Here sits the brain trust of Chico. Be afraid, be very, very afraid.
It was a chipper 38 degrees when I headed Downtown for the monthly Finance Committee meeting, a cold that penetrated two pairs of pants, two shirts and a heavy jacket. It is a trip that would hardly impress my hillbilly relations, but I feel pretty exhilarated when I arrive at the city building, my face stinging, eyeballs watering, my hands frozen, fumbling with the bike lock. It’s good to be awake before you wander into one of these meetings.
They have got a lot better since Chris Constantin arrived, I’ll say. It’s a lot to chew over, some of it hard to understand if you don’t have a degree in administration, but it’s all really important in explaining how our town got into the shape it’s in and why we’re not getting out in any big hurry.
Not long after Constantin came to town, he introduced the nursery words “loosey goosey” into the official fiscal lexicon (I dare you to say that three times, fast!). He was talking about the way this city had grown accustomed to spending money, each department using their own imaginary credit card with no oversight from Jennifer Hennessy, Miss Finance Mis-director. They were just spending as they pleased and handing Hennessy the bill, and she was using her own personal accounting style to stay a hair’s breadth ahead of the bill collector. Of course many of us had imagined something like that was going on, we screamed and yelled for her to present the monthly accounting, and she said it was too much work. Dave Burkland said she didn’t have to do it. This may never have changed if Toby Schindelbeck hadn’t made issue of it during the last election. Council finally leaned on Hennessy, but she still didn’t give the kind of reports Constantin has been giving.
Hennessy liked to give power point presentations with bullet lists and cartoons. A little man standing under a raincloud with the caption, “how did we get here?” Constantin’s reports are dryer and look boring, but contain more meat. If you look at the agenda, available here:
you will see sheet after sheet of figures, monthly revenues and expenditures for each department. When I think how many times Hennessy just flat refused to produce these reports, I get a headache. At first, I was a little intimidated by these stacks of figures, but I just started reading through. Starting with the reports, I just peruse through them, writing down words I don’t understand, then google them.
In short, departments continue to spend money “loosey goosey” without oversight, and, Constantin says, “we’re still letting our costs drive our funding instead of letting our funding drive our costs…”
The problem I have with his statement is the use of the word “costs”. They don’t ever really tell us the true “cost” of anything down there, instead they mean, “price” that they assign stuff, which includes their salaries and benefits. See, this is how 1500 feet of plastic pipe and a couple of hydrants ends up costing $432,000 – they figure in the “overhead” of salaries and benefits of every employee who dotted an ‘i’ on a form having to do with that particular job.
What they talked about for about an hour yesterday was the process by which they transfer money from one fund to another, making it legal to use the money for uses it could not originally be used for. Over at Truth Matters they are discussing the use of sewer funds to fix the streets. Well, you say, they ripped up the streets to fix the sewers, isn’t it appropriate to use the sewer funds to fix them back? No, sorry. There’s a road improvements fund for that purpose, which is fed through stuff like the gas tax, and all kinds of federal and state grants, etc. Unfortunately, Jennifer Hennessy told us at one meeting years ago, that money all went to salaries and benefits, including every dime of that gas tax, which was supposed to be restricted to fixing streets.
I thought the fund raiding would end with Hennessy, but it’s still a matter of everyday business Downtown. Yesterday they discussed “overhead” – salaries and benefits. They discussed the process by which these salaries and benefits are supposed to be charged to the specific project on which an employee is working – like a subdivision. Then the charges would go to the developer who brought the plans in. Let them complain about the salaries. But no, that’s not how it’s happening, because council decided a few years back to defer developer fees until a project is built out. In other words, these developers come and go from the city building, using city staff like their own private toadies, and PAY NOTHING. That’s why the development fund is like, what, $9 million in deficit? And capital projects is another $3.4 million in the hole – I’m sure on that figure, they bounced that around a few times yesterday. So, they spend a lot of time talking yesterday about where they were supposed to get the money to pay salaries and benefits of those staffers remaining employed. They need about $36 million dollars to cover that. Anybody got any ideas?
Staff is chomping at the bit to start the Hwy 32 widening project, not because CalTRANS will sue us if we don’t – that never even comes up. No, they are desperate for grant money to pay salaries. Does Hwy 32 really need widening? No. But the city needs the money like a hype needs a needle. Ruben Martinez said it in exactly so many words – “We need to get $36 million in projects done to meet our budget.”
And Scott Gruendl asked, “How many staffers would we be able to get out of that…”
There it is folks, just what Contantin said earlier, “we’re still letting our costs drive our funding instead of letting our funding drive our costs…” And by “costs” they really mean, staff salaries and benefits.
There was more to this meeting, I’ll get back to it when I get a chance, but for now here’s how I’d describe our city government – a bunch of monkeys in suits moving peas around under walnuts shells, waiting for more peas to appear out of the clear blue sky.