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Chico city council plays their little violin for the “homeless” while sticking it to the rest of us with Utility Tax

13 Feb

I received two rate increases in my last PG&E bill, one a “general rate case application” and the other for the decommission of the failed Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.

I also got a letter from Cal Water detailing their pending rate increase. A CPUC hearing held in Chico this week drew a few protesters, but I’m unaware of any city council member or county supervisor who bothered to show up. 

It’s better to approach the CPUC directly, anyway. The hearings are just a dog-and-pony show required by law, overseen by shills hired away from the utility companies. It’s a good idea to write to the CPUC – in past a CPUC commissioner actually turned down a water rate increase, asking for further hearings, because he’d had so many protests from ratepayers. That increase went through, but not at the original amount requested by Cal Water.

There is a “formal protest” option, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The local CPUC rep told me I should get a lawyer to fill out the forms when I inquired about it. He said they’re very complicated and mistakes will result in your complaint being round-filed. I asked then-supervisor Maureen Kirk to do it but she turned me down. The city of Chico didn’t even discuss my suggestion that they mount a formal protest. That’s frustrating, because we pay for the city and county to have a lot of legal counsel, more than any of us could afford. And that’s what it takes, paying a lawyer.

But why would the city lift a finger to stop utility rate increases when they collect millions in utility tax – about $7 million last year. The budget projection for this year was over $8 million, but that was before the Camp Fire drove who knows how many refugees into residence in Chico. Whether they live in hotels or rentals or have bought homes, they will contribute to a heavy spike in utility tax. 

So, I’m actually hoping this nasty weather we’re having right now will result in higher PG&E bills, maybe people will get pissed off enough to start rattling their chains. Our city leaders are always posturing, posing and primping. Ann Schwab’s proposal for a rent control ordinance is a pretty brassy beginning to her 2020 campaign – she’s already pulled her papers. Randy Stone and Scott Huber have pasted their faces all over the “warming tents” – Stone has pulled his papers for 2020 and Huber used “the homeless” as his 2018 campaign. 

I think these petty gestures are very insincere, so I wrote a letter to the editor about it, see below.

REMINDER! start gathering together your utility bills, UT rebates will be available starting May 1. More about that later!

Chico council members have made goodwill gestures toward the growing low-income population in our town but have yet to offer anything of substance.

An ordinance to protect renters from landlords?  California tenants already get a minimum 30  days (60 days after one year’s tenancy) notice for any change in tenancy. Local jurisdictions mandating their own reasons to evict is contrary to state law.

A $100,000 budget for warming tents that attract less than a dozen street people? There are three publicly-funded shelters in town, as well as CHAT’s rotating “Safe Space”. 

These  gestures seem little more than grandstanding when council tacks a fee onto our PG&E, Cal Water and landline phone bills. Currently the city taxes our utility bills at the highest rate allowed – 5 percent. Utility Tax is one of the  city’s biggest revenue sources, raking in almost $7 million last year. While the city incurred some costs with the evacuees, UT revenues are sure to spike in 2019 – all those new residents, and rate hikes coming from Cal Water and PG&E. 

I saw no member of council at the Cal Water rate increase public hearing. Nor has the city mounted any formal protest against PG&E’s plans.

If council members sincerely want to help low income folks, they would reduce the UT, and protest the rate hikes. Instead they are using expensive staff time to figure out how to get us to approve yet another tax on ourselves.

Empty gestures are easily made with other people’s money. Let’s see something that really matters.

 

 

 

 

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Dan Walter: School officials and school unions are teaching students that it’s all right to run up credit card bills, blame others for overspending and then cross their fingers that someone will bail them out

11 Feb

After I wrote my analysis of CARD’s use of their expensive Cal Park Lakeside Pavilion facility, I read this piece by Dan Walter:

https://calmatters.org/articles/commentary/school-districts-set-poor-example-for-students/

Walters is talking about various California school districts, but what he says also applies to our local recreation district – ” it’s all right to run up credit card bills, blame others for overspending and then cross their fingers that someone will bail them out.”

That’s becoming standard public agency policy these days, and it’s not just the pensions, but poor spending decisions by policy makers. I mean, blatant decisions, like spend $385,000 on a remodel for council chambers, or paying a million borrowed dollars on a crapped out old building and then several hundred thousand fixing it. 

But most poor spending decisions seem to involve public salaries and benefits. Walter reports ” In 2017, when Sacramento Unified’s teachers were threatening to strike, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg mediated a new contract that gave teachers an 11 percent raise. Later, it emerged that the salary increases would come from a reserve set aside for pension fund payments.”

In Chico, both the city and CARD have set up “pension trust” funds, allocating money from other city funds, to pay down their pension deficit. this is in addition to what taxpayers already pay toward pensions on a monthly basis. We pay their payments monthly, and then we’re on the hook for an annual payment that increases every year – this year, $7,598,561.  Former CARD finance director Scott Dowell now runs the city finances, so he set up both funds. He says these funds save money by avoiding penalties from CalPERS. What it amounts to is embezzling money from one fund to another so you can spend it any way you want. 

In Sacramento, contrary to the  rules for one of these “trusts”, they spent the money to give their teachers an 11 percent raise. Of course, you know what those raises are going to do to those teachers’ pensions, right?

As soon as Chico Unified passed Measure K in 2016, district finance mangler Kevin Bultema told the board they were still looking at deficits caused by raises given teachers. He told me in an e-mail that if they didn’t get more money they’d cut programs. 

Walter’s point in this piece is that the schools are setting a poor example for the kids. I’d say,  government in general is setting a poor example for everybody. 

 

“Special meeting” of city council, held at Cal Park Pavilion on Saturday at 8:30am in a dumping storm – think they really wanted anybody to show up?

6 Feb

I’ve signed up for various city meeting agenda notifications, and the other day I got a notice for a special city council meeting. It bugged me so much wondering what they were up to, I got out on the highway in a howling rainstorm to drive up to California Park Lakeside Pavilion to find out.

It just seemed weird. Saturday before the Super Bowl, weatherman making winter storm warnings, and they decide to have an 8:30 am meeting at the Pavilion.

I arrived with a few minutes to spare, following Mayor Stone into the  building. I found the rest of council and various staffers making their greetings and chit chat in one of the small meeting rooms that line the main hall. A big blue sheet was hanging on one wall next to the viewing screen. Three tables were set up in the middle of the room and a line of folding chairs was set along one wall.

A man immediately walked up and admired my rain boots. I must admit they are very attractive, and practical too. We introduced ourselves. His name was Scott Winter, and he said he would be running the meeting. His business, he said, was “Human Performance,” or, “how to get people to show up.”

So, I had to ask him, it just popped out of my mouth – if you want people to show up, why would you have an 8:30 am meeting on a Saturday in a howling storm at an out-of-the-way building with  little or no notice to the public?

Dammit, no wonder I can’t make friends or influence people, my mouth has no damned kill switch.

He looked shocked, and then recovered, saying he needed a room that would accommodate “everybody”, as well as his big blue sheet – he gestured toward the wall with the big blue sheet.

Well sheesh, there’s walls all over council chambers, and that accommodates hundreds. There are two meeting rooms at the city chambers that are at least as big as the room they used at the Pavilion.

The meeting got started, Winters showed a video of another consultant who talked for about 15 minutes about “collaboration,” and how you have to let your defensive down to be constructive when working with a group. 

After the video Winter handed out a sheet of questions each person was supposed to ask themselves about their own defense mechanisms. 

And then, Winter handed out sheets of sticky sided paper, several sheets for each council person, and asked them to list their goals for council in the coming year.

Suggestions ranged from “more enjoyable council meetings” to “more money for the city” and “house all homeless” Some of the suggestions were repetitive – that’s what the big blue sheet was  for – Winter hung the sheets of paper on the sheet and the group went about trying to put the suggestions in groups.

Meanwhile, we members of the public sat along the wall, being told we were not allowed to participate. 

Wow, this guy sure knows how to get people to SHUT UP, not sure if he really wants to get them to SHOW UP.

By about 10am the consultant and some members of the group started to get a little peevish. Not everyone was cooperative, I won’t say who, but I could tell Winters was  getting impatient. Nothing was being accomplished, and several members of council expressed confusion over what they were being asked to  do, and what was meant by some of the suggestions on the board. Most were vague to the point of stupid.

Winter had to get on his soapbox and remind these people, they have lost the trust of the public, been sued for Brown Act violations, and needed to start being more transparent. That, apparently, was the dilemma that necessitated a “special meeting.” 

At this point I had to leave – my time is worth something. I wasn’t being allowed to contribute, the public had been let in out of legal necessity. And I’d heard plenty.

I had to wonder, what is Scott Winter’s time worth?

So I wrote a note to staff and asked – Winter got $3,000 for his day playing little children’s games and calling a bunch of brats on the carpet. Another $472 for the room at the Pavilion. 

Why was this a “special meeting”? Why not schedule and notice a regular workshop? Winter told me it was because he is very busy, but his friend Mark Orme had called him in Poland to tell him it was really important so as soon as he got home they’d made arrangements for the meeting. I didn’t ask him why the Pavilion, I think it’s pretty obvious they didn’t really want anybody to show up.

