The mayor’s half-baked homeless plan

The shallow end of the pool: Mayor Anthony Silva.

City staffers and local homelessness experts politely and respectfully dismissed as utterly unworkable Mayor Anthony Silva’s plan for the city to purchase an apartment complex and use it as housing for the homeless.

Silva’s plan is “admirable in many ways” wrote City Manager Kurt Wilson diplomatically … BUT … a “series of issues” hampers the plan.

A series of issues. Such as …

• It’s too vague and lacking in thought-out details;

• Silva has no realistic idea of its cost;

• Or how to fund it;

• The city can’t afford it;

• Besides, it’s a “waste of money” because Silva did not work out how the housing would link to county/private services that transition homeless people into permanent housing.

• So tenants will just end up homeless again;

• And some of the provisions are illegal, such as “any person who refuses our services and simply just wishes to live where they want … will (be) escorted to the city line.”

Not to mention cruel. Silva’s plan, in other words, is an exercise in wishful thinking untethered to reality, similar to his insane “Stockton Proud” vision that called for baloney such as space needles,cruise ships, “fun rides” and mini golf at the Port.

It’s long been clear that Silva lacks the attention span to devise serious policy. Stockton’s mayor can make disadvantaged citizens feel valued. Credit him for that. But all he can offer them or anyone else are publicity stunts and risible policy failures.



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Tubbs, tiny houses (and red tape)

Hilary Lentz, of Pittsburgh, Pa., and her husband Shane leave the tiny house which they rented for a weekend in Croydon, N.H. As the tiny house phenomenon sweeps the nation, Harvard's Millennial Housing Lab thinks a tryout is in order for people toying with radically downsizing their lives.

Council member Michael Tubbs’ proposal for tiny houses to help address Stockton’s homelessness problem goes before the council tonight.

An admittedly quick read of the council agenda item suggests Tubbs’ original vision ran afoul of the absurd red tape that complicates things in Stockton and California.

“Early on,” the staff report reads, “there was a suggestion that these micro house campgrounds be established close enough to the St. Mary’s Interfaith Community Services building (“St. Mary’s”) such that this structure could serve as the required communal center. However, upon further review, locating these campgrounds near St. Mary’s raises two issues.

“First, the proposed locations are in areas zoned for Industrial General, thus, campgrounds are currently prohibited in these areas.

“Second, SMC section 5.76.110 requires bathrooms within 100 feet of the spaces laid out for use by camp cars (or in this case, micro houses). The proposed locations do not meet the bathroom distance requirement from SMC 5.76.110.

Council member Michael Tubbs

The staff report piles on. “Additionally, Chapter 5.76 requires a specific number of toilets, urinals, and showers for each sex. Thus, depending on the number of micro houses permitted in these campgrounds, the number of required toilets and showers could be quite numerous and the facilities at St. Mary’s would likely not meet these requirements as currently situated.

The capper, “Additionally, the City may face problems with density as Chapter 5.76 currently mandates that five feet be maintained between camp cars.”

Please. To think we pay public employees a premium to thwart solutions to city problems in this way.

So Tubbs proposes that the council loosen these restrictions which, in effect, zone out his solution. He has to hack through a kelp bed of red tape to put a few tiny homes near the shelter.

Tubbs’ proposal has another important component, though: it would ease the city’s self-defeating restrictions on small back yard dwellings. Increasing affordable housing stock in this way could avert and reduce homelessness. Fresno has done that; Los Angeles is doing it. It’s a good idea.

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More criticism of the Fair Oaks decision

Leadership in Stockton can mean saying no to the best citizens and the best causes.

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters alluded in his Sunday column to the unwise recent decision by a Stockton council majority to fund the Fair Oaks library.

“Michael Fitzgerald laid Stockton’s budget-busting library decision on Mayor Anthony Silva, who is facing a tough re-election this year.”

Walters quoted my column. “We have had enough talk and heard enough excuses,” Silva said as he pushed for reopening the library. “It’s time to move forward.”

“That’s the problem in a nutshell,” Walters summed up. “Politicians – state, local and federal – seek instant gratification regardless of the long-term effects, often running up debt, including unfunded pension liabilities, that shifts the burden to future generations.”

I hope such criticism makes the five pro-spending council members think twice before again putting “instant gratification” over its “long-term effects.”

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Why Stockton’s future requires fiscal discipline

With apologies to regular readers of this blog, I’m re-posting a city fiscal chart I posted just last week.

The lavender bars represent the projected balance of Stockton’s General Fund from 2012 to 2050. The “V” of a big drop in reserves to which I allude in Friday’s column is clearly visible in the center.

The broken red line at top represents a 16.7% reserve fund. As you can see, the city has such healthy reserves now. This is mainly because Measure A sales tax money is pouring in to hire 120 police, but retaining police has proved to be difficult. So there are many vacant positions.

A word about reserves. One reason Stockton suffered the pain and indignity of bankruptcy is because it didn’t have any. The 16.7% amount is an industry standard that represents two months of operating capital. So if the city piggy bank had only that much coin in it, leaders would have a couple months to cope with the situation.

