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Letter to the Editor: A Council Out of Touch

Walnut Creek needs to be honest about its financial mess.

By Justin Wedel

It is said that if you repeat a lie many times, people are bound to start believing it. While I venture to guess that most of us do not subscribe to this adage, our City Council surely does. This is no more obvious than the council’s continued drum beating that they did not cause the city’s financial mess and that the city’s finances have in fact been managed conservatively.

The continuation of their lie is the Blue Ribbon Task Force on “Fiscal Heath.” From the start, the council’s goal of this farce has been clear: raising your taxes to cover their mistakes and to continue the council’s out-of-control spending addiction.

The dedicated Task Force members, who are to be applauded, utilized the past two meetings to review the group’s preliminary findings and recommendations. While the Task Force has proposed some recommendations that have the potential to improve the city’s long-term financial situation, their preliminary report does not include any findings on the council’s mistakes – a necessary step to prevent the city from repeating the financial mistakes from the past decade – nor are there any recommendations on how or where to make cuts.
 
The Task Force’s results should not come as a shock to anyone. The council purposely limited the group’s scope to obtain the results — and political cover — they need to raise your taxes while lying to the community about what the Task Force was asked to accomplish. Rather than doing what is best for the community the council prefers to continue their Rovian ways in hopes of covering up the truth that they are responsible for our poor financial health.
 
As our council-driven financial mess continues to cause issues in our community and if they embark on a path to raise our taxes, you will hear the council claim that they are not to be blamed. Some of their statements will be true — the poor economy has negatively impacted the city’s finances but it has not caused the financial mess, as the council will, and has, claimed — yet most will be political rhetoric. Do not be fooled. This mess has been caused directly by the council’s financial ineptitude and their inability to implement long-term financial leadership.
 
Here are the inescapable facts:

  1. Under their leadership our per-capita general fund spending is almost TWICE as much as compared to any municipality around Walnut Creek – almost $1,000 for every man, woman and child in Walnut Creek.
  2. The City Council still does not have an official long-term financial plan in place – no wonder we are in this financial mess.
  3. General fund revenue has decreased only $4M from its high, yet the city was forced to close a shortfall of more than $20M in 2010.
  4. General fund revenue grew only 12 percent (18 percent at the peak) in the last decade yet general fund expenses exploded by 67 percent. We would have run into our current problems independent of the macroeconomic situation.
  5. By 2012, our reserves are projected to have declined by almost 75 percent. We will continue to deplete reserves to balance our budget until at least 2012.
  6. Employment costs, driven and approved by the council, have placed a huge burden on our budget, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
  7. Our public infrastructure (roads, building, pools, etc.) is crumbling and our council has failed to save for its replacement.

Now, more than ever, our city leadership requires openness, honesty and ownership of their actions. This is the type of leadership that we, the people, require, deserve and is sorely missing.

Justin Wedel is a Walnut Creek resident, businessman and 2010 council candidate.

