’ pay and benefits. Vallejo had binding arbitration in our City Charter – an arbitrator was the deciding official in employee wage/benefit disputes. The City tried to remove it from our charger a couple of times since the 1970s, and it failed. But this time we fought a difficult, bitter battle, with the unions spending ten times what the community spent. We raised $7,000 and hand made our signs in my backyard! But we won. Now, in 2012, when three of our four employee contracts expire, the elected officials of this city will decide on what pay and benefits the City can afford. That is a huge change.
Ok, so what’s the “good, bad and ugly” of bankruptcy?
- In the first two years of bankruptcy, the city was able to save $35 million just implementing the pendency plan. Granted, to date our legal fees are $11 million. But do the math – we saved $24 million.
- Abuse, undue influence, poor accounting practices – they were all revealed. Painful, but absolutely necessary for any chance of recovery.
- Political leaders are forced to show their cards – there is no hiding, no avoiding. Vote for the people, or vote for your campaign contributors.
- An opportunity to reorganize and restructure.
- A municipality can void unsustainable labor contracts, with the judge’s permission.
- $11 million in the pockets of very happy lawyers. Despite the $35 million in savings, I’d have rather spent that $11 million on attracting new businesses, fixing our streets, or hiring more police officers to patrol our neighborhoods.
- Bankruptcy hurts. It hurts your city’s image, it hurts the relationship between the community and our city employees, it destroys employee morale.
- Public employee union battles. Have you ever heard of the “Bloody their noses” doctrine? It's alive and well.
The City has done good things since 2009 to begin to rebuild our financial structure. We have adopted new “Rules to Live by” that may be common sense, but many municipalities haven’t been following them:
- Live within your means
- Look to your future
- Stop deferring expenses
- Fund retirement obligations
- Dedicate your surplus
- Set up a rainy-day fund
If we can follow these rules, Vallejo will indeed be on the road to recovery. Actually, when we were first going into bankruptcy, we saw that other cities were snickering at Vallejo, absolutely unaware that they would be facing similar challenges in just three years. Now, when Vallejo has done our hard work, we’ve got a semi-stable budget while cities all around us are in freefall.
If we have learned anything from Vallejo’s Chapter 9 experience is that filing for Chapter 9 should be an absolute, positive last resort. It is not an end to a means. It’s painful. It tears a community up. But I will say this: if given the same circumstances, I’d vote to file for bankruptcy again. We didn’t have a choice. And contrary to the media reports, Vallejo’s bankruptcy did not cause our decrease in police or fire services, our library cuts or our road maintenance deficits. Our financial mismanagement caused that long before that vote to file for bankruptcy. Those services were steadily decreasing as our deficits continued to increase. And the structure of that deficit was not addressed. It was just covered over with a band-aid year after year. And I understand why, to a certain extent – once you give something, it’s hard to take it back. And trying to take it back from powerful public safety unions is incredibly difficult, legally exhausting, financially crushing, and pretty much political career-ending. It takes courage of conviction, a very stubborn personality, and a very thick skin to try to right that ship.
I’ll close with this difficult conclusion. But I think this is a seminal issue all over this country, and I believe that it’s so bad that many of the traditional Democratic base of union supporters are starting to reach this very same conclusion -- unfortunately, long before our elected leaders are willing to admit it. But Vallejo’s experience ripped the cover off of the dirty little secret of how public employee unions can buy power and control over the very people who vote on their wages and benefits. Private sector employee unions cannot control who their bosses are. But public employee unions take their collective power and money to essentially control the hiring – and firing – of their bosses. This is a systemic problem that must be fixed or the system will ultimately fail.
And waiting for our elected leaders to make these changes will take a long, long time. Just look at the legislature’s response to Vallejo’s bankruptcy – to write a bill that requires municipalities to get permission of a union-majority committee to declare bankruptcy and remove employee contracts from bankruptcy proceedings if a declaration is made. What did Assembly member Noreen Evans and then Senator Pat Wiggins do when Vallejo was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy? They sent a letter chastising the city for considering bankruptcy and being so unfriendly to our employee unions. Did they talk to us to reach their conclusions? No, never.
