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. This is the third of three reprinted blogs. The first highlights the fact that there is no “magic bullet” in this kind of situation. The second talks about how residents resist higher fees during a recession. And the third -- this one – talks about the bruising emotional toll a recession takes on a city and its residents. To say nothing of its politicians.
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.
This blog was written in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009.
To the extent that a politician ever gets a day off, mine is Saturday. This week I was looking forward to my typical “day off” – a trip to the Farmers Market, the dry cleaners, Target, Trader Joe’s. A day to feel like a typical person.
Here’s what happened:
At the Farmers Market, I ran into a devoted constituent who is very active in the library issue and talked to me for a long time about different ways to keep Wright Library open. She was, by turns, angry, fearful, concerned, confused, and full of ideas.
On my way to Target I stopped off across the street at Fire Station #5 and chatted with firefighters about how the pending budget cuts might affect them. They were, by turns, angry, fearful, concerned, confused, and full of ideas.
While checking out at Trader Joe’s I talked with the cashier and an elderly lady standing in line about how bad the parking was and how much worse it might get if Wal-Mart moves in next door. Though opposed by many people for many reasons – including, apparently, this elderly constituent concerned about parking – Wal-Mart would appear to be one of the few vehicles for the city to obtain more revenue in the short run.
So it was not exactly a relaxing day off. I reconnected with my town and my constituents, but they are all understandably anxious that things are bad and getting worse. The things they cherish about their community – their neighborhood library, easy parking at Trader Joe’s, quick response times from firefighters and police officers – all seem at risk.
And all this is happening at a time when we are all afraid of what is going to happen to us personally. Will we lose our jobs? Will our wages be cut? Our health insurance? Will we ever be able to retire? I am very fortunate – I make a good amount of money, more than most people – but I am scared too. I feel at risk in my personal and business life just like everybody else.
The months ahead will not be easy. This week, we on the City Council will start eliminating positions and possