You know you're in trouble as a local officeholder when you have to declare during a candidates forum, "We are not going bankrupt."
That's what Lincoln Mayor Spencer Short did, embroiled in a rough-and-tumble race that is focused squarely on the city's precarious financial health and on how much the City Council is to blame.
Short, who has been on the council since 2000, is seeking another term, along with Paul Joiner, who was elected in 2008. A third incumbent, Tom Cosgrove, is not running, but Dan Cross, a 10-year city planning commissioner, is seeking to replace him.
The incumbents say that Lincoln has survived the worst and is on its way back.
But there has to be accountability for bad decisions.
Among the challengers, the most knowledgeable and promising are businessmen David Kawas and Allen Cuenca, a former planning commissioner who also ran in 2008.
They deserve a chance to defuse what they call a ticking financial time bomb. They want to hire a private contractor for garbage service and more aggressively follow through on other recommendations issued this year by a citizens' Fiscal Sustainability Committee.
For the third seat, the best choice is Joiner, who can provide continuity without culpability for many of the worst choices. He was endorsed by the Placer Republican Party, along with Cuenca and Kawas.
The two challengers, along with retired banker Peter Gilbert, also have the support of Gabriel Hydrick and Stan Nader, who won the other council seats two years ago. They ousted an incumbent and defeated another supporter of the city's proposal to temporarily increase utility taxes to plug a budget deficit. That measure, which had the unanimous support of the council, went down in flames, 67 percent to 33 percent.
The Placer County city could be a poster child for the housing boom and bust. Once named the fastest-growing city in California, its population exploded from about 17,700 in 2002 to nearly 44,000 today.
During the good times, the City Council not only increased the operating budget to provide services to all the new residents, it went on a spending spree on new buildings and other projects, borrowing money that was to be repaid from development fees.
Then the crash came.
As new housing dried up and city revenue with it, the city slashed its budget from a peak of $15 million in 2006-07 to less than $12 million in 2012-13 and reduced its workforce by about 100 employees.
Those cuts didn't spare the police and fire departments, which residents are reminded of every time they wait for officers to arrive, or go past the new, but idle, fire station near downtown.
The city is still more than $21 million in debt, mostly for the City Hall that opened in 2008.
Lincoln voters not only have to decide how much the incumbents are at fault, but whether the challengers have the acumen and temperament to be better stewards. It's a leap of faith to put new people in office, but at this point in Lincoln's history, it's necessary.
By electing Cuenca, Joiner and Kawas, voters give their city its best chance at smart, not reckless, reform.