Budget Checkup … City Hits List of 20 Most Financially Distressed U.S. Cities

By Craig Powell

After devoting my last two columns to Sacramento’s homeless crisis, I figure we’re due for a review of the city’s financial situation since Darrell Steinberg became mayor.

Among the more than 3,300 issue files that Eye on Sacramento (the civic watchdog group that I head) maintains on municipal issues is one that is often whimsical: our city rankings file. We track every time a study or publication ranks Sacramento against other cities on everything from its appeal to millennials to the quality of our coffeehouses. (There’s considerable crossover there.) But the latest ranking, published by JPMorgan Chase, is anything but whimsical. It’s disturbing.

Since JPMorgan Chase manages about $90 billion in municipal bonds, it’s pretty concerned about whether cities will be able to pay back their bond debt. So it created what one financial analyst calls a comprehensive guide of “which municipalities haven’t the slightest hope of surviving their multi-decade debt binge and lavish public pension awards”—i.e., Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Cleveland.

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RT on the Rocks … Fight over fare hikes splits transit board

By Craig Powell

 

To get a sense of how broke Regional Transit is, consider this analogy. Let’s say you’re part of a Sacramento family. You have a fairly well-off, middle-class lifestyle, but in the last couple of years you’ve really splurged, buying yourself a big, new Mercedes and a big, pricey cabin up at Lake Tahoe, all financed to the hilt. Meanwhile, the small business you run, RT Clothing, has never regained the boatload of customers you lost when you decided to jack up your prices by 20 percent in the middle of the last recession (oops), leaving you with a flat income for years. Fortunately, your wife, a retiree who collects both a military pension from the federal government and a healthy state government pension, has been collecting cost-of-living increases for years. She brings home close to 80 percent of the family income these days, bless her. Together, you have a family income of close to $150,000 per year.

The charming new home you bought 30 years ago in Light Rail Estates is showing serious signs of age and, let’s be honest, neglect. Your roof is shot, the paint’s badly peeling, you may need a new furnace and your backyard pool has algae stains and a rather unpleasant odor. Lately, some of the sketchier kids in your neighborhood have been jumping over the fence when you’re not home, swimming in your pool, hanging around for hours on end and leaving their trash everywhere. It’s gotten so bad that many of your longtime friends no longer accept invitations to your summer pool parties. You’ve spotted some of them going into Bob and Nancy Uber’s backyard down the street. The Ubers put in a nice, new pool last year and they let their friends drop in to swim whenever they want.

Things are going so-so until one day you decide to open up your bank and credit card statements for the first time in six months. You’re stunned (stunned!) to see all of the savings you thought you were socking away each month have somehow evaporated. Not only that, you owe a whopping $18,000 on your Visa bill. (How did that happen?) In a panic, you check the balance in your checking account and your heart sinks further. You have just $3,000 in cash and, at the rate your family burns money, it will be long gone in three months’ time.

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Expansive Plans … The mayor’s budget message proposes wide-ranging ideas

Published on Wednesday, 01 April 2015

Expansive Plans

The mayor’s budget message proposes wide-ranging ideas

By Craig Powell

As I wrote last month, the mayor and city council have taken aggressive steps in the past few months to assert much greater front-end control over both the city budget and the city manager (hiring an independent budget analyst, forming a new council budget committee, public outreach on budget matters). But the process changes were just the beginning. On March 10, the mayor took the unprecedented step of releasing a “Mayor’s Message on Budget Priorities” that lays out what is likely the most expansive plan ever proposed for the role of city government in Sacramento. It proposes a cautious approach to city spending and debt management in the near future while proposing more than a dozen new and unprecedented programs and initiatives.