So I am convinced that we taxpayers of California must demand these changes. We must join together, city-to-city, county-to-county, and raise our voices loud and strong demanding legislative solutions to these issues. There are no saviors – there is only us.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Most of us living in Vallejo know that the economy is hurting our neighborhoods and quality of life, as it is in so many cities across our nation. Property crimes are on the rise, along with graffiti, drug dealing and prostitution.
But it’s not all bad news. Vallejo citizens are standing up for our city and forming extremely successful neighborhood watch groups. Last year, Vallejo had ten neighborhood watch groups – today, we have 100 groups with over 1,500 active and involved neighbors.
The key is that neighborhoods with neighborhood watch groups are seeing a decrease in property crimes. In addition, neighbors who had never talked before are meeting and socializing and watching out for each other. We are building a new sense of community neighborhood by neighborhood.
I had an experience recently where I got an email from one of my neighbors who had seen a group of young teens hanging around in front of my house. A couple of them walked up to the front door and were knocking. She drove by the house, turned around, and drove by again, watching them. When they saw her drive by again, one of them said, “Let’s go!” and they all left. Neighborhood watch works.
Tonight Fighting Back Partnership hosted a citywide neighborhood watch meeting. Eighty-five people attended and watched in an excellent presentation on gang activity by Detectives Jason Potts and Fabio Rodriguez of the Vallejo Police Department.
They detailed in a PowerPoint presentation the main gangs operating in Vallejo, provided a bit of their history, what they look like (tattoos, gang tags, signs, colors they wear), and a bit on how and why they operate. They showed us what the various graffiti tags meant and what the tags are communicating all over our city. Just through graffiti tagging, the gangs are communicating specific messages with themselves and other gangs.
I paint out graffiti once a month along with twenty or so dedicated volunteers, Fighting Back and the City, and we have painted out many of these gang tags that I saw on the PowerPoint. It’s chilling to realize the messages behind what we paint out every month, and illustrated the importance of cutting off this illegal form of gang communication.
According to Detective Potts, the gangs’ main currency is fear and respect – they do things to gain the respect of their fellow gang members, and they do things to instill fear in a community and in other gangs. The more fear they instill, the more respect they get and the more they profit from their illegal activities.
The key to fighting crime in our neighborhoods, Detective Potts said, is for neighbors to join together and not be fearful. When we see something happen, call the Police Department. If things are happening in your neighborhood on a continual basis, keep calling. Again and again if you have to. They are getting the messages and are addressing them as soon as they can. As Detective Potts said, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. One resident told her story of working with the PD to get squatters and drug dealers out of an abandoned home on her street. Granted, she had to be that squeaky wheel and kept calling continuously until she got their attention. But her persistence and making her presence known to the squatters paid off, and the squatters are gone. So if you see criminal activity in your neighborhood and it is a non-emergency, call and report it at 707/644-STOP (7867). Of course, if it’s an emergency, call 9-1-1.
Finally, Fighting Back announced tonight that they’re working on a new anti-prostitution program using the neighborhood watch program in collaboration with other non-profit organizations and the Solano County Probation Department. The idea will be to have neighborhood watch members wearing identifiable t-shirts forming a preventative presence on the street. The prostitutes don’t want to operate in areas where they’re being watched, so the idea is to make Vallejo an unwelcome place for prostitutes and the Johns that prey on them.
Several members of the community spoke passionately about getting involved in Vallejo and taking a stand against gangs and taking back their neighborhoods. It was inspiring and energizing and reaffirming – Vallejo is a wonderful city, and we the people of Vallejo love our city, and we won’t back down to criminals.
For more information on the Neighborhood Watch, Anti-Prostitution or Vallejo Anti-Graffiti Program, call Fighting Back Partnership at 707/648-5230. We paint out graffiti the third Saturday of every month – come join us, we have a lot of fun!
Thursday, February 04, 2010
Along with many people this week, I watched in horror as the brutal attack of Harold Cabral, one of our City of Vallejo public works employees, unfolded on video clips released by the Vallejo Police Department. It was sickening to watch and horrifying to see that people – especially kids – could act with such callous, senseless brutality. It’s just haunting.
My heart goes out to Mr. Cabral and his family, and I wish him a speedy recovery. I’m happy to see employee groups, other organizations and individuals coming together to donate money towards the reward fund to find and prosecute the perpetrators of this terrible crime. I know some of my fellow councilmembers feel the same, and we will be contributing to this fund ourselves. I sincerely hope that every single person who participated in this cruel attack is punished to the fullest extent of the law.
