Being the City Manager of a metropolitan area in California is a difficult task to do well. Valerie Barone who performs this job in Concord is no exception. Not only must she deal with such matters as budget, economic development, police, street repairs and sewage problems, but also what Barone calls “the growing tendency of increase regional government which is occurring throughout California.”
This means the legislature by its dispersment of tax revenues is taking more authority over cities without in many cases providing proper funding to support their dictates.
An example might be the Arm Chair Quarterbacks in Sacramento legislating that proper sidewalks be built near schools without providing enough funds to do the actual construction. Another case would be the State placing non-violent offenders from the crowded prison system to county jails without allocating enough funds to provide social services to assist these people once they are released.
When the State of California was going through the worst of their budgetary crisis as Jerry Brown took office, funds given redevelopment agencies were curtailed. At the same time more responsibilities were passed down without matching funds to pay for these services.
Instead of letting local governments spending tax dollars as they saw fit, the State of California has insisted:
1. Guidelines need to be followed to receive gas tax revenues by having them partially distributed by regional governmental agencies such as The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. (MTC)
2. Any grants given cities for specific regional planning purposes, must adhere to priorities the State feels are important.
3. Tax dollars returned to the cities are often for specific purposes (such as police equipment or sewer improvements) as opposed to putting a deposit into the General Fund for individual city councils to spend as they wish.
In this environment municipalities have been forced to scramble around to provide essential services to their constituents while balancing tight budgets at the same time. Unlike their big brothers in Sacramento and Washington D.C., cities can’t print money nor easily borrow it when revenues fall short. This might partially explain why Vallejo, Stockton, and San Bernadino have had to declare bankruptcy in the last five years.
Mow with economic times getting a little better for the State, the frist thing we hear from Jerry Brown is that some previous budget cuts during the recession are now being restored. Apparently, very little thought has been given to writing thank you note to the cities and counties for helping out with an accompanying “red envelop” to place in their general funds.
All cities in Contra Costa have had to make do with less. In Concord’s case voters in 2010 passed Proposition Q which raised sales tax by one quarter per cent for five years to prop up the city’s finances. While this and other similar programs were instituted in other cities in the County, there is no indications that new revenues will be generated to replace special tax levies that have become essential for cities to operate efficiently.
So when Proposition Q expires in 2016, Concord’s City Council and its citizens will likely have to decide if they want continue this subsidy to make ends meet or cut more services to block out red ink in their budget. Unfortunately, virtually every community in Contra Costa Country will have to make similar choices in the coming years
In the case of Concord, where the city government is run efficiently with little waste, the voters are likely to extend Measure Q. What happens elsewhere depends on how voters perceive the effectiveness of their local governments to be.
There is no sure thing when any public entity asks tax payers for more money. After squandering much of the 230 million dollar bond issue, it is unlikely voters will pass a similar measure for the Mt. Diablo School District in the near future. In 2012, the failure in passing the bond issue for ConFire was partially because voters did not think the emergency agency was being effectively managed.
More than ever, voters want more bang for their buck in paying for government services. It is no coincidence that most of their satisfaction is obtained on the local level where tighter controls on budgetary matters is exerted.
As might be expected, the State of California has remedies for procuring additional revenues from reluctant tax payers. Since bond issues currently take a two thirds majority to pass, the politico’s in Sacramento want to reduce the number of votes to pass a ballot measure in the future down to 60% and even lower in certain cases. With them having funds today to spend is the important thing, paying bills tomorrow is a secondary matter.
This disregard for reality is why there is so little concern for meeting unfunded pensions and medical coverages for retired state employees. These obligations for future tax payers are estimated to be approximately 600 billion dollars depending on performances of investments, medical costs, and actuary factors yet to be determined.
While Jerry Brown lightly touched upon this issue when he put Proposition 30 on the ballot in 2012, unfunded mandates were soon forgotten when he gleefully announced in 2013 that California had balanced the budget and several service cuts could be restored. However, many of the Governor’s critics feel California’s economic recovery is akin to the Aesop’s Fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant where the perils of winter were not considered in the warm days of summer.
So what can be done to lessen the State’s control over the cities and counties they allegedly serve? For one thing it will be a priority to eliminate the Super Majority of the Democratic Party in the Assembly and State Senate. it is not that the Republicans necessarily have better answers than their advisories, but rather history has shown democracy works best when an effective two party system is at work.
Meanwhile, it will be up to mayors, city council’s and city managers to do their best with limited resources to keep local governments running effectively. Good luck guys and try to remember the voters one day when we send you up to Sacramento to represent us in the legislature.