Eye on Sacramento Issues Report Challenging Sacramento Convention Center Expansion

MEDIA RELEASE

For Immediate Release

Date/Time: October 17, 2016, 10:30 a.m.
Contact: Dennis Neufeld, Director of Research
Eye on Sacramento
Phone: (916) 539-1054
E-mail: dennis@eyeonsacramento.org
Website: www.eyeonsacramento.org

 

Eye on Sacramento Issues Report Refuting Economic Premise

For Expanding the Sacramento Convention Center

 

At a press conference held this morning at the Sacramento Convention Center, Eye on Sacramento officials released a comprehensive report revealing the long track record of growing financial losses at the Convention Center, as well as challenging the proposition that a nearly $200 million taxpayer-funded 70,000 sq. ft. expansion of the Center will provide any net economic benefits to Sacramento.  Among the report’s findings:

The Convention Center will lose $19 million this year.  Center losses have been growing at a pace of $1 million annually for several years.  The Center has lost an astonishing $268 million in taxpayer funds over the past 17 years.

From its construction in 1974 to its major expansion in 1997, the Center has failed to generate revenues anywhere close to official projections, leading the city council to double the city hotel tax to cover its mounting losses in the early years and to extend $10.4 million in emergency bailout loans to the Center following its 1997 expansion, loans which remain largely unpaid today.

Because of the heavy drain of Center losses, Sacramento devotes 87% of its annual hotel taxes to covering Center red ink.  The nine cities that Sacramento competes with for convention business uses an average of only 45% of their hotel tax revenues to fund its convention centers, with 55% of such taxes going into their general funds.

If Sacramento reduces its allocation of hotel taxes to the Center to match the 45% average allocation of its nine competing cities – which it can do over time by simply avoiding the proposed Center expansion – EOS projects that the city would see an additional $8 million of hotel taxes flow into the city’s general fund each year to fund police, parks, road maintenance and other vital services.

The municipal habit of expanding convention centers in pursuit of greater center attendance has been a grotesque failure in city after city in the U.S., leading to a veritable “arm’s race” of center expansions and resulting in a massive glut of space, while actual demand for  convention space has been declining.

The theory of “Build It and They Will Come” may work in Hollywood movies, but the evidence clearly shows that it does not work with convention center expansions.  The following cities have each expanded their convention centers in recent years only to experience an actual decline in attendance following expansion: Chicago, Las Vegas, Seattle, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, Orlando, Washington, D.C., and Boston, as well as many smaller cities.

The common culprit in the growing number of failed convention center expansions throughout the country (including Sacramento’s 1997 expansion) has been the grossly inaccurate projections of future center revenues generated by professional convention center consultants hired by cities.

Following Boston’s failed convention center expansion in 2004, the then executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, James Rooney, was quoted as saying:

When I talk to people from other cities about making a public investment in a convention center, I’m equally blunt about the feasibility studies these consultants use to justify [such] investments…some of these guys ought to be taken out and shot.”

EOS has also determined that, in the lead up to the Sacramento city council’s key May 3rd policy decision to proceed with an expansion of the convention center, city staff presented the council with a staff report that relied heavily on the city’s primary convention center consultant, the firm of Conventions, Sports & Leisure International (CS&L).  City staff cherry-picked data and findings from the CS&L study, but staff failed miserably to provide council members with crucial findings in the CS&L study that clearly state that an expansion of the Convention Center is not needed nor justified given market conditions.

In short, the city council was misled by its staff into believing that its principal convention center consultant was solidly in favor of the proposed expansion when, in fact, it was opposed to it.

The city staff’s proposal to expand the Sacramento Convention Center is on the city council’s meeting agenda for tomorrow evening.

The EOS Report is viewable and downloadable via this link.

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The Big Pink Ballot Box

The Big Pink Ballot BoxSitting on the counter at Sacramento City Hall is a pink ballot box for the Measure B election.  Why is there a ballot box on the counter for a vote by mail election?  According to a clerk at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office, the box is at City Hall for the convenience of voters who don’t have stamps.  Really, I’m not making this up.  I inquired, “Who is in charge of the box?”  The clerk tells me that the City is in charge of the box and calls for it to be emptied when it’s full.  This concerns me a tad.

I stopped by City Hall to check on ‘the box’, sure enough, there it sits on the counter at the security station.  I asked the security guard how often it is emptied.  At first he said, ‘every day’, and then when I continued to stare at him he admitted he doesn’t know if it’s ever been emptied.  I asked him if I could pick it up to see if it felt full… my guess is there’s about ten ballots in the box.  I asked what happens to the box at night; he said he thinks someone takes it into their office.

