Wednesday, March 28, 2012

City council should make smart, informed decisions

Pacifica Tribune/Guest Columnist, 3/27/12.  The importance of an informed decision" by Paul Slavin

People are fed up, but no tax unless real solutions.
"Reading Dave Mercurio's Letter to the Editor in last week's Tribune reminded me again how poisonous the political atmosphere can get around here. Mr. Mercurio castigates councilmembers Len Stone and Mary Ann Nihart for not supporting an early city-wide ballot measure for a 1/2 percent sales-tax increase, as suggested by the Financing City Services Task Force. It is assumed this money would help bankroll our Police Department, although the Task Force has cautioned that this measure alone would not guarantee the department's survival. Nevertheless, Mr. Mercurio views Stone and Nihart's decision as "shameful, careless and irresponsible." I think he's wrong on every point.

First of all, it is clearly the responsibility of the City Council to explore and evaluate every possible budgetary saving. Our city is going broke; we've cut back to the bone at Public Works and everywhere else, with more cuts looming, and we're passing the hat for the Resource Center.  I think it would be careless and irresponsible not to even look at outsourcing our Police. To do that intelligently we have to have the relevant figures from the County Sheriff, which we should shortly receive. (Why we don't already have these numbers is another question.) This delay has moved the sales-tax issue beyond the deadline required for the June ballot.

Once we have the Sheriff's proposal in hand, we can compare both departments, apples to apples, and make a better, more informed decision. This is not to imply by any means that we should automatically go with the less costly option. There are many benefits in having our own local force, potential advantages in service levels, accountability, response time, and local knowledge, and these must be carefully considered. But, contrary to Mr. Mercurio, there is a price that's put on safety, a very substantial price, including both present salaries and future pensions and benefits. Len Stone quite rightly feels obligated to determine the difference in cost, in actual tax-payer's dollars, between the two departments. Simple due diligence.

Mr. Mercurio, evidently having already made up his mind, feels we should have gone ahead with the ballot anyway, and that Stone and Nihart's actions "took away our say in the matter". But this is going to be an extremely important decision, with long-range consequences, and it only seems prudent to have all the pertinent information available to the electorate BEFORE they have their say.  The fact that Len Stone was supported by the Pacifica Police in the last election is entirely beside the point. He was elected to represent the whole community, all of us, and that appears to be exactly what he is doing, and in very difficult circumstances. Sounds like almost the opposite of "shameful" to me. He may have lost Mr. Mercurio's vote, but his thoughtful, business-like, even-handed approach has won him many others.

I also agree with Mary Ann Nihart's contention that, at this time, a public vote on the sales-tax would be a very chancy affair. Pacifica voters have been very reluctant lately to pass any additional revenues for a Council that has presided over years of financial failure. The last decade has been a litany of stalled development, lost opportunities, a never-ending debate over Hwy. 1 improvements, the bio-diesel fiasco, a neglected sewer system, costly city lawsuits, crumbling infrastructure, and a constantly shrinking bank account. Although the present recall effort seems like an impulsive, half-baked idea to me, I can easily understand the anger and frustration that motivates it. People are fed up. A tax-raising ballot measure right now wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell.
Mr. Mercurio blithely states that, "If the ballot measure was allowed to go through and it didn't pass, then so be it." But an important issue like this, once defeated, would be extremely difficult to revive at a later date, and our financial future might well depend on its' passage. Better here to be more cautious than carefree.

We are all aware of the geographical limits of Pacifica; we have a scarcity of open, stable, buildable land, a decentralized pattern of development, minimum road access, and, consequently, a limited tax-base. That's why it's so important to maximize every opportunity, scrutinize every expenditure, and not make any mistakes. If Mary Ann Nihart and Len Stone are given a chance, and some help, they could form the nucleus of a Council marked by fiscal responsibility and a serious, pragmatic approach to solving our many problems. That could revive public confidence to the point where it might just be possible to raise the sales-tax a bit."

Reference:  Dave Mercurio's  Letter to-the-editor, first Letter printed, Pacifica Tribune, 3/20/12.

Posted by Kathy Meeh


Heather said...

Very interesting. I know Mr. Mecurio - he's a long-time Pacifican who has put a lot of heart into Pacifica.

On the one hand, I see what you are saying, Kathy. We don't want people making rash decisions.

On the other, Mr. Mecurio is a citizen of our city and, from what I read, clearly feels disenfranchised. Citizens want to feel their government has their best interests at heart, and I don't think a lot of Pacificans feel the City Council does. We were all asked to take a survey that had dire choices - nearly like choosing which of your children to keep.

It feels like the council has basically thrown out the feed back from the survey and gone ahead with what they were going to do in the first place. Sales tax was an option people wanted and farming out the police force was one people didn't want.

Whatever the reasoning, it can be incredibly frustrating to be told you will have a say in a decision only to be denied the say when the time comes. Most average people don't understand the cost of a ballot measure, but they do understand the cost of losing what they perceive to be a right to vote for something impacting them.

Whether you agree with Mr. Mecurio or not, he is voicing an opinion that exists. Along with taking into account empirical data, the council also ought to take the pulse of the people they represent.

Finally, it has been my experience that the council tends to take an awfully long time studying an issue and never actually moving forward to tackling it. I ran for council 2 years ago and the city has made little to no progress on any of the issues that were raised during the election. Perhaps citizens like Mr. Mecurio don't believe the city needs to hold so many meetings to make what boils down to (either way) a costly yes or a costly no decision. No empirical data can make a hard decision any easier.

Kathy Meeh said...

Heather, I think Paul's "My Turn" observations including the decade-long economic development stalemate he mentioned is well reasoned, as is your follow-up comment. I also think Mr. Mercurio did not understand that passing a general tax would not protect our city police department.

Several years ago we passed a 5 year parcel tax to protect/keep our city Fire Department. A few months following the election (as I recall), The Fire Department was outsourced to the North County Fire Authroity.

Heather said...

I agree, Kathy. I don't think a lot of people understand how these things work. I know more than most people but that's because I have people who are willing to break it down for me who are in the know. Not everyone has that.