Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Transparency and Misleading About the Need

A key aspect of being fiscally responsible is knowing what the financial demands of the city actually are.  If we are not clear on what we need to spend, how can we prioritize our activities to make sure we are being as effective as possible with taxpayer dollars? 

The first time a 5 year projection was prepared was in June-2021.  This is what was shared with the Budget/Audit Committee:

This reflected a balanced budget in 2022, and deficits starting in 2023 of approximately $200K, worsening approximately $100K each year.  And while I raised the alarm bells, no significant discussion took place at Council during the rest of 2021.  If I controlled the agenda I would have included a discussion item each meeting so we would have sufficient time to validate the information, brainstorm, and discuss potential actions.  Unfortunately this did not happen.

The next projection we saw was presented at the 2.1.22 meeting:

Here, the projection had improved.  Deficits still started in 2023, however the amount was reduced to approximately $100K, still worsening approximately $100K/year for the following 5 years.

Staff also presented what they characterized as "unmet needs" though I call it a wishlist.  Things like bringing our City Engineer to an in house employee rather than a contractor (this request was set aside in the prior year due to increased cost including associated pension), an additional police lieutenant, making up shortfalls in special district funds, etc.   This wishlist projection was also presented at the 2.1.22 meeting:

Here deficits still began in 2023, but instead of the approximate $100K baseline, when including the wishlist items the projection showed an initial 2023 deficit ballooning north of $600K, with the projection still worsening approximately $100K/year.

After the 2.1.22 meeting, the Pioneer published yet another table illustrating the projection, however it's unclear where the information was obtained from since it did not match the tables shown at the previous meeting:

This table reflected figures about the same as the "wishlist" projection, but it appears the writer was in contact with someone from the city as each of the figures had been updated.  So why use the "wishlist" version and not the baseline amount?  It seems misleading about the actual need if discretionary spending gets included as a way inflate projected deficits.

And then there was the $30K survey that the Council decided to spend money on (I voted no).  In this survey, the first question about a parcel tax was this:

After already inflating the projected deficit, staff crafted survey questions to query the public, the first of which characterized the first option as an additional parcel tax of $400/parcel.  But with approximately 4400 residential parcels in Clayton, a $400 parcel tax would yield approximately $1.76M!

If we have a baseline deficit projected at approximately $100K, why would we survey residents regarding a $1.76 million dollar tax measure?  Working with the paper to inflate the need and then using $30K of taxpayer dollars to hire a polling firm to inflate the ask is not transparent and is highly misleading.

We do have fiscal challenges.  But we need leadership that will not accept information at face value, especially when it is clearly misleading.  We need leaders who won't look to raise taxes an exorbitant amount as a first option. And before we do anything else, we need to gain a better understanding of our fiscal picture so we have better information to act upon.  This will take more than attending meetings and pontificating at the lectern - it is going to take real nuts and bolts work to dig into what is actually happening and work through solutions that prioritize and support city services so we can preserve Clayton as a great place to live and raise a family.