Back to the chart. In the years to come the city will staff police positions. The current reserve money will go to salaries. Even more costly, the day of reckoning comes for pension costs. CalPERS, the mismanaged state pension giant, is reforming years of creative bookkeeping that hid the true costs of public employee pensions. That’s a good thing overall.

But dramatically rising pension costs could bankrupt Stockton all over again if the city does not stick to its Long-Range Financial Plan. As you can see, around 2027 city reserves will plunge close to the bottom red line, which represents a meagre 5% reserve. If it hits that mark, leaders would have to urgently make cuts to the work force and to services to stave off insolvency. It won’t be pretty.

So managing Stockton’s purse strings means managing not only the present but navigating so the city squeezes through the narrows of the next decade.

If leaders maintain fiscal discipline. as the lavender bars show, the city will climb out of the trough as pension reforms lessen the burden in the long term. But if leaders do what they did with the Fair Oaks library, and give in to well-meaning people who don’t grasp the fiscal future, or, worse, pander to constituents for political gain, then the city will make a return voyage to hell in a handbasket.

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Walkscore and the glacial General Plan

Good luck, fella.

Telling us what we already know, says Stockton is a “car-dependent city.”

The website, which ranks cities for walkability, gave Stockton a 41 out of 100.

The city got a slightly better 54 for its bikeability, and a meager 28 for transit.

San Francisco, by comparison, got a walk score of 86.

It’s 2016 and — speaking personally — my neighborhood, Village Oaks, has become less walkable. There was a Village Oaks Market three short blocks from me. A pleasant walk or bike hop through calm, tree-lined neighborhood. The owner was friendly. But Lincoln Unified bought the property for use as office space.

Now I have to use my car to go somewhere farther off.

Okay … so where is the revision of Stockton’s General Plan? The plan that’s supposed to bring Stockton’s urbanism into the 21st century?

A decade ago, the city created an developer-driven General Plan 2035 that would have doubled Stockton’s size. The Sierra Club sued. Then-Attorney General Jerry Brown threatened to join the suit unless Stockton un-sprawled its plan. The city settled the lawsuit by promising to revise its General Plan and build thousands of housing units downtown and inside city limits.

Then, nothing. Eight years has passed since the settlement.

Eight years, and the city has done next to nothing to keep its end of the bargain. Only last March did it finally hire a consultant, Placeworks of Berkeley and hold its General Plan kickoff meeting.

A city official said around that time that the General Plan’s horizon will advance to 2040. The Sustainable Communities Strategy and Climate Action Plan will be key documents.

The next step is to hold public meetings, said Connie Cochran, the city’s spokesperson. But the city is in no hurry to do it.

“Summertime’s not a good time to get a lot of people out to meetings,” Cochran said.

And after summer? “Also, at the start of the school year people are focussed on getting their kids back to school.”

Look for meetings in the fall.

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Stockton’s dismal library funding

Without further comment, Mas’ood Cajee, a strong library supporter, sends this graphic:

The graphic makes a strong point. Stockton’s libraries are dismally funded.

But there are two differences between Stockton and the other cities in the “Greater Silicon Valley:” Stockton, which is really part of the San Joaquin Valley, suffers from near-Appalachian poverty. So City Hall rakes in fewer tax dollars and it has fewer to spend.

Second, Stockton went bankrupt. It is on a strict post-bankruptcy budget, That budget projects that pension costs will double within the next decade, bringing Stockton perilously close to the 5% budget reserve line that requires urgent staff and compensation cuts. A move we’ve seen before. People died in that movie.

As I’ just wrote yesterday (see post below), even if the city maintains fiscal discipline — and the Council’s fiscal discipline is slipping — CalPERS and pensions may bankrupt the city again. The pension management Hogzilla is $100 billion underfunded and must hike the bill to cities to better fund pensions.

So pension costs will more than double.

Finally — pessimism brings me no pleasure, but — experience has shown that City Hall’s mixture of incompetent governance and damned bad luck will cause any tax to under-perform. Voters didn’t get the cops promised by Measure W; they haven’t got the cops promised by Measure A; they quite possibly won’t get the libraries, hours and services promised by a tax to fund libraries.

It’s not that I’m anti-library; I’m pro-pro-pro library. It’s just that in this city you must first ad foremost be pro solvency. That is the sine qua non of Stockton’s municipal existence. All other services flow out of it. All other services will be devastated if we ignore it, as this graphic tends to do.

All that said, we should be open to solutions that strengthen our library system. Ideas, anyone?




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An ominous fiscal turn

Real bad news for Stockton’s fiscal future: CalPERS made virtually no money on its investments this year.

That’s bad because the state pension management system projects a 7.5% return on its investments. It uses that revenue to defray the cost of public employee pensions to cities such as Stockton.

Instead it made 0.61%. Splat.

No investment revenue, no defraying costs. Meaning CalPERS may hike the bill to Stockton.