I know that I’m not the only one who is shocked, outraged and disappointed by this violence. People need to express these feelings, and I’m getting a lot of emails and phone calls from people doing just that. I’ve done the same. But I do hope that we can move those feelings into an acknowledgement of our problems, and an active generation of ideas on how to address them.
Unfortunately, I’m also seeing a lot of finger pointing: not enough police officers, too high of employee salaries, poor city management, bad police department management, absent parents/single parents, a deteriorating school system, a poor economy, bankruptcy, poverty, racism, hatred and anger.
We’ve got to stop the finger pointing. We’ve got to come together as a community to stop this kind of violence. We need to give our kids something to do after school and during the summer. We need to help teach them respect for people and life. Our children are missing a very large part of their “citizenship education” as they’re growing up. Whatever the cause – be it poverty, reduced educational opportunities, less parental participation – this is our problem. Vallejo’s problem. Society’s problem.
I’d like to bring together a small group of community and business leaders to create an action plan on how we as a community can start to address the issues of youth violence and personal responsibility. We need to begin a dialogue with our youth – and not just the kids who are already tuned in, but kids who are tuned out, too. We need to create a city youth commission, to give kids a say in what happens in their city government and their community. And we need the Police Chief to give this community some creative solutions on how the Police Department can help us address some of Vallejo’s most pressing crime problems using the resources that we have.
The time for excuses is over. Let’s get to work.
If you have any constructive ideas, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information on this crime can be provided to the Vallejo Police Department at (800) 488-9383, 24 hours a day. Also, the Solano Crime Stoppers™ tip line (644-STOP) is a anonymous tip line that offers cash rewards for phone tips that solve violent and/or serious crimes committed in the greater Vallejo area.
If you want to contribute to the reward being offered to anyone providing information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators of this crime, contact Sergeant Kevin Bartlett at 707/651-7145.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
A Time for Me to Pause
I always loved Patrick Swayze’s movies (well, most of them!). But most of all, I admired the way he walked through the world – with grace and dignity and kindness. Not surprisingly, he left the world this week in exactly the same way in which he lived.
His death has hit me hard, though. I think it’s because I’ve always felt this connection to him because he made me laugh and feel good at a very dark time in my life. The year Dirty Dancing was released in the theaters, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was 20 years old. He was diagnosed in August, 1997, and passed away before Christmas. It was a swift and very painful death.
His quick decline was terrifying, and I was angry at his pain and lost as to how to handle everything. One night I went to the movies to get away and saw Dirty Dancing. I was transported into a different world, a more simple world that still held hope and happiness and possibilities. I was always grateful to Patrick Swayze for giving me that. Every time I see the movie, I feel as if I’m that 20-year-old again, gulping in the laughter and the joy the movie brought out in me.
I see a sad irony in that Patrick Swayze died of the same disease as my father, 22 years later. It makes me angry all over again – angry at this brutal disease that slips in unannounced and takes over before most people even know its there.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. There are no early detection tools, few treatment options, and no cure. Sadly, we haven’t come very far in the 22 years since my father passed away.
Many people know that I’m active in my local community, as well as with local and national animal rescue organizations. I have donated money to cancer research, but I haven’t been active in that arena. It still feels too raw and painful. But the time for ignoring it is over for me. I am asking Congress to make pancreatic cancer a priority and support the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act, (HR745). (For more information: http://capwiz.com/pancan/issues/alert/?alertid=12538906).
In January, Patrick Swayze told Barbara Walters, “I want to last until they find a cure, which means I'd better get a fire under it.”
Please join me in the effort to “light a fire under it” to honor the memory of Patrick Swayze and people like my father who have gone before him – as well as all those, like Vallejo’s own Dan Donahue, who “want to last” until a cure is found.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
I’m running for re-election to the Vallejo City Council! I did a lot of soul-searching, talking to my family and my close friends before making this decision. But ultimately, it came down to the fact that I couldn't not run again. A double negative, I know. But I think it best describes the fact that quitting simply isn't an option.
Looking back on the past four years, I’m proud that I've kept my promises of not being beholden to special interests, and bringing truth and transparency into how our government works. I have proven that I can stand up for what is right, not what is necessarily easy. And I have demonstrated that I take my responsibility seriously, I study all sides of the issues, and I do my homework.