 

 

City staff using Camp Fire to justify sewer rate increase

1 Feb

According to a rambling letter from Stephanie Taber, somebody is running a survey to determine whether “the voters” want to support a sales tax increase for street maintenance. I’ve been waiting for such a survey, but of course I know they won’t sent it or call it to me. These consultants very carefully vet their audience and contact those who are most likely to support these increases. It’s not an attempt to see what people want, but to plant ideas in their heads, and talk them into coughing up more money.

Right now the city is using a very embedded local media to run their initial campaign. Public works director Eric Gustafson was on the news recently, showing us floating piles of poop down at the sewer plant, trying to tell us the Camp Fire evacuees are putting a strain on our sewer system.

Here’s my first question – why didn’t any of this come up during past discussions of new subdivisions? Why not during the approval of Air BNB? 

I’ve heard them discuss the sewer plant – a year and a half ago, at a discussion of  cost allocation,  the sewer plant manager complained that salaries and benefits are eating up all the money at the sewer plant and they would need a rate increase or the sewer fund would go into deficit. Looking at the latest version of the city of Chico budget shows the sewer plant fund is running in deficit. 

http://www.chico.ca.us/finance/documents/2018-19CityAnnualFINALBudget.pdf

The sewer budget is divided into different categories. I used the ‘F’ search to scan down for each mention of sewer fund activity. As of July 2018 most of the totals are shown in parenthesis, which means “deficit”. Those funds not shown in deficit only have about  $100,000 or less. But look at the revenues they take in – where does all that money  go? Look at the top of the expenditures page 61/312 – “debt principal” and “debt interest”. 

That’s allll about the pensions, Honey!

https://chicotaxpayers.com/2019/01/18/heres-how-the-city-hides-payments-toward-the-pension-deficit/

Again, on page 62 – another couple of million goes to “debt principal” and “debt interest”. 

Millions of dollars for their pension funds, but no money to run the plant? 

Gustafson contradicts himself in the news story too.

Before the fire, Chico’s wastewater treatment facility processed about 6 million gallons of waste on average per day. Since then that amount has gone up to 7 million. Biosolid production has gone up 70%, while overall waste and sewage flows are up 17%.

Gustafson tells Action News Now, the facility is able to handle a capacity of 12 million gallons of waste per day. But, the city is currently equipped to take on an amount over a decade of growth, rather than overnight.”

He says capacity is 12 million gallons, but complains that waste production has gone up to 7 million. That leaves room for quite a bit more poo poo. What is this man trying to pull here?

“‘If those increased flows continue, there will be increased costs, and we will have to go to council for increased funds,’ Gustafson says.

“Chico Public Works is now working on a rate analysis to determine if a rate increase should happen to help with waste processing costs and fixing the 90-year-old underground plumbing system that supports the city.”

Now they’re mentioning the 90-year-old underground plumbing system that supports the city?  This never comes up during discussions of approving ginormous new subdivisions. 

Here’s the real reason:

“Chicoans now pay the lowest sewer rates out of all cities in the area: $22.98 per month. Compare this to Orland’s $26.10, Sacramento’s $32 and Napa’s $42.83.

Chicoans still pay the same rate, but new development has added many, many new customers since the rate was increased. And, again, the sewer plant is only operating at a little more than half capacity.

See how these people try to spin a story to make us think we need to raise our own taxes? 

This is what Steven Greenhut is talking about in “PLUNDER!” These employees are in position to tell us whatever they want. They have a local media that is more than willing to run their propaganda campaign. It’s up to the rest of us to pay attention and say something.

From Ch 12 Action News Now

CHICO SEWAGE NUMBERS SPIKE POST-CAMP FIRE

The amount of human waste production in Chico has shot up by amounts normally seen over a 10 year period.

Posted: Jan. 29, 2019 11:46 AM
Updated: Jan. 30, 2019 10:06 AM

CHICO, Calif. – The City of Chico has seen a population explosion, and it’s not just the roads that are impacted. Post-Camp Fire sewage production numbers are at an all-time high.

Action News Now reporter Stephanie Lin sat down with Public Works’ Eric Gustafson for a closer look at the cause behind all the waste. He reports seeing an average of a million gallons extra per day being pushed through the city’s treatment facilities.

“Multiple family members or friends are staying in one household,” Gustafson explains, “so that’s double the flow from one household but the [charged sewage] rate is still the same.”

The same idea applies to those living in RVs connecting to sewer hook-ups on one shared property. Then there’s all the septage from Cal OES, FEMA, and PG&E base camps. Add all these sources together, and you’ve got one big costly problem.