obiwan September 13, 2011 at 03:28 AM
I wish that we could hear a response from our City Council on Justin’s points. Do they dispute the numbers? Since we are a business and retail center, not to mention a regional magnet for weekend drunks, I can understand why some public service expenses might be higher per capita than for a neighboring bedroom community. But what is their explanation for the wide divergence between revenue growth and expenses? If revenue dropped only $4M, how did we end up $20M in the hole? If no one from the Council will join this conversation, perhaps our Patch editor can seek them out for a comment.
SR September 13, 2011 at 04:19 AM
While Mr. Wedel makes some good points he forgets that Ms. Lawson just arrived at the party. Mr. Rajan and Mr. Simmons are also relative newcomers in Walnut Creek terms. They can hardly be blamed at the same level as other past and present members. Not to mention, the problem isn't as complicated as he makes it sound. It's not employee costs that are the main problem. We put every cent of discretionary spending into the library for many years. We also spend more money on arts and rec. than every city in central Contra Costa County combined-to this day! This is 21% of the total general fund. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out we aren't going to have the money left to buy everything for everyone.
michael frederick September 13, 2011 at 06:31 PM
SR, Actually, Lawson, Rajan, and Simmons can be held accountable and should be. There's an old western adage that's applicable: You hang with those you ride with. There is a legal term describing this: Abetting. When Gwen Regalia left office, her parting shot was to "maintain Council unity." What is that? That's five people conspiring against rational thought, facts, open process, public will ... for mutual personal benefit over service to the Walnut Creek community that elected them. That's how the stupid stuff just keeps on giving -- it's not about individuals and their misguided spending priorities, as you suggest; it is about a rancid system of government that prioritizes elected officials over those they claim to serve. Their code of conduct is for four of them to mindlessly endorse whatever the fifth dingbat, as Mayor, puts forward. When the Mayor announced her Blue Ribbon panel, how many of her four teammates rose, on behalf of WALNUT CREEK, to suggest maybe spending should be on the table? The answer: ZERO. They are either too stupid to serve or too compliant -- either way, they aren't serving. I'm hopeful the three you mention will be more politically astute than their predecessors and will grow, aided by the fact City Hall no longer controls dissemination of public information. However, they all do still participate under this cloud of "Council unity." Council allegiance needs to be to WC, not der fuhrer. Ditto commissioners and staff.
wc94596 September 15, 2011 at 10:43 PM
Wedel, and his buddies in the POA, have zero room to talk about fiscal mismanagement. Only 3 new councillors in 2012 who promise to tackle the key issues of inept, overpaid, underworked city employees with benefits way out of line with the private sector can bring us financial stability. Its time to sub contract all city jobs.
One more time with feeling September 16, 2011 at 10:23 AM
SR, You do know that Ms Lawson works for Miller Starr Regalia... right? http://www.walnut-creek.org/citygov/city_council/kristina_lawson.asp Perhaps new to the City Council - certainly not "new to the party". I *think* we ended up $20 million in the hole because of the multiple years of accruals for the library project and Walnut Creek uses a 2 year budget cycle (with semi-annual reviews for "course correction" opportunities). It is difficult to know where money really is since Library Project Manager Tinfow regularly "finds" funds. Most recently she found *over* $120,000 unspent in the library construction budget of a project that had been announced as completed a year ago - $120k is building out the library coffee shop and the (unspecified) balance is - a year after the project completed - FINALLY going back into the General Fund. http://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_18561366 Apparently, "on time" is synonymous with "still work to be finished even after the library opened" for the Contra Costa County Library downtown Walnut Creek branch supporters' mantra. Mr. Frederick, To your points - perhaps this is why the Alcoholic Task Force and Parking Task Force "recommendations" have either never been made (after over a year of meetings and discussions) or little has changed. Mr Wedel, Thank you for continuing to share this information.
SR September 16, 2011 at 04:26 PM
Wc94596, what's a "councillors"? Is that like a City Council person in Mexico? The Police may have endorsed Mr. Wedel in the last election but I doubt very much we will see a repeat of that. Maybe I'm wrong but there may be other good candidates in the wind. Things can change in two years. Omtwf, I agree with you 100%. My only point is that I will judge each council member on their actions, not where they work. Since the last election I have heard some encouraging words from Ms. Lawson and even Mr. Rajan about not spending money on new projects until we know where the money will come from. They seem to have learned something from the library debacle. Time will tell.....
michael frederick September 16, 2011 at 07:50 PM
SR, I agree with you that Lawson, Rajan, and Simmons have tried to swim upstream a number of times, in a break with recent past. Skrel courageously opposed the library avalanche ... got slapped around and fell back in line, big time. Once and awhile, there is a glimmer of hope and that seed needs to get watered. I'm as hopeful as you but, just want to point-out that the institutional infrastructure downtown strongly discourages independent thought and action. Instead of five (independent) intelligent reps weighing-in, we see a blob of five that is much less intelligent collectively than any of its components: What's the opposite of synergy? Personal allegiances are prioritized over public -- Council "unity" ahead of Walnut Creek service or rational thought. OMTWF, it is safe to say that Council's lack of focus on what is good for Walnut Creek (as opposed to themselves and sponsors) is THE major problem -- whether we're talking about a task force, Blue Ribbon panels, embarrassing governance no one wants to identify with, unifying schools, cleaning-up city limit lines, or any other order of business that SHOULD be WC's major focus yet often gets ignored to serve PERSONAL political whim. Briefly, this is why I get involved. I'm not against anyone personally -- I don't think enough of them to care... I would like to see a City Hall that again works for WALNUT CREEK -- not just individuals and organizations who pretend to care about it as a political device.
obiwan September 16, 2011 at 10:46 PM
Not that is necessarily means anything, but Ms. Lawson left Miller Starr and Regalia and now works for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in San Francisco. (Some of us think it would be wonderful if the move signifies a declaration of independence from the old guard Regalia/Abrams/Chamber or Commerce cabal that has ruined the character of our town with unbridled commercialism and urbanization - but we'll just have to see about that.)