I know we can shape Vallejo’s future and get what we all want – clean and well maintained streets, money for after school programs, community events, and senior centers, a fully funded police force and fire houses, quality shopping that keeps our dollars in Vallejo and brings dollars in from other cities.
But to make this happen, we must continue to confront our financial demons, past mistakes and years of, “We've always done it this way.” We must spend within our means, and make that spending based on hard reality and financially sound budget projections. We also must be ready and at the forefront when the national and state financial recovery begins, so we can attract high-quality businesses and clean, living-wage, jobs-producing industries to Vallejo.
It hasn't been easy. It won’t be easy. But lasting change never is. With your support, I look forward to making this change happen together.
Monday, May 04, 2009
After driving by the forlorn-looking Casa de Vallejo the other day, I asked the City Manager for an update on its renovation following last year's fire:
Jules Arthur, Chief Operating Officer of the Amerland Group (the owners of the Casa de Vallejo), provided an update on the status of the project. The actual work on the structure has not begun yet because of the time involved in plan preparation, as well as the delay in approval of payments from the insurance company and lenders. Ameriland indicated that they received bids for work on the lower portion of Casa de Vallejo, and a contractor will be chosen within the next couple of weeks. They project it will be ready for occupancy by late summer. The tower portion of the building received extensive fire damage. Ameriland projects that the tower portion will be ready for occupancy sometime in 2010. Mr. Arthur has committed to provide staff with bi-monthly updates as the work progresses, which I'll post here.
I'd like to see the plans for the renovation, and expect that the historic integrity of the Casa de Vallejo will be maintained.
Monday, April 13, 2009
SB 250 is a bill authored by Sen. Majority Leader Dean Florez that would require Californians to spay and neuter their pets -- or if they choose not to, they'll be required to get a license. Vallejo took in over 4,000 lost and abandoned animals last year. Only 1,000 of them went into homes. The money we spend on sheltering and euthanasia could definitely be better spent in our community. Please help support this bill. Our pets and our taxpayer dollars depend on it.
The first vote on SB 250 The Pet Responsibility Act is this Wednesday, April 15 at 11:00 a.m. in the Senate Local Government Committee. Before Wednesday morning, please call the five committee members and ask them to support SB 250. If you can only make one call, please call the Chair, Senator Patricia Wiggins.
Senator Patricia Wiggins (Chair)
Senator Dave Cox (Vice-Chair)
Senator Samuel Aanestad
Senator Christine Kehoe
Senator Lois Wolk
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Disincorporation was mentioned briefly at a recent Council meeting. I believe it was put out there more to illustrate how truly serious our budget deficit is right now, than something that is currently being considered.
I'm just one of seven Council members, but to me, disincorporation is not an option. Vallejo has too rich a history and too many people who love her to ultimately cede to the County. Last year, bankruptcy was our last and only option to get our fiscal house in order. We need to make that work and get out of it so we as a city can start healing.
We have to work together to fix our structural budget deficit and get out of bankruptcy -- the Council, city employees, Vallejo businesses, and Vallejo residents. But before we do that, we have to balance our budget by July 1, and we have a $9 million deficit. We can't keep cutting services to the public to balance the budget. I don't want to lose more police officers or close more fire stations -- we must start cutting our expenditures. We need our employees to take a one-year pay cut, five to 10 percent depending on salary levels. This must be top to bottom. And every employee should pay 25 percent of their health care costs. That's a start that would get us near our goal of a balanced budget on July 1, 2009.
That would give us breathing room to resume discussions on how to take the next step, which is solving the structural deficit and getting out of bankruptcy.
We'll be talking about the budget again at next week's Council meeting. I certainly hope that everybody is thinking about how they can contribute to Vallejo's recovery. Ideas are definitely welcome, so please e-mail me any suggestions you may have.
- The Fire Department has been meeting with Solano County City Managers and Fire Chiefs regarding preparation of private-public partnership proposals for the Solano County Ambulance Contract.
- The City Manager has been working with the grant writer to prepare the Fire Department State Stimulus Funding Request.
- The visioning process for the proposed development of the 152-acre Solano County Fairgrounds site began with the first community workshop in March. The next community workshop is scheduled for April 8 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first floor of the County Building in Fairfield. There will be one more community workshop in Vallejo (date/time/location TBA). Brooks Street was hired by the County to lead the visioning process.