“If those increased flows continue, there will be increased costs, and we will have to go to council for increased funds,” Gustafson says.

Chico Public Works is now working on a rate analysis to determine if a rate increase should happen to help with waste processing costs and fixing the 90-year-old underground plumbing system that supports the city.

Chicoans now pay the lowest sewer rates out of all cities in the area: $22.98 per month. Compare this to Orland’s $26.10, Sacramento’s $32 and Napa’s $42.83.

Before the fire, Chico’s wastewater treatment facility processed about 6 million gallons of waste on average per day. Since then that amount has gone up to 7 million. Biosolid production has gone up 70%, while overall waste and sewage flows are up 17%.

THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE –  Gustafson tells Action News Now, the facility is able to handle a capacity of 12 million gallons of waste per day. But, the city is currently equipped to take on an amount over a decade of growth, rather than overnight. 

Public Works plans to present their rate analysis to city council late spring. Once that is done, the public will also be able to chime in.
No rate changes will happen until there is at least a 51% approval. Conversations also continue with state legislators to hopefully find a fast fix to the sewage problem.

In the meantime, the work continues to maintain the expected quality of life for Chicoans and their new neighbors.

“We want Paradise folks to know they are welcome in Chico, and hope they can find a bit of normalcy,” Gustafson emphasizes.

Don’t be fooled – City of Chico’s proposed tax measure is all about the pensions

21 Jan

The city of Chico is ramping up their tax increase campaign, with city staffers soliciting the news paper for stories about funding shortages, and lately, using the Camp Fire as an excuse to seek a revenue measure.

https://www.chicoer.com/2019/01/15/theres-been-more-traffic-in-chico-since-the-camp-fire-and-thats-not-changing-anytime-soon/

No mention of the dramatic uptick in home sales and how the outrageous price increases will affect property tax valuations. No mention of the effect that 29,000 people swooping down on your retail sector is going to have on sales tax revenues. No mention of what full capacity motels will contribute in “Transient Occupancy” or “bed tax”. Property, sales, and TOT are three of the four biggest revenues our city receives. The fourth is Utility Tax, and that’s going up with increases in PG&E rates. It’s a win-win all the way around for City of Chico, but they cry poormouth and want a revenue measure.

Stand up people, and let them know what you think of this attempt to embezzle more taxpayer money into their own pockets. I sent the following letter to the Enterprise Record this morning. 

City staff says traffic congestion and accidents are up in Chico and asks more money for road improvements, police and fire staffing. Despite an unprecedented increase in property tax valuations, sales tax receipts and TOT due  to Camp Fire evacuees, council has directed staff to look into putting a revenue measure on an upcoming ballot.

Dan Walters opines most local revenue measures are “all about the pensions.” I agree. The mayor of Capitola admitted, “ if we put a measure across for pensions it would be doomed for failure immediately”, so their November ballot measure read “to help fund youth programs, protect parks, beaches and open space, and support local businesses.”

Pension liability is the difference between what is paid into the California Public Employee Retirement System, and what employees expect to get in retirement. City of Chico employees pay less than 10 percent of their pension cost, while the taxpayers pay roughly 30 percent. That leaves the city an unfunded liability of over $129 million.

In 2018 city staff made a $7,598,561 annual payment toward their pension liability. Part of that money is allocated from each department fund, based on total department compensation. The rest of the annual payment is allocated from the General Fund.  Council approved allocations are how they transfer money from one fund to another in order to avoid spending restrictions – like spending public safety or road funding on their unfunded pension liability.

Despite any promises to the contrary,  the city’s proposed revenue measure is all about the pensions.

Juanita Sumner, Chico

 

Here’s how the city hides payments toward the pension deficit

18 Jan

I got the agenda for next Wednesday’s City of Chico Finance Committee meeting – if you want to know how your money is being spent, these are worth a read:

http://www.ci.chico.ca.us/government/minutes_agendas/documents/1.23.19FinanceCommitteeAgendaPacket.pdf

The agenda includes the Finance Department’s monthly report – make yourself read through the gobblety-gook of numbers and acronyms, it gets easier to pick things out. Use Google search for any term (including acronyms) that you don’t understand. 

I like to scan down and look for certain things – I like to see where revenues come from, I like to see where they’re spent. They move this money like peas under nut shells – certain funds are restricted to certain uses, but somehow they manager to “allocate” money from one fund to another, and then they can spend it the way they please.

You need to remember this when the city starts talking about their revenue measure. Right now the talking heads – including members of the public that have too much influence over council – are arguing between a sales tax increase measure and a bond. Whichever way they  go, they will need to decide between a “special” tax and a “general” tax. Currently, a “special” tax requires 2/3’s voter approval, while a “general” tax only requires a simple 51 percent. 

