Claremont Insider: Local Accountability

Monday, February 15, 2010

Local Accountability


With the city of Claremont and the Claremont Unified School District both facing even more budget cutting, both agencies are reaching out to the community for help in solving their money problems. Although the City and the CUSD are pursuing similar strategies, their goals are very different.


The City seems to have moved on a little from its Glenn Southard days and is actually trying to solicit real opinions that it will try to incorporate into its decisions. Claremont held the first of two community budget workshops last week, and the second is scheduled for tomorrow night, February 16, from 7-9pm in the Padua Room of the Alexander Hughes Community Center at 1700 Danbury Rd.

The City has also posted its Powerpoint budget presentation along with an online survey that will be used to determine budgetary priorities. The survey needs to be completed before Monday, February 22, if you want your responses to be included in the budget discussion.

Tony Krickl reported on last week's budget workshop in Saturday's Claremont Courier (sorry, no link available):

Residents were asked to provide their opinions on the most deserving programs and projects for the city's revenues. Some of the top priorities identified at the meeting include fiscal responsibility, public safety, high building standards and sustainability.

But city officials warn big expense projects on the scale of Padua Park are likely off the table in the near future. "We don't have a lot of extra money lying around to do big capital projects," City Manager Jeff Parker said.

The article also indicated that city officials were surprised by the severity of the recession, and had to deal with a General Fund (the portion of the budget that is funded by things like sales and property taxes) that in the past year was reduced from $22 million to $20 million. In addition, as you probably know, the city has had to cut back on services and reduce the number of employees by almost 15 percent.

City Manager Parker also said in the Courier article that the City could lose between $50,000 and $100,000 in sale tax revenue if Claremont Toyota's sales suffer from any backlash to Toyota's problems with accelerator and brake controls on many of its models.

The biggest surprise to us is that city officials didn't foresee any of these financial problems and went ahead with a number of costly projects. For example, the City spent about $2.6 million building the aforementioned scaled-down version of Padua Park, and borrowed $527,000 from its General Fund reserve in the process. That one project therefore accounted for virtually all of the city's budgetary problems. You would have thought the responsible thing would have been to wait until the economy and the city's finances improved before proceeding with such a large capital outlay. The City was really no different than a family that decides to go ahead with remodeling their kitchen right before their income is reduced by half because of a job loss. Yes, they couldn't foresee the problem, but still, they have to reduce spending when it happens.

Claremont is certainly in much better shape than some cities, but it's still accountable for having created its own problems at the cost of the very municipal jobs and services it holds so dear.


As we predicted last week, rather than a self-examination of how it managed to misspend $48.9 million in Measure Y bond money, Claremont Unified is gearing up for a revenue enhancement campaign by laying a guilt trip on taxpayers. CUSD board president Hilary LaConte was quoted in Saturday's Courier on this point (again, no link):
"I think one of the questions that will come out of this is that what does the community really value in education our children?" Ms. LaConte said. "Many other districts are turning to their communities for help and we are doing the same. We really want to get a sense of where the community lies before we go forward."

In other words, if Claremonters don't want a bond (CUSD's funding vehicle of choice), they don't value their children's education.

To help CUSD determine the level of public support for either a bond or a parcel tax, the district hired TBWB Public Finance Strategies, LLC, to poll residents. The problem with that consultant, in our view, is that this is not like hiring the Gallup Poll. Polling is not their single area of expertise. Rather, TBWB advertises itself as being expert at getting financing measures passed. They are more of a campaign consultant than a pure polling company, and CUSD hired them in 2000 to help get Measure Y passed.

This all leads us to believe that the real purpose behind CUSD's bringing in TBWB is not to seek public opinion but to determine the best ways of marketing a future bond or tax to voters. The polling results will be used by the district to shape its future financing election campaign. The CUSD board (with the exception of boardmember Steve Llanusa) has almost certainly already decided what it wants and couldn't care less about what we the public believes is important.

Unlike the City's public opinion survey and community budget meetings, CUSD (which remains the Claremont 400's playground), already knows what it will do. The rest, community meetings, polls, Claremont Courier puff pieces, is simply window dressing.

Fiscal accountability has come up very little or not at all in the discussions. Worse, if we end up with a bond measure, none of that money will go towards hiring a single new teacher or underwriting existing salaries and benefits. A bond will only be used for new construction, remodeling, and upgrades of existing facilities - something that we did only 10 years ago with Measure Y. And, incidentally, we are still paying off Measure Y today (check your property tax bill for last year).

Really, when you think about it, CUSD's board is a kind of neutron bomb of public agencies, keeping all the buildings standing but eliminating people. They're really concerned with having the newest goo gaw rather than investing in hiring and keeping good teachers. We understand that California's school districts have been hit very hard - harder than most cities - by the state's never-ending budget deficits, but CUSD and almost all of its boardmembers, current and past, have thrown away millions over the years and will do so again if given the chance. They must be held accountable first, then we can talk about finances.