Lately, as I have been watching cities and other local governments all over the country struggle with declining revenue, I have been reminded of my own experience as Deputy Mayor and Mayor of Ventura during the last recession, when we faced so many of the same issues. It was, I have to admit, a pretty bruising experience as we tried to figure out how to raise revenue, cut costs, balance the budget, and keep everybody happy – which was, of course, impossible.
So I thought I’d try to help people going who are going through this now understand my experience by calling upon some of the blogs I wrote at the time – blogs originally written to my constituents to explain why I made the decisions I made. So I’m reprinting three blogs. The first highlighted the fact that there is no “magic bullet” in this kind of situation. The second, this one, talks about how residents resist higher fees during a recession. And the third will talk about the bruising emotional tool a recession takes on a city and its residents.
All these blogs were published in my 2017 book, Talk City: A Chronicle of Political Life in an All-American City. You can learn more about Talk City (and order the book) by clicking here
At the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008 – when I was Deputy Mayor of Ventura – the City Council adopted two fees that turned out to be very controversial: a “9-1-1 fee” of $1.49 per month per phone line designed to help pay for our city’s 9-1-1 call center, and a $99-per-year weed abatement fee for hillside property owners. This blog was written in the middle of the controversy in 2008.
We got creamed in the press and by constituents all winter and spring over passage of the 911 fee. More recently, we’ve gotten hammered by hillside property owners for the weed abatement fee of $99, which is meant to cover the city’s cost of ensuring that hillside property owners are complying with the State Fire Code. Our 911 fee is still in place – the so-called “opt-out” period ended yesterday – but on Monday night we did waive the weed abatement fee for this year while we take a step back.
People don’t complain much about fees when they understand what service they’re paying for. If you’re doing a room addition, for example, and we charge a fee to cover the city’s cost of processing the permit, people understand that. If we raise the fee a lot they may gripe, but at least they understand that they are paying for something they are getting.
In the case of both the 911 fee and the weed abatement fee, it’s not as clear to people what they are buying their fee. They’re not paying a fee based on something they are applying for – a room addition, a business license, whatever – but rather based on the fact that they fall into a particular category of resident. For example, everyone who buys telephone service pays the 911 fee (unless you opt-out, in which case you pay by the call); and that, of course, is just about everyone, which is why some people think it’s a tax. The money is earmarked to maintain the state-mandated 911 call center. Similarly, everybody who owns hillside property received a bill for the weed fee, whether or not they maintain their property on their own, simply because they live in a high-fire-hazard area. That money is earmarked to pay for the city’s cost on ensuring compliance with the State Fire Code.
So when people gripe, it’s because they’re being asked to pay a fee when they aren’t applying for or seeking anything in particular. This is a fair point and we’ll debate it over the coming weeks and months. But if we do back off fees like this, then we will have to make much deeper cuts in our city services, at least in the short run. We’ll probably just be trading constituent complaints about high fees for constituent complaints about poor service.
I know this isn’t a popular statement, but my personal view is that the City has been too reluctant to charge fees in the past, because the good folks who work for the City hate to make our residents pay for things. That’s why our overall fee burden is fairly low.
But I’m more than willing to admit that it’s time to step back and examine where we should “draw the line” between (1) charges for specific services that specific people request and (2) charges for services that we must provide to specific groups of people (often because of state law) whether they ask for those services or not.
So the question becomes, who pays for what?
The tricky part is how we handle a situation where the City is obligated by law to do something that benefits a particular group of people, but charging those people to cover the cost requires either voter approval, if it’s a tax, or public acceptance for the notion that it’s a fee.
The hillside weed thing is a good example. When a wildfire breaks out in the hillsides – as happens frequently in Ventura – hillside residents expect the government to spend enormous amounts of money to fight the fire and protect their neighborhood. (I know this because I used to live in Ondulando, which has been saved several times by a multimillion-dollar firefighting efforts.) So there’s a state law that says the hillside owners have to abate their fire hazards and that the City has to enforce those requirements.
You can probably argue the question of who should pay either way. On the one hand, spending a little tax money to monitor weed abatement in the hillsides might save huge amounts of tax money later – so shouldn’t we all pay? On the other hand, the primary beneficiaries of fire suppression efforts are the hillside homeowners – so shouldn’t they pay? We often face the same kinds of “who pays?” questions down at the beach.
In any event, I think all the public debate over the last few months – including all the criticism of the City Council – has done us a favor. It’s forced a long-overdue conversation about who pays and who benefits and what our priorities should be.
In the end, we killed the weed fee and we also eliminated the 9-1-1 fee after a similar fee was declared illegal in a city in the Bay Area. But nine years later, half the houses in Ondulando burned down, where I used to live, in the Thomas Fire, a massive wildfire which stretched all the way from Santa Barbara to Ventura.
You can learn more about Talk City (and order the book) by clicking here.