Claremont Insider: Comment of the Day: Cut Up that Credit Card

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Comment of the Day: Cut Up that Credit Card

As we wrote yesterday, the state's threat to use $2.5 billion in Prop. 1A transportation funds to help balance California's $15.5 billion or so budget deficit is causing a lot of hand-wringing on the local level.

Claremont Mayor Ellen Taylor had a letter published in Saturday's Claremont Courier urging voters to write to Governor Schwarzenegger and to state legislators to tell to keep their mitts off OUR money.

The problem is that Claremont, like many other cities across the state, have so thoroughly mismanaged their finances that when a rainy day comes, they can't deal with the state shutting off the money spigot temporarily.

Now, this is not to excuse the state-level dysfunction, to which both major political parties have contributed, but if it had watched how it spent our money, Claremont would be much better positioned to deal with the current economic environment.

In her comments, also published in today's Daily Bulletin, Queen Ellen makes the "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me" ploy. Claremont will suffer needlessly if the state takes that money, Ellen says. Taylor claims that Claremont "lives within its means" but will face a $500,000 deficit if the Prop. 1A money is taken away.

Yesterday, in commenting on Taylor's false claims about our living within our means, we found $135,000 in money that we feel was just thrown away to the Friends of Taylor. A reader wrote in with this response:

If Ellen Taylor is so incensed at the State of California for potentially raiding the City of Claremont’s coffers, let her take the proverbial mote out of her own eye and look at how Claremont City government is borrowing and spending Claremont taxpayer money here.

Didn’t the city (or redevelopment agency- same people, different legal entity) just borrow a million dollars from its own sewer fund to help with Harry Wu’s purchase of the land beneath the Doubletree Hotel? When are they going to pay that back and will it be with interest?

I watch the council meetings when they play on the local cable station and I always hear about the conferences that they attend. There seem to be so many of them that these council members go to and how much does that cost? How many staff members also go to these conferences and how much does that cost every year? How about the benefits that the Courier reported at least two council members (Taylor and Yao) are taking, that has a price also.

That is not even mentioning the extra $ 1 million to purchase Johnson’s pasture, $800,000 for the trolley around the block, $60,000 for the centennial that did not have enough sponsors.

No, I think the Claremont City Council needs to get its own house in order before it starts asking citizens to harass the state for money, our taxpayer money remember, just so it can misspend more of it.

Should the state take away the those transportation bond funds, which voters approved in 2004 with the understanding that they would be used for traffic and transportation projects? No. But should Claremont and other cities in California figure their budgets based on worst case scenarios that include the possibility that those funds might not be available for a time? Of course!

Instead of spending prudently, we count on state and federal grants to fund projects like the Claremont Trolley. Then, rather then saving our local revenue in a rainy day fund to be used in emergencies like the present one, we take the money saved through the use of grants and stupidly give it away. So, when the state unexpectedly stops the money flow, we're stuck with commitments to projects that have to now be covered by our own revenue.

Where have we spent our money? Well, besides the $135,000 we've already cited, the reader mentioned the nearly $11,000 we give Queen Ellen for her deferred compensation, a 401(k)-like retirement account and the similar amount we pay for Councilmember Peter Yao's health benefits. (Hey, another $20,000-plus a year to save!)

And, as the reader also noted, that extra $1 million we had to pay to purchase Johnson's Pasture because of a misphrased deed sure would have come in handy right now.

Of course, the spending hasn't slowed down. Queen Ellen is pushing forward with spending $1.5 million on Phase 1 a highly questionable Padua Sports Park this fall. When completed, the Sports Park will cost taxpayers an estimated $10-12 million.

We hear a lot of talk right now about moral hazard and the need to not bail out homeowners and credit card holders because people need the threat of financial failure in order to properly understand risk. Bailing people and institutions out, the argument goes, may encourage them to take foolish, stupid risks.

Cities are no different. Until Claremont and the people in power in town (the League of Women Voters, Claremont Heritage, the Chamber of Commerce, to name a few) understand that the risks behind their policy decisions and how those risks fit into the bigger financial picture, they will keep on with their foolish spending ways.

The bill is coming due, and, rather than blaming the state (which has its own blame to bear), it's high time they faced that uncomfortable situation that their cumulative decisions have created.