I don’t know about you but this concerns me.  Who is in charge of this ballot box for an election that will grace the City of Sacramento with $30 Million in taxpayer dollars?  The City.  Why?  When I asked the clerk at the Registrar of Voters why the box is under the care of the city she said I needed to talk to the Assistant Registrar.  I left a message.

Sacramento Soapbox! Trolley Folly

Jeanie Keltner hosts the longest running progressive show in Sacramento.

Today’s Guest Craig Powell and Maggie O’Meara talk about the Sacramento Streetcar Project

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.

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

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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.

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

view/download … Uncertain Future … Before upgrading the community center theater, homework’s Needed.PDF

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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

Craig Powell – Debate with Joshua Wood hosted by Capital Public Radio’s Insight with Beth Ruyak – Dec 10, 2013

Capital Public Radio – Insight

Arena Ballot Initiative Signature drives for and against a proposed Sacramento Entertainment and Sports Complex are coming to a close Tuesday. Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork (STOP) opposes the new ESC and needs 22,000 signatures to put public financing of the project to a citywide vote. STOP says it could turn in as many as 40,000 valid signatures. Meanwhile, DowntownArena.org, which supports a new sports complex at the K Street Mall, says STOP used misleading information to collect signatures for the ballot initiative and has collected 15,000 signature withdrawal forms that would null some of the 40,000 signatures STOP has collected.

Guests:
Craig Powell, President of Eye on Sacramento
Joshua Wood, Executive Director of DowntownArena.org
Arena Debate schedule HERE

Elimination and Reform of Retiree Health Care Benefit

Russell Fehr, City of Sacramento treasurer, reported that the City is close to $2 billion in debt, comprised of almost equal parts bond debt ($823 million) and unfunded liabilities for employee benefits ($950 million), comprised of unfunded pensions and unfunded retiree health care costs.

The real worry concerns the city’s pension and retiree health care liabilities, which have been soaring with scant council attention or public notice over the past five years.  The city has $469 million in unfunded pension liabilities, up a whopping 290% since 2005.  Its unfunded liability for retiree health care costs now stands at $440 million, a liability that has grown by $60 million since 2008.

Retiree health care costs are the sleeper liability!  While the city council has paid nominal attention to its pension liabilities, it has paid no attention whatsoever to an even larger unfunded liability: its obligation to pay retiree health care benefits.  The typical Sacramento family’s share of this $440 million liability amounts to over $7,000.

The city is now paying out about $11 million each year (on a purely pay-as-you-go basis) to cover the current costs of its retiree health care benefits.  To put the size of this outlay in perspective, $11 million/year is enough to hire 100 new city police officers, restoring almost all of the police officer positions eliminated during the past few years.  It’s a very big deal.

But that’s only the beginning of this monster liability.  The true annual actuarial cost of this sleeper liability is $43 million per year ($32 million more than the $11 million paid out in current benefits), a sum substantially more than the $27 million per year the city expects to bring in from Measure U, the half-percent city sales tax hike approved by voters in November.  Not only is the benefit a huge cost burden to city taxpayers, it’s a benefit that almost non one working in the private sector enjoys.

One of the most compelling points raised by Russ Fehr in his presentation to the council on city liabilities was the issue of inter-generational equity.  Is it fair to saddle future generations with liabilities for compensating the city’s current employees?  I would amplify the city treasurer’s message: it’s bad public policy, it’s financially dangerous, and, frankly, it’s morally indefensible.

So, what can the city do to rein in its escalating employee benefit liabilities and avoid a fiscal meltdown in future years?  For retiree healthcare benefits it ought to follow Sacramento County’s example and phase out its retiree health care benefit as rapidly as possible, relying upon the Affordable Care Act (Obama care) to provide subsidized health coverage for low and middle income city retirees before they become Medicare-eligible.  Eliminating the benefit would likely improve the city’s bond rating; lower future interest costs, and make borrowing for future major projects easier.

If the retiree health benefit is not ended outright, it should be retooled to require employees to fund it entirely or partially themselves through payroll deductions paid into a benefit trust account.

The city should increase the number of years of city employment it takes for the retiree health care benefit to vest, and it should eliminate the benefit for new employees.

Finally, it should cut off the benefit once a city retiree becomes eligible for Medicare or is covered under a spouse’s health plan.  Under the current plan, a 52-year old retired firefighter, collecting a pension equal to 90% of his final salary after working 30 years, pockets a $750/month cash medical benefit in retirement, even if he’s covered under his wife’s health insurance plan or is covered by Medicare.