- After approving a Use Permit for a bed and breakfast on Mare Island across from Chapel Park, the Planning Commission has requested to review the Use Permit standards for future bed and breakfast establishments.
- Staff is reviewing plan revisions for proposed commercial development at the former Pontiac/Cadillac site located at Sonoma Blvd. and Yolano Drive, as well as a retail commercial center at Broadway and Mini Drive.
- The Code Enforcement Division is preparing to conduct citywide proactive vacant property inspections in anticipation of the amended Vacant Building Ordinance.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
I got a phone call from a very nice woman the other day. She’d watched the Council meeting and was concerned that I was showing my anger. She supports me and what I’m doing, voted for me, and really was concerned and wanted me to do well. I thanked her for her comments and really appreciated her taking the time to call and talk to me about it. I’ve found that in politics there are all kinds of criticism, but not often constructive criticism. I appreciate the meaning behind it.
I also looked into myself to do a gut check. I’m a very passionate person, always have been. I think passion is what drives me to keep working hard, keep trying, keep fighting. I know very well that this can be positive and negative, depending on timing, location and control.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at channeling my anger, not letting it overwhelm or become destructive or hurtful to others. I say I’ve gotten better, but not perfect! Amongst my siblings, we all argue who got my father’s Portuguese temper, and it’s probably a tie with me and my brother. He hides it better now though.
Am I showing my anger right now? Definitely. Because I am angry. I’m angry that the Council majority wasted the opportunity that bankruptcy provided us to fix our structural deficit, to get our employee salaries and benefits in line with what this city can afford to pay. I’m angry that the Council majority knew about the $13 million deficit in January when they voted to approve the police and CAMP contracts, giving police free health care and guaranteed raises – and tying our hands from making changes in the future. I’m angry that the Council majority is firing our city manager in the middle of all this mess, leaving us without a management leader, solid experience, or critical financial acumen. I’m angry that I had look into the faces of so many children at the Council meeting last Tuesday as they pleaded with us to save their swimming pool. I’m angry that the national and state economy is hitting us at a time when we are already down, when we can least weather the blows. I’m angry that we’re having to fight our employees in bankruptcy court, to spend money fighting an appeal on whether we are insolvent all the while we sink further and further into deficit. I’m angry that we even had to hear the word “unincorporate” in relation to our future.
I’m angry and frustrated because I want to help fix Vallejo’s problems, but have had to watch a Council majority make decision after decision that takes us further into dangerous waters, sinks us further into the hole.
Should I not show that anger? I don’t think so. I think the residents of Vallejo are angry, too. I think we have to be as honest as possible about what got us here and how we can recover. I think we have to be honest about how we feel about the decisions being made. I think we have to face up to the facts and make extremely difficult and painful choices.
I am angry. Now let’s get on with the tough choices so we can move beyond anger and on to recovery. As President Obama said in his interview with Steve Kroft in response to the citizens' rage over the AIG executive bonuses, "We don't govern in anger."
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
- Vallejo is scheduled to receive $12,273,000 in Economic Stimulus funding. $2,520,000 will be spent on the downtown streetscape, and Sereno Drive and Tennessee Street overlay projects. Transportation projects totaling $9,753,790 will include preventitive maintenance, Ferry Terminal Improvments, the bus maintenance facility, ferry engine repower and Vallejo Station bus transfer center.
- The budget approved by the State of California has eliminated the State Transit Assistance Program until Fiscal Year 2012. This means that Vallejo Transit will lose approximately 15-16 percent of its operating budget, or $1.4 million each year until the program is reinstituted. Economic Stimulus funds will be used for the next two years to help offset this loss. It's obvious that Vallejo's transit system cannot support itself through the farebox alone.
- A recent audit identified approximately $2 million in unpaid parking citations in Vallejo. The Police Department will be identifying major violators and attempt to locate and impound their vehicles. Under the current system, non-payment of parking penalties is reported to the CA Deparment of Motor Vehicles for collection when registration fees are paid. If the violator does not register the vehicle, no further collection efforts are made.
Monday, February 09, 2009
Recently, Tesla Motors announced that they will not locate its head office and manufacturing plant in San Jose. Tesla was not able to raise the $100 million in venture capital funding it had counted on to finance the facility, and has now has applied for $400 million in two federal, low-interest loans through the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program. This federal loan program favors brownfield sites on which closed factories or plants need to be rehabilitated. Sounds like a perfect fit for Mare Island.
