California Forum

Viewpoints: Vallejo poised to make same financial decisions that led to bankruptcy

Like most people who run for office, I ran because I thought I could make a positive difference in government.

This year, I decided not to seek re-election to the Vallejo City Council after my first term. I realized that a dual life as an elected official earning a $10,000 stipend while maintaining my position as an executive director of a nonprofit corporation in Sacramento just wasn’t sustainable. And I chose to put my career first.

As I prepare to leave office in a few months and yet still face a nasty smear campaign against my record and service, my reflections on public office and our democratic system of governance have turned in a slightly different direction.

Over the past four years, I have made some of the toughest decisions of any local government official. When I entered office, Vallejo was still in bankruptcy. Like carving a turkey with a machete (instead of a scalpel), we cut deeply into the budget’s bone and marrow. The city was gutted. And the recovery has been excruciatingly slow.

The primary reasons for bankruptcy were due to plummeting sales and property tax revenue – we lost 20 percent of our general fund in 18 months – overly generous public safety labor contracts, labor’s unwillingness to make concessions at the bargaining table after 21/2 years of negotiating prior to bankruptcy and the never-ending threat of binding interest arbitration.

Fast forward to today. The city of Vallejo is facing the same financial instability it was facing five years ago. Only this time, the city’s public safety unions have joined forces with the most powerful Democrats in Solano County, including the Democratic Party, the labor council and most of our county Board of Supervisors as well as the mayor of Vallejo, to bring the city to its knees once again.

With more than $120,000 of outside political action committee money, these Democrats and their Jump Start Vallejo PAC are funding a slate of City Council candidates in Tuesday’s election who seem committed to bringing binding interest arbitration back to the city of Vallejo. It was removed from the city charter in 2010. Jump Start is financially backed by the PACs of the Vallejo Police Officer’s Association ($10,000), Vallejo’s International Association of Fire Fighters ($5,000), San Francisco IAFF ($5,000), San Mateo County IAFF ($5,000) and the list goes on.

Binding interest arbitration was a nightmare for Vallejo and resulted in out-of-control public safety labor contracts that the city still cannot afford. Unfortunately, the prior majority council did not fix the problem while we enjoyed the legal protection of bankruptcy.

As a result, we’re facing a skyrocketing structural deficit at the same time CalPERS is unpredictably increasing cities’ PERS contributions – a potentially devastating impact for any city facing fiscal crisis.

To add insult to injury, the state Legislature has only exacerbated the ability of cities to manage their budgets by eliminating tools such as redevelopment; requiring unfunded mandates such as fact-finding when an impasse is reached at the labor negotiating table, which costs cities hundreds of thousands of more dollars and staff time; and requiring additional red tape when cities are forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

The state government can barely manage its own budget but wants to micromanage local government budgets while removing all the tools that allow cities to be more fiscally responsible and effectively manage their budgets.

After four years of public service in local government and as a lifelong registered Democrat, I’m left with three primary concerns:

1. The Democratic Party has become too dependent on public safety unions to fund its political campaigns (even though at least half of labor is probably a registered Republican and shops at Walmart – not exactly a union shop). This cozy relationship is damaging the good work of every elected official who should be focused on improving the quality of life for all of our citizens not just those who are union members.

2. Public employee political action committees are buying elections. Taxpayers pay for the salaries and benefits of public employees, who then use those salaries to buy the elections of their potential future employers (e.g., city council members), who, in turn, will vote on their labor contracts that are paid for by the taxpayers who voted for elected officials to make budgetary decisions in the best interest of the public. And the vicious circle goes around and around. Does anyone else see this as a problem?

3. Lastly, binding interest arbitration is bad for taxpayers and the public. It’s fiscally irresponsible for unelected officials to make binding financial decisions on the salaries and benefits of public employees that we all have to pay for. We live in a representative democracy. The people we elect to office should be held accountable for their budgetary decisions. We cannot hold an unelected arbitrator responsible for her or his poor financial decisions that we all have to live with.

Once again, Vallejo is the canary in the coal mine. On Tuesday, we’ll see if the canary keeps singing or noxious fumes signal a second bankruptcy.