INITIATIVES/PROPOSALS OF EYE ON SACRAMENTO

May 2012

Major Transparency Reforms

After examining transparency policies in other California communities and assessing Sacramento’s needs, Eye on Sacramento has compiled a list of ten proposals to make city government significantly more transparent to its citizens. Two of the ten proposals, however, stand out in terms of their importance to the city and the need for prompt City Council adoption:

1. Sunshine Rule on Major City Contracts. We propose that the City Council amend its Council Rules to require the full disclosure of all proposed major contracts at least 14 days before the Council takes action on such contracts. Major contracts would include all contracts with a value of over $5 million, including all labor pacts.

In addition, the Sunshine Rule would require that city staff publicly, concurrently release a complete analysis of the financial impact of every proposed major contract on city finances, as well as a disclosure of all material staff assumptions underlying its projections.

2. Ballot Initiative Creating an Independent Redistricting Proposal. We propose that the City Council refer to the November 2012 ballot an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission to draw future council district lines. Working in collaboration with other community groups, Eye on Sacramento is preparing a proposed charter amendment initiative that would create a redistricting commission whose members would be chosen by judges on the Sacramento Superior Court, a model based on the successful experience of the City of San Diego over the past 12 years. Extensive public hearings and outreach by the redistricting commission would also be mandated.

Major Budgetary Reforms

Given the complexity of the city budget and resource limitations, Eye on Sacramento has elected to focus its policy efforts on three initiatives for the balance of 2012:

3. Council Rule Prohibiting Multi-Year Labor Agreements (or “Fiscal Out”). In recent years, the City Council has been unable to manage its labor costs due to the existence of multi-year labor agreements. When faced with a budget deficit, the city can only threaten bargaining unions with lay-offs to obtain needed labor cost concessions. This practice has led to the decimation of city services in department after department. By limiting labor pacts to no more than one year, the City Council will preserve the necessary fiscal flexibility to reduce labor costs through negotiation and, if need be, mediation and would no long be compelled to savage city service levels in reaction to union intransigence. Alternatively, all labor pacts should include a “Fiscal Out” granting the city the right to terminate all labor pacts if the Council declares, in its sole and absolute discretion, a fiscal emergency.

4. Launch Task Force to Save City Pools. In next year’s budget, virtually all city pools will face closure absent major budgetary reforms. Eye on Sacramento is launching a six-month project to examine the operations and costs of city pools. It will be appointing a task force comprised of community leaders, pool industry representatives and experts, private swim club executives and parks and recreation department managers to comprehensively study ways to reduce the costs of operating city pools, to explore alternative ways of managing and maintaining city pools and to identify additional resources to support city pool operations.

5. Community Study to Restore City Parks. City parks have borne the brunt of city budget cutbacks and staff layoffs. Many city parks are dependent on volunteers for basic maintenance. The current “triage” approach to city parks is not sustainable and long-term solutions must be identified. Eye on Sacramento, in conjunction with park volunteer groups, community leaders and city staff, will launch a “community study” of alternative solutions, assessing tax options, outsourcing options and the launch of park conservancies.

General Fund Budget Analysis; “Open” Labor Pacts

In addition to pursuing the above policy initiatives, Eye on Sacramento, in discharging its “watchdog” mission, will be offering critiques of various aspects of the city manager’s proposed 2012/2013 general fund budget during budget hearings The central theme of our critiques will be to identify and advocate for long-term, multi-year budget reforms that will help arrest the city’s structural deficit and provide opportunities for the restoration of badly frayed core city services.

The city has two labor pacts expiring this year, including its pact with the city’s largest union, Local 39. The city should use these expiring pacts as opportunities to permanently realign its labor costs to conform to budgetary realities. We applaud the Library Authority for its recent action in submitting a “last, best” contract offer to Local 39 to realign labor costs in the face of union opposition. Cost-saving opportunities in labor pact re-negotiations include:

(a) controlling future pension costs by creating a lower tier of pension benefits for new hires;

(b) eliminating pension spiking by shifting “pensionable pay” from the final year of employment to the final three years of employment; and

(c) requiring employees to contribute to reserves to cover the currently unfunded cost of retiree health care costs (now over $380 million).

EOS 2012 Policy Agenda pdf

Eye on Sacramento’s Final Report on Proposed Water and Sewer Rate Hikes

EYE ON SACRAMENTO’S FINAL REPORT – City of Sacramento Water and Sewer Rate Hikes and Infrastructure Repair Plan

 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Through years of neglect and under investment, the city’s water and sewer infrastructure is a mess.  The mess is a consequence of several factors: (1) the city council’s historic failure to focus on long-term needs and its “core” government mission; (2) the failures of the city council and city managers to adequately oversee the Department of Utilities (DOU); (3) broken promises by DOU management on how revenues from earlier rate hikes would be spent; and (4) unsound city policy that has allowed escalating labor costs to crowd out infrastructure spending.