But it doesn’t really matter in the end, because once they get the money, they can “allocate” it right into their own pockets. 

Look at the report and watch for the word “pension”. Right away I find “CalPERS UAL payment” – that’s for the unfunded pension liability – the difference between what public employees have paid for their retirement and what they expect to get. Last May city Finance Director Scott Dowell informed the Finance Committee that the city’s UAL is over $129 million. 

The UAL payment is made once a year. This payment is separate from the regular pension payments made monthly – those are mushed in with salaries and benefits, you’d have to ask Dowell exactly what the city pays per month. 

The 2018 pay out for the UAL is $7,598,561. That’s seven million, five hundred and ninety-eight thousand, five hundred and sixty-one dollars. Say it out loud a few times, you pay for it.

Because this money doesn’t come from the employees. They pay anywhere from two percent to nine percent of their monthly pension costs. The taxpayers float another 25 – 30 percent. The rest makes up the floating liability. Here’s how the city of Chico transfers this liability onto the backs of the taxpayers.

When I asked Scott Dowell where the money for these payments comes from I got the following answer:

Fund 903 has two inflows:

1.       Each City fund that has payroll is charged a percentage of payroll for the applicable share of the estimated annual unfunded liability payment.  That amount is transferred to Fund 903 from each applicable fund.  These transfers are used to pay the annual unfunded liability payment to CalPERS out of Fund 903.

2.       The second inflow is a direct transfer from the General Fund to the Fund 903 approved by the City Council.  There was an initial transfer from the General Fund to Fund 903 of $541,455 for the year ending June 30, 2017.

Let’s look at that.

1.        this is how they hide the payment – “transfers” – they take payroll money. Look at the budget, you see “salaries and benefits” in each department’s expenditures, nothing about paying down the UAL.

2.        and there it is – “a direct transfer from the General Fund  to the Fund 903 approved by the City Council.”

The General Fund is a cookie jar with no restrictions. I’ve sat at meetings and watched money being transferred from other, restricted funds, into the GF, so they can spend the money the way they want. This is “allocation.” 

So when they tell you a  tax measure will be devoted to “street maintenance” or “public safety,” here’s what that means. 

  • CalPERS unfunded pension liability payment for 2018 – $7,598,561.00
  • Roughly half goes to “Safety” (cops and fire) – $3,660,240.00
  • An increase over last year ($6,547,673) of $1,055,888.00

 

Dan Walters: illegal use of taxpayer money continues to be a problem “because local prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office ignore complaints about its illegality”

6 Jan

I’m not alone in my complaints about misuse of taxpayer funds to run tax increase campaigns – here’s what Dan Walters has to say about it:

https://calmatters.org/articles/commentary/finally-a-crackdown-on-misuse-of-taxpayer-money/

Here’s something the city of Chico and CARD have both done.

“Local governments hire “consultants” to poll voters on what tax and bond measures they would find acceptable, to draft those proposals accordingly and, finally, to run so-called “information” campaigns to persuade voters to approve them.

It’s so blatant that firms seeking lucrative contracts openly boast of their successful campaigns, eliminating any doubt that they are truly political operatives.”

I’ve sat at meetings listening to these consultants, all they talk about is how to get the public to pass revenue measures. I’ve seen their websites, bragging that they can pass tax measures.  Sit in on a meeting sometime – and then look around the room and add up the staff salaries. That’s spending of taxpayer money to promote a tax measure, it’s right in front of our faces, like that big elephant that just took a giant dump on your carpet. 

Furthermore, Walters says, “The practice has ballooned because local prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office ignore complaints about its illegality. Indeed, local district attorneys often benefit from the higher taxes.”

Didn’t I just say that in my last post – theButte County DA and all his hangers on benefit from every tax measure that comes around the pike – it just perpetuates the salaries and pensions. He’s not going to answer a complaint from a citizen – we are forced to take our gripes to state agencies. 

I told you about the complaint that Yuba County citizens took to the FPPC with the help of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. They charge that a recent tax measure passed in Yuba County, Measure K, was passed illegally with only 54 percent, when it was written as a special tax requiring 2/3’s voter approval.  Another Yuba County citizen, Territorial Dispatch contributor Lou Binninger, has taken up the issue of the use of taxpayer funds to promote the measure. 

Unfortunately the FPPC (all on public salaries and benefits) has sent back Binninger’s complaint, saying he needs “evidence.” 

We all need to use our eyes and ears people, because nobody is going to come riding in to save us.