obiwan September 19, 2011 at 09:33 PM
I wanted to share with other Patch readers some comments I received from a representative of the City on a few of Justin’s points. Some day, maybe the City will choose to participate directly in these discussions … 1- Per-capita spending: In considering these types of figures, it is important to look at all of the details to determine whether these comparisons are apples to apples. Per capita spending ignores that Walnut Creek has long been a net importer of sales tax from outside the City (other city's residents contribute to our tax base), which of course then translates to higher spending per Walnut Creek resident. 2- Long-term financial plan: The City is in the process of updating the LTFP now, and has been looking carefully at long term scenarios for several years. In fact, back in the 2006-2008 budget cycle, changes were expected in revenues, and actions were clearly taking place in the 08-10 budget cycle to address the identified problems. 3- Budget shortfall: Revenue was off the high by more like $6M, but it is true that expenditures (projected) were a bigger driver in the $20 million hit. Sales tax has taken the biggest hit in our revenues, property taxes much less so. The City also had to lower its projections of what development and other fees can be expected in a down economy. 4- General fund expenses: Pension and health care costs have outpaced revenue growth and structural changes are being implemented to make sure both more closely align (see #6).
obiwan September 19, 2011 at 09:34 PM
Continued ... I wanted to share with other Patch readers some comments I received from a representative of the City on a few of Justin’s points. Some day, maybe the City will choose to participate directly in these discussions … 5- Declining Reserves: Overall, our total City reserves of about $75 million are at the same level they were ten years ago. Reserves rose in the last decade as funds were set aside and used for key projects, such as the Library. 6- Employment costs: It is true that employment costs are a significant component of the budget. As you can note from the recent (August 6) actions, many employees now pay the full share of their pension costs, and the City has a new miscellaneous pension tier for new hires. 7- Crumbling infrastructure: The City’s infrastructure is aging, but it looks quite good by comparison to other communities. While no City in California has set aside funds to pay for their entire infrastructure replacement needs, the City is working toward a capital investment program that will ensure the sustainability of our community.
Paula Miller September 19, 2011 at 09:54 PM
Obiwan, You are correct and right on when you say that it would be great if the City chose to participate directly in these discussions. We all know that this will never happen because it is very difficult and dangerous to write 'double-speak' (aka BS) as no one in city hall wants to have the finger pointed at them or be quoted directly. It continues to be a game of "smoke and mirrors" and/or "which shell is the pea under" when it comes to the true financial situation of Walnut Creek. Damn, they are good!
michael frederick September 20, 2011 at 10:22 AM
Obiwan, This source thought enough of Justin's points to want to respond to them, ad nauseum -- just not publicly? Is this some goof-ball grass-roots movement downtown masquerading as a city? Such "City" representatives can't communicate, unless it's privately over wine and cheese? If this person has such an interest, why can't they respond directly on Patch? Is being forthright with the public something City Hall discourages with its associates? In any case, I know your source is badly mistaken. For instance, our Mayor assured the public during the last election that the "PER CAPITA" policing needs of a destination city at the intersection of two freeways (Walnut Creek) are the same as those for a city at the end of a cul de sac (Antioch). Not one COUNCIL member, COUNCIL-appointed Commissioner, or COUNCIL-reporting Staffer took public exception so, I know this to be the case: NOT ONE. Either our needs, as a destination at the intersection of two freeways, are higher or lower. They can't be both, just to suit Council's immediate political need. They can't be both because that would be a City Hall that just serves Council, NOT WALNUT CREEK.
publius February 09, 2012 at 01:57 AM
The ignorance exhibited on this blog of both the workings of city goverments in general and Walnut Creek in particular is astounding. City staff don't work for the people of Walnut Creek, they work for the City Manager who, just like the CEO of any other corporation, works at the pleasure of a board of directors, in this case the city council. Just as a corporate board is answerable to the stockholders, the council is answerable to the "stockholders" of Walnut Creek, its residents. If you don't like the way the corporation operates, run for council. I think what you will find however, that bitching, moaning, an inability to work with others, and the imputing of evil intent to anyone connected with the city is not an effective means of keeping the parks clean, the streets paved, and high-quality police on the streets. Walnut Creek is consistently rated as one of the top places in the country to live because it has had a continuity of leadership on the council and high-caliber--and consequently well-paid--staff. It doesn't take much to turn that around however. Get a few crazies on the council and it all goes to hell: the best city staff will move on to less disfuctional locales, business will look elsewhere for siting their new ventures, and shoppers will take their dollars elsewhere. Maybe that would make you happier, a town more like our neighbor to the north, Vallejo. You should be more appreciative of what you've got. Many people would be happy to trade places with you.
michael frederick February 09, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Publius, You are correct -- many cities would "trade places." Unfortunately, that has much more to do with geography -- intersection of two freeways and two BART stations -- than it does with the leadership and compensation advocacy you promote. My sense, as someone who has been directly involved with commercial property downtown for ~35 years, is that absent ANY city government -- BUSINESS would still prioritize locating at the intersection of two freeways over an industrial port location, like Vallejo. The demographic profile ($$$) of the communities around WC vs. Vallejo are also an obviously critical component. WC sits where it sits -- arguments that necessitate physically moving it are seriously flawed. Does your leadership and high-paid staff play in Lance's Moraga? Why not? We will always enjoy the potential of attracting more business. The only question is whether that translates to the welfare of those who live here, as opposed to simply those who invest and find employment here. It is called "Public Service" for a reason. City employees may report to the City Mgr. However, everyone downtown works for the public. This is a city, not a corporation. If you are troubled by that, feel free to find employment elsewhere.

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