Wednesday, May 4, 2022

5.3.22 Meeting Summary - Time and Money Squandered

Last night we received the results of the survey conducted for the purpose of determining potential support for a tax measure on the November ballot.  The results of the survey were absolutely predictable - people in Clayton are overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of life here, and simultaneously are not generally aware of the financial challenges the city currently faces, and if they learned about them they would be concerned about the impact.

The recommendations from the consultant that the city paid were also unsurprising: To not place a tax measure on the ballot right now, conduct public outreach to inform people of the current financial challenges the city faces, and target a tax increase for the November 2024 ballot.

Accordingly, the city will not be pursuing a tax measure during the November 2022 election.  And while I think this is the right outcome given the present circumstances, it's important to understand how we got here - squandering both time and money.

In July 2021, I wrote in detail regarding the financial position that the city was in.  I did this in hopes that we would spur conversation and discussion at the city.  Only through discussion could we hope to find solutions that would be sustainable, that we would be able to tap in to the approximate 80% of people that would be concerned should they actually learn about the financial challenges the city faces.  

But it wasn’t until late September 2021 that we actually discussed this issue again, and even then it was only to say that we were interested in having that discussion, and that we needed to outline overall timing if any solution were to include increased taxes.  The next time we would talk about this would be in February 2022.  Rather than use the nearly 8 months of time since I raised the issue to discuss potential solutions and engage in outreach with our residents - the most obvious thing the survey is actually recommending - the city took no meaningful action to address the financial challenges it faces.  

And when the issue was discussed more widely, the figures being used were inflated to make the situation appear more dire than they actually are.  The bulk of the deficits projected were for discretionary items.  It is certain there are challenges, just not necessarily to the degree as portrayed like was done in the recent Pioneer.  Do we need to find a way to fund our streetlights?  Yes.  Do we need to bring on additional employees and the associated cost of their pensions?  Maybe not.

It wasn't only outreach that was missing in the run up to the survey being conducted.  Consider that during our goal setting session in Mar-22, the first thing discussed was the goal of a potential tax.  Shouldn't the goal be to address the structural budget shortfalls rather than jump straight to a tax?  Myopically focusing on a tax neglects the potential to reduce spending, or to increase revenue via other sources.  We should be addressing the city's excessive use of consultants, the utilization of reserves for discretionary items,  potential reductions in expense and additional sources of revenue other than a parcel tax.  Unfortunately none of these things were done and we've squandered time that we could have been doing outreach, and squandered money for consultants to conduct a survey that gave us predictable results.

All of those things that should have been done already will have to be done now given the budget for the next fiscal year must be finalized shortly.  There has been some talk about using reserves to cover shortfalls.  Like raising taxes, spending down our savings to cover our day to day operations should be a last resort and I would hope that approach would not be suggested as the first option.