This city is on way too tight a budget to absorb much of an increase in pension costs. Stockton’s Long-Range Fiscal Plan, trying to be  conservative — but now, perhaps looking rose-tinted — is based on a 7.25% investment return from CalPERS. But CalPERS average returns over the last decade are below 6%.

Those may sound like small numbers , but they can translate into multimillion dollar increases in the bill to Stockton. If that happens, the city goes bankrupt again.

Add to this that the Council’s fiscal discipline may be slipping. The Council gave police an 11% raise and voted to re-open the Fair Oaks library branch. The police expenditures were painful but necessary; reopening Fair Oaks was a jaw-dropping lapse into overspending. For that reason, staff had recommended against it.

The expenditures actually edged Stockton outside of its fiscal model for the first time since the bankruptcy. Most people don’t realize that. We have a strict budget to avoid chapter 18 in coming years and we’re outside the lines. Only slightly, but it’s a worrisome sign.

Even if Stockton leaders maintain fiscal discipline, CalPERS may bankrupt the city again. “We quite clearly have a lower return expectation than we had just two years ago,” a CalPERS official said at a gloomy press conference.

The handwriting’s on the wall. Hogzilla will soon devour even more money. God help Stockton.

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High-speed rail here and there

German Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurates a new high-speed rail line between Erfurt and Halle/Leipzig.

Finally somebody likes high-speed rail. Unfortunately, it’s Donald Trump.

The New York Times dug up a quote: “China and these other countries, they have super-speed trains. We have nothing,” Trump told The Guardian newspaper last year. “This country has nothing. We are like the Third World, but we will get it going and we will do it properly.”

Meanwhile, Congressman who chairs the Oversight Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets lamented this week that California has absorbed about $3.9 billion in stimulus funding for HSR, but “state’s high-speed rail project has been mired in delays, almost doubled its budget and lowered its initial speed projections.”

Other countries are getting it done. Korea’s expanding it. Italy’s developing it..

What California has so far: this lovely artist's rendering.

But California is plodding forward. Possible stations in Fresno and Madera are being scoped out. Bakersfield, too. Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be “federal regulators have rejected California’s request to exempt a route in the Central Valley for what would be the nation’s first bullet train from a lengthy planning review.”

So while others create 21st-century transportation, in the Golden State its high-speed rail vs. low-speed regulations.


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The city rides to Jerry’s rescue

71-year-old Jerry Ruff will be able to live inside his house, not in his driveway.

The Council on Tuesday voted to fund repairs to the home of Jerry Ruff, the cognitively impaired 70something who’s lived in his car for a year after code enforcers put him out of his home.

The city will funnel a $110,000 CalHome loan — state money — “provided as a 30- year, one percent (1%) interest loan, with payments deferred until the end of the loan term,” the staff report says. The money will ” correct deferred maintenance issues, water damage, and building code violations.”

That last proviso, payments deferred for 30 years, effectively means Ruff will never have to repay the loan. It’ll be repaid when the house changes hands.

In addition, “energy and water saving features will be installed in the home to reduce on-going costs,” the staff report adds.

Turns out the same code people who unhomed Jerry notified housing staff that he was a perfect candidate for the housing program. So there’s a slim chance for City of Stockton staffers to pass through the Pearly Gates after all.

The city’s solution is just. Boarding Ruff’s home because it was filthy and not up to code, forcing him to live in a car that was worse in every respect, was the pretzel logic of bureaucracy. But this action is both good news and good government, with a happy ending in prospect. City Hall deserves credit.

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Police get raise, want more


Stockton Police Officers Association head Kathryn Nance

Though Stockton is on a very tight budget, the City Council on Tuesday gave police an 11 percent raise. It’s necessary.

I support this raise. I called for it. Still … there are a couple worrisome elements.

When you couple a raise that’s 5 percent above the city’s Long-Range Financial Plan (its post-bankruptcy budget) with the statement by the police union head that the raise is not enough — implying more raises may be considered within several years — and add the funding of the Fair Oaks library branch against the recommendation of city staff — well, one worries City Hall’s fiscal discipline is unravelling.

But fiscal discipline is necessary to keep Stockton from going bankrupt again. Pension costs will increase hugely over the next 10 years. Pensions may bankrupt the city again whether it remains austere or not. But they certainly will if leaders cave to loud voices demanding restoration of unaffordable services.

I asked city spokesperson Connie Cochran how it all fits into the budget, if it does.

She said it does. “This has been compared to the Long-Range Financial Plan and it is affordable … ” Cochran said. “But you’re right, it was not originally anticipated.”

Because City Hall’s been sticking to the program, there is some “one-time savings” that can be used to fund this raise, Cochran said.

That’s a concern. One of City Hall’s hard-earned lessons is not to use one-time funds for ongoing expenses. The one-time money runs out, leaving the city on the hook for ongoing costs.

Cochran couldn’t speak to that one.

Another valid question is, if the city is budgeting correctly, and finding an ongoing revenue stream for police raises, what’s that money coming out of? Which city budget areas get whacked?

I’m being a worrywart. Once bankrupt, twice shy.

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    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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