When Lauren asked me to write a guest blog posting, I thought about all of the subjects I have an interest in as possible topics: fly-fishing, college football, keeping raccoons out of your backyard pond…
But I’m a money guy, I’m in my third term as your City Treasurer, and I’m not one to shy away from controversy, so let’s talk City finances!
Financially, Alameda is on the “Vallejo trajectory”. While bankruptcy is not imminent, if we continue down the path we’re on today, we’ll be there soon enough.
The report issued by the Fiscal Sustainability Committee (which I co-chaired with our City Auditor, Kevin Kearney), spells it out pretty clearly. For years, maybe decades, we’ve lived way beyond our means:
- under-funding important commitments like maintaining our roads and sidewalks (more than $100 million of deferred maintenance needed over the next 10 years)
- entering into obligations like pensions and retiree healthcare that have grown to onerous levels (we currently have $75,000,000 in unfunded retiree health care obligations)
The City has basically avoided paying any bill that could be pushed into the future in order to keep the operation running. (If you want more detail on this, check out the report and the presentation we gave the City Council and have been making to various community groups on the City’s website.)
Time is running very low to deal with this situation. With every passing day, we get further and further into a financial hole. Vallejo ignored this until the only option left was bankruptcy. I hope Alameda doesn’t make the same mistake.
The economic downturn has put added focus on the City’s financial issues, but in truth these problems will exist in the same overwhelming degree in good or bad economic environments. Thus, we can’t hold our breath hoping that an economic recovery bails us out.
So what can we (the public) do about it? Having viewed this blog for years, I know that many readers are also key community activists, so I’m hoping the following answer moves some of you to follow through on helping to solve our mutual problem before it has a devastating impact on our community.
Alamedans need to be vocal about their concern and active in a solution. This clearly isn’t a problem that government, left alone, will willingly solve. Nothing against any of our current leadership, who have in fact shown some fortitude in starting this process lately, but true solutions will not be implemented until the public is as vocal about this as they are about Alameda Point, LGBT lessons, or the myriad other topics that dominate the social landscape in town. We can get on top of this now, or we can ignore it, but we can see how our fate will play out by looking at Vallejo.
How can we engage ourselves in solving this issue? Take a look at what Oakland is doing, using the Web and a creative budget “tool” to allow residents to provide input. This program is written by a company called Next10 . The licensing cost is $15,000, and I will approach the City about pursuing this (or maybe a community group could raise funds to purchase it?). This is the most imaginative way I’ve seen to get the average person to understand the trade-offs involved in balancing a budget.
There is also the old-fashioned democratic way to get involved: contact Council members and City management and express your opinion. While they are all aware of the situation and working toward solutions, knowing the public supports their efforts would go a long way toward speeding the process along.
I’d also suggest one other route: vote for people who are committed to change. Is a candidate willing to make tough decisions, stand up to entrenched special interest groups, and break the cycle that has gotten us to where we are? Everything has to be on the table in this discussion, no more sacred cows and “everyone else does it this way” baloney. It won’t be easy, but if they are not going to be part of the solution, they are in fact part of the problem.
Living within our means as a City will certainly not be as fun as being fiscally ignorant, but its way overdue, and in my mind nothing threatens our wonderful community more than a bankrupt City government.
Kevin Kennedy is an avid fly-fisher, college football enthusiast, and skilled at extracting raccoons from ponds. Oh yeah, and he’s the City of Alameda’s elected Treasurer.