Imagine walking out of your front door and seeing the street filled with garbage and trash. Visualize city parks closed, roads decayed, and a town with few police or firefighters available to come when you need them.
This is a possible future for many cities in California, as revenue from taxes dwindles and municipalities scramble for money to pay their bills.
How best to navigate and survive these hard times? That was the question the San Luis Obispo Fiscal Sustainability Task Force grappled with for seven months last year.
Unlike the many commissions, committees, and advisory groups dotting the civic landscape, which rarely meet and are heard from even less, this is a group that may have unknowingly had a profound influence on the city it aimed to impact.
Though stuck with a hopelessly ungainly bureaucratic name, the task force actually did something seemingly worthwhile: It came up with strong ideas to help SLO keep its fiscal boat afloat. Perhaps more importantly, it may have created political cover for unpalatable but necessary steps to realign the city’s finances.
The group’s work may have already changed the local political landscape, perhaps giving the City Council license to align with a potentially tough and more fiscally responsible outlook.
The findings were bold. To preserve the financial well-being of the city, the group’s final report suggests returning binding arbitration to the ballot for possible repeal and a reduction in staff compensation linked to private-sector salary levels. Furloughs and layoffs could also be pursued, the report said. It also suggested pursuing a two-tier pension system, reducing employee health-care benefits, and finding new ways of reducing overtime costs.
The meetings were not without strife. When the group discussed reducing overtime, a parks employee brought up the fact that his entire department spent only a little more than $10,000 in overtime for the year while a small group of firefighters made more than $1 million in overtime. At the final meeting, a fire supervisor vigorously defended what most of the rest of the group called excessive pensions for firefighters. The fireman finally walked out of the meeting in apparent disgust.
Many of the task force’s suggestions reappeared at the Jan. 29 city goal-setting meeting. For the first time, the city voted on areas of potential cuts, with most of the City Council voting for the suggestions advocated by the task force.
The task force was mired in controversy from the start. City Manager Katie Lichtig created the group to gather advice on developing a budget, which was the first time she headed such an effort.
The upcoming two-year budget will be something new for the city—the first of many budgets with likely protracted rising expenses, mostly due to expanding personnel costs. It looks likely SLO will be confronted with annual shortfalls of $3 million for the next four or five years. The next budget will probably set the tone for how the city deals with its spending for years to come.
Lichtig initially tried to have the task force meetings closed to the public because, she said, members could speak more freely if the press and public weren’t there. After pressure from the public and media, she conceded to open the meetings.
The group was comprised mostly of business leaders, city employees, and a few members of community groups. Two groups who weren’t fans of the task force were the police and firefighter unions. SLO Firefighter’s Association President Erik Baskin and Police Association’s Matt Blackstone boycotted the meetings, citing the “elitist nature” of the group and the lack of transparency under which the task force originated.
Privately, both city officials and public safety union members said the unions didn’t want to be part of a group they felt was stacked against them. Union leaders were quick to point out that many of the task force’s members were also members of the Chamber of Commerce, an organization that many union members believe is opposed to union goals.
In the formative days of the task force, the firefighter union said in a press release, “It was quite apparent after attending the first meeting that there was a high priority placed on secrecy and the anonymity of proposals/ideas submitted from those within the group ... .”
Union representatives stayed away even after Lichtig opened the meetings to the public.
A city official, who wished to remain anonymous, said he thought the task force report reflected the general mood of city residents and the council members who, being politicians, are “very aware of the winds of public opinion.”
“Their re-election probably depends on getting the city’s finances fixed, and they know they need to do it,” said the official.
Dan Carpenter, a newly appointed city councilman who attended many of the task force meetings before he was on the council, said the findings weren’t a surprise.
“The report probably reflected the will of the community,” Carpenter said. “It was one more tool in the tool box [of financial reform]. I think we need to look at what everybody has to say about the budget problems.”
Bob Hill, executive director of the Land Conservancy and a task force member, said he hopes the group’s work will be helpful to the City Council when it lays out future budgets.
“If things don’t change, the city will eventually not function financially,” Hill said. “If we had any good ideas, someone needs to use them to do something about the city’s financial problems.” ∆
Staff Writer Robert A McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.