Notably, the mayor’s plan was not the product of deliberation and consensus by the council’s new budget and audit committee. Instead, it is the mayor’s own vision and was slated for initial council review late last month. If it ends up being approved by the council, it will represent marching orders to city manager John Shirey on how to draw up the city budget for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

The central premise of Johnson’s plan is that the city must exercise spending caution in the short term as the city nears a fiscal cliff in 2019 (due to escalating pension contributions and expiration of the Measure U half-percent sales tax hike), but that the city must ultimately fix its fiscal problems by taking aggressive steps to grow the local economy, resulting in higher city tax revenues. His ideas for growing the local economic pie are bold: He proposes a slew of new investments, plans and programs that, if approved, would inject the city more assertively into local economic development than ever before.

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Katy Grimes Piece on Measure L, Sac County GOP and our EOS Report

Here’s a revealing article by Katy Grimes on Measure L and the coopting of the Sac county GOP.

Local ‘Thought Leaders’ Bamboozle Sac GOP on Measure L

Police and Pension Reform … Burden of new contributions erased by pay hikes

Published on Friday, 01 August 2014

Police and Pension Reform

Burden of new contributions erased by pay hikes

By Craig Powell

After three long years of informal and formal bargaining, mediation, more formal bargaining and, finally, a binding determination by an arbitrator, the city has a new labor contract with the Sacramento Police Officers Association. City police will finally join all other major city bargaining unions and be required to contribute the full employee’s share into the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (9 percent of their salaries)—and then some. In addition, city cops will be required to pony up another 3 percent of their salary to pension contributions—replacing a portion of the city’s existing contribution to cop pensions—for a total contribution by cops of 12 percent of their salary. In contrast, members of the next highest contributing city union, the firefighters, contribute 9.2 percent of their salaries to pensions.

To ease the pain of such a major reduction in take-home pay, the arbitrator awarded the police salary hikes, starting next year, of 3 percent in each of the next 3 years, totaling 9.3 percent once fully implemented. (Sergeants will get 7 percent raises.) The new contract’s near-term impact on the city’s general fund budget: a savings of $1.25 million in the current fiscal year and $2.24 million in 2014-2015, shifting to a net cost of $300,000 in 2016-2017 and $1.59 million in 2017-2018.

The arbitrator’s decision caps off a three-year effort by city manager John Shirey to require all city employees to contribute 100 percent of the employee’s share of their pensions. Until Shirey’s initiative, most nonpublic-safety city employees paid between 3 and 4 percent of their salaries to their pensions, while police, firefighters and city managers paid zip toward pensions. Shirey kicked off his campaign to require full contributions by setting a good personal example: He insisted that his own employment agreement require him to make a full 7 percent pension contribution. (Of course, that’s a little easier when you are making $258,000 per year.) Next, he required all nonrepresented city employees, including all city managers, to pony up. Then, as each city union contract expired, he insisted that each contract require workers to make full contributions.

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Balanced in Name Only … Small budget surplus is no cause to break out the champagne

Published on Sunday, 01 June 2014

Balanced in Name Only

Small budget surplus is no cause to break out the champagne

By Craig Powell

There is only a tiny handful of policy wonks who actually look forward to the release each year of the city manager’s proposed city budget for the fiscal year that starts on July 1. I’m one of them. City budget manager Leyne Milstein drove that point home in my interview of her last month, joking that I was one of only three people who have actually read the document that only a wonk could endure, much less enjoy.

But endure it I did and, knowing that most of you don’t spend your nights curled up with the city budget, I’m offering you the CliffsNotes version of it this month.

The good news is that after five years of battling chronic budget deficits, city manager John Shirey is proposing a $383 million general-fund budget that actually ekes out a small $2 million budget surplus. (The total city budget, which includes fee-collecting “enterprise funds” like city utilities, the convention center and marina, is actually $872 million, but most attention is paid to the city’s general-fund budget, which funds basic city services such as police, fire, parks, etc.) That means no cuts next year in services or city employees.

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Eye on Sacramento issued its Report on the Arena Project and Financing Plan

MEDIA RELEASE

 For Immediate Release

Date/Time: May 19, 2014; 7:30 a.m.