Even if the problem is fixed with massive new investment in utilities infrastructure, how can the city ensure that it doesn’t backslide into such a mess again?  The DOU can avoid a repeat of the current mess by returning utility tax revenues back to the DOU to sustain ongoing infrastructure investment, by adopting smart DOU oversight reforms, by providing specialized oversight of infrastructure spending, by securing concessions from city unions to free up funds for infrastructure spending and by adopting a number of labor reforms.

While framed as a proposed three-year hike in water and sewer rates, the DOU’s plans to borrow $1.8 billion over the next several years will “lock-in” double-digit annual rate hikes for the next 10 to 15 years, as set forth in DOU rate projections  The city council and the public need to be aware that, with the tripling of Regional Sanitation’s sewer rates over the next eight years, the water and sewer rate hikes proposed or projected by the DOU, along with future expected hikes in storm drainage and solid waste rates, will push up the monthly city utility bills for a typical homeowner from $120 per month to over $380 per month over the next 15 years.

The city’s proposed and projected rate hikes will have a profound impact on middle class and working class residents and those on fixed incomes.  The proposed infrastructure repair program will impose an effective lien of $32,500 on the typical Sacramento home.  With local unemployment now back up to 11.4%, 51% of all Sacramento homes underwater on their mortgages and an 8.1% drop in Sacramento home values last year and a further drop of 2.1% projected for the rest of the year, the city council could not pick a worst time to impose a major new financial burden on Sacramento’s citizens and communities.

The recently discussed life-line subsidy idea fails the test of fairness as it would reward better off homeowners while doing nothing to assist worse off renters.

The proposed hikes will have major negative impacts on commercial property, the housing stock, new construction, property tax collections, local school districts and local economic growth prospects.

Before launching a project of this magnitude, the city should install a permanent DOU director with significant experience and expertise in planning and overseeing major, complex utilities infrastructure projects on the scale that is being proposed.  The city council and the public must have confidence in the oversight capacity of DOU management, particularly in light of longstanding concerns with the functioning of the DOU.

With the planned rehab of the city’s two water treatment plants and the city’s placement of numerous underground, stand-by holding tanks in the central city over the past 10 years, the city has substantially diminished the risk of a water or sewer infrastructure failure causing either a significant threat to public safety or a serious disruption of life in Sacramento.  According to DOU director Dave Brent, the principal risk of infrastructure failure is now limited to highly localized impacts that are not expected to endanger public health.  Consequently, there is no public safety reason to initiate major rate hikes in the depths of the current recession and no reason to finance the bulk of the needed work with massive borrowings instead of funding the work on a “pay-as-you-go” basis.

City treasurer Russ Fehr has consistently advised the city council to limit the use of debt financing to only those big-ticket projects that simply cannot be financed out of current cash flow.  He states that the city is “facing a debt nightmare” and that “borrowing for routine maintenance is insane.”

Overreliance on utility debt financing and poor management of utilities infrastructure projects has led to two major municipal bankruptcies this year, in Harrisburg, PA, and Jefferson County (Birmingham), AL.  Bond covenants, including coverage rations, can have capricious effects on utility rates and communities, particularly during sharp economic downturns.

The proposed first tranche of bond financing should only be used to rehab the water treatment plants.  It should not be used to accelerate the installation of water meters, a strategy that would substantially increase ratepayers costs with no significant corresponding benefit.

The DOU’s $250,000 public relations campaign to sell major rate hikes and infrastructure repairs to the public and the city council has been largely a waste of ratepayer funds.  The DOU has maintained a false and misleading narrative on the nature and extent of the proposed rate hikes and has doggedly withheld from public view 15-year rate hike projections and financial plans that would have revealed the full extent of future rate hikes and infrastructure financing.

Eye on Sacramento advises the city council to: (1) to approve single-year hikes in water and sewer rates as a “place setter” to provide the city with the time to renegotiate key labor agreements to unlock cost savings and enact needed reforms and DOU and project oversight measures; (2) authorize debt issuances only to finance the rehab of the city’s water treatment plants; and (3) direct city staff to redesign its infrastructure repair program and its financial plan to fund the lion’s share of the repairs on a prudent, less costly, less risky “pay-as-you-go” basis.

read more of   EYE ON SACRAMENTO’S FINAL REPORT – City of Sacramento Water and Sewer Rate Hikes and Infrastructure Repair Plan