Lennar Mare Island (LMI) has been competing to bring Tesla Motors to Mare Island since 2006. Tesla representatives have toured Mare Island and are very familiar with it. Tesla is looking for existing structures totaling 500,000 square feet. LMI is currently preparing a revised summary of available manufacturing and office buildings to send to Tesla. The short-term goal is to have Tesla take another tour of Mare Island. They apparently will select a new site within a few weeks.
Timeline of Tesla Contacts
Tesla finalized its plans to build electric cars. Their search for a manufacturing location included several California locations as well as New Mexico. In August, LMI organized a Tesla visit to Mare Island. LMI and the City discussed possible locations and incentives, and prepared and submitted a site plan.
Tesla announced plans to site their $35 million manufacturing plant in New Mexico.
Tesla cancelled their New Mexico plans. Factors included the long distance from research and development and engineering teams located in the Bay Area, as well as the desire to qualify for California's Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority program worth approximately $1 million to Tesla. LMI renewed their dialogue with Tesla, and the City sent a letter of support. In September, Tesla announced that they selected the San Jose site.
In January, Tesla announced that the San Jose site was no longer feasible given current economic conditions and poor venture capital environment. They also announced that they are seeking a brownfield site so they can qualify for alternative funding sources. LMI has renewed contact with Tesla again. Their brownfield concept is not well defined yet, but it is required for alternative funding sources. Tesla has indicated that if they cannot find an ideal solution, they will expand their search into Southern California as well as other states.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
$700,000 Fee Giveaway to Northgate Developer
At the Council's last meeting, the Council majority (5-2, with Joanne and I dissenting) granted the developer's request to amend the Northgate specific plan and allow the senior housing project to be downgraded to generic multi-family housing. In addition to losing more senior housing, by agreeing to this request the City was prevented from being able to collect an additional $700,000 in additional fees. This will be the final reading of the ordinance.
Negotiated Settlement with Vallejo Police Officer's Association
I wish the VPOA would have agreed to this deal two years ago, even one year ago. As it stands now, though, it's simply not enough. I won't go into all of the details of the settlement now, that will come on Tuesday, but I will say that I have four key issues with this agreement:
- It does not require VPOA to pay a portion of their health care premiums. Every employee in the city, including the City Council, should pay 25 percent of their premiums. And by giving VPOA a free health care ride, that sets up the other employees to ask for the same benefit. Which the City simply can't afford. But it wouldn't be fair to ask IBEW, CAMP and IAFF to pay a portion of their health care, but not VPOA. We should not have different classes of employees.
- Guaranteed raises. This recession, optimistically, will last at least another two years. How can we guarantee raises when we don't know where we'll be at financially next year or the year after? The State will be taking more city funds back, giving IOUs, cutting programs. Our big development projects that we're counting on to bring in new revenues won't come on board for at least two to five years. It looks like we might get Stimulus monies from Congress, but that won't be enough. How can we promise raises when our revenues will at best remain flat, more likely go down further? That is simply irresponsible. We should agree to consider cost of living raises every year, but it would have to depend on our ability to pay.
- Agreeing to pay VPOA attorney fees if the City can't meet the promises in this agreement. That is simply unacceptable. As a member of this City Council, it is my job to look out for the best interests of this City and make sure we are protected. Agreeing to this would be an abdication of that responsibility. Who knows what is going to happen in the next two years? Giving VPOA insurance against future economic downturns is nice for VPOA, bad for Vallejo taxpayers.
- A piecemeal process. Again. Until we know what the other employee groups will agree to, we should not be signing any agreement. What happens if IAFF works the political system in Sacramento and legislatively prevents the City from cutting their wages or benefits (don't think they're not trying to do this). With the VPOA contract signed and IAFF wages and benefits untouchable, that would again lock up 75 percent of our general fund. With the economy getting worse and not better, where will our cuts come from? Not VPOA, unless we want to pay their legal fees when they challenge us. Not IAFF, if they get their backdoor way. We'll be in the same boat we were in before BK, but worse. Cuts will have to come from city services and non-PSU personnel. Agreeing to this now will tie our hands in the future. Business as usual.