Contact: Craig Powell, President, Eye on Sacramento

Phone: (917) 718-3030

E-mail: craig@eyeonsacramento.org

 

Eye on Sacramento Releases its Report

on the Arena Project and Financing Plan

Civic watchdog Eye on Sacramento issued its Report on the Arena Project and Financing Plan this morning. The city council is expected to take final action on the arena project at its meeting tomorrow evening. Attached to this release is: (1) a one-page Executive Summary; and (2) the Report itself.

“Basic notions of democracy and democratic processes fundamentally failed in Sacramento during consideration of the arena proposal. The voters of Sacramento are being denied their rights under the California Constitution to vote on Sacramento’s issuance of $300 million of bonds to fund the arena project. City government leaders have turned their backs on its citizens and thumbed their noses at four decades of consistent voter opposition to a taxpayer-subsidized arena,” said EOS President Craig Powell today.

“Our city government has abandoned all notions of long-range strategic planning, sober assessment of alternative public investment opportunities and all sense of fiscal prudence and caution by approving a general fund-draining, ultra expensive massive bond offering that is pre-programmed to imposes its greatest burden on city finances just as the city goes off a fiscal cliff in 2019,” Powell concluded.

Eye on Sacramento is a nonprofit, nonpartisan civic watchdog organization and policy advisory group that works on challenging issues confronting local government.

 To view/download the EOS Report click here and to view/download the Executive Summary click here

Uncertain Future … Before upgrading the community center theater, homework’s Needed

Published on Saturday, 03 May 2014 20:05

Uncertain Future

Before upgrading the community center theater, homework’s Needed

by Craig Powell

One thing my experience with city government in Sacramento has taught me is that city policy is too often driven by an often unhealthy deference to conventional wisdom. The great pitfall of herd mentality governance is that key assumptions go both unquestioned and unexamined. A proposal to renovate the Sacramento Community Center Theater at a cost of as much as $53 million is chockablock with unexamined questions.

For example, why is the city council poised to spend tens of millions of dollars renovating a civic asset like the theater when it has received no briefings on the asset’s current financial performance? Is the theater a moneymaker or a money loser? If it’s losing money, how bad are the losses? Since the council hasn’t been briefed on its performance, it hasn’t a clue.

Eye on Sacramento (the watchdog group that I head) issued a report in September on the combined financial performance of the three city assets that make up the “convention center fund” assets: the Convention Center, Memorial Auditorium and the theater. EOS reported that the three assets have been losing a whopping $12 million annually for years, but EOS did not break out the operating losses of the theater. City staff should.

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Stunning Revelations in Fraud Lawsuit Against City of Sacramento on Arena Deal

Sacramento attorneys Patrick Soluri and Jeffrey Anderson released this media release today, February 7, 2014, concerning stunning evidence they have uncovered in their fraud and illegal-gift-of-public-funds lawsuit against city officials, principally arising from depositions they’ve recently taken of Sacramento city councilmember Kevin McCarty and Sacramento’s director of economic development, Jim Rhinehart:

View/Download the Media Release Here

Declaring War … Phony Land Values and Early Arena Bond Sales

Published on Thursday, 02 January 2014 03:37

Declaring War

Phony Land Values and Early Arena Bond Sales

by Craig Powell

On Dec. 10, the city of Sacramento effectively declared war on the arena initiative, the measure that would give voters the final say on any taxpayer subsidy of a sports arena. A mere six hours after supporters of the initiative submitted 34,000 petition signatures to the city clerk to secure a spot for the initiative on the June 3 primary ballot, city treasurer Russ Fehr appeared before the city council to reveal a stunning new city strategy to unhorse the measure. Fehr said that the city now intends to accelerate the sales date of the proposed $300 million arena bond from next summer, as originally planned and long touted, to just 14 days before June 3 election.

Why is the city now rushing to sell the bonds in May and not this summer as originally planned?

Because under California law, a ballot initiative cannot dislodge a pre-existing obligation of the city, even if the initiative qualifies for the ballot before the city incurs the obligation.

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