June 27, 2006 > Son of V
Son of V
In hiding for the last several years, the Utility (or "Futility") Tax is back with a set of new clothes for the 2006 campaign. Spurned by Fremont voters the last time it reared its ugly head, this time the tax has undergone a facelift. The drumbeat for more tax money has never ceased, simply been muffled for a while to develop new tactics.
It is apparent from questionnaires and city sponsored speakers that "outreach" efforts have asked for priorities of new funds with the tacit understanding that a tax is the only method of achieving city goals. A citizens committee is a nice touch designed to add legitimacy to the process. But it is questionable whether this group closely scrutinized the budget without the aid of well-orchestrated charts and graphs designed to lead to a predetermined solution.
A scene from the 1993 movie "Dave" comes to mind. Dave, who runs a small town employment agency, has become a surrogate for the gravely ill president of the United States. He is challenged by a corrupt Chief of Staff to cut the federal budget, to include a pre-school initiative championed by the ersatz president and the real president's wife. Dave turns to his friend and small-time accountant, Murray, to look over the federal budget. Lo and behold, they find massive waste and misuse of funds that allow reinstatement of the axed measure.
Is this a fantasy? Yes and no. While Fremont's finance department does a fine job of keeping track of funds, they are not the division responsible for spending them. A true audit from a public perspective would involve a group of savvy citizens with knowledge and experience reading financial statements. This review would allow the public to know how funds are being used - and reserved - without the interpretive services of city administration.
A work session scheduled for Monday, June 26, prior to distribution of this issue will provide another forum for wails and moans of poverty from city officials. I will be interested in whether anything other than a black and white decision of tax vs. no tax is considered or discussed. In a letter to the City Council dated June 16, 2006, City Manager Fred Diaz notes that he has been working over the past year with a Community Task Force "on an aggressive outreach effort to the community" for feedback on priorities for City services.
It took Diaz a year to figure out that citizens are most concerned about police (and fire) services and potholes! He even notes: "This has been consistent over the last several years, and is also consistent with the Council's historical budget priorities." Well, nothing new there. The letter includes is his request of the citizen committee to "make a recommendation to me about how they thought the City should proceed in terms of a revenue measure." Not much new there either. It appears that with changes in the economy over the past two years and hindsight of a prior failed campaign, there is little discussion of alternatives to a general tax. Why is the administration so opposed to special taxes that direct money to specific entities? Is it because there are pet projects or hidden needs that must be addressed by the General Fund, hopefully without too much public scrutiny?
Diaz outlines the new clothes for Son of V in his letter. These garments include many that appear to be similar if not the same as before. A utility tax, possibly limited to gas and electric charges is again the same method as before. This time, under a divide and conquer scheme, exemptions for low income households and caps for large utility users will separate voters into different self-interest camps.
A proposed citizen's oversight committee to "review an expenditure plan for the tax and then annually review and report to Council" has yet to be defined, but what can it do if funds are misdirected or simply wasted? This is a watchdog with no teeth. The most beneficial element of this proposal is a "sunset clause." Limiting the duration of the tax to a few years is the only real control suggested. I am sure staff will lobby for a relatively long period saying cash flow planning demands it but with extended periods free from consequence, fiscal responsibility is abandoned.
We have yet to see a list of expenses and costs to be covered by this tax, but Diaz' letter indicates a range "from 3% to 4%, all of which yield meaningful revenue." Along with cost estimates of a variety of projects comes the responsibility of competent and timely completion of identified expenditures. This is Fremont's biggest Achilles Heel. When searching for proactive and innovative successes, there are few examples; many projects in process are either subtly falling below the radar or missing in action.
The downtown project continues to drain $1 million each year from the budget with little to show for it. Every so often, an expert appears with a mouth full of jargon, but not much else. Centerville's Unified Site has been delayed with significant tenant and financial problems while the proposed and supposedly fully funded water play facility at the swim lagoon faces major, if not insurmountable hurdles. Add to this mix, adventurous and foolish fiscal farces such as the Poe Dam fiasco and the short-sighted attempt to swap prime park property for less desirable land to liberate cash. Fremont's track record is far from stellar.
While there is an abundance of extremely well-compensated staff - an area that has not been addressed - a key leadership ingredient is missing. Focus and vision has yet to take hold. Synchronization between the populace and its government is necessary to make good things happen. Citizen confidence in the future comes from the realization that a firm and consistent vision is formed by knowledge of local concerns and attitudes. True leadership is a function of belief, knowledge and vision. Will throwing additional money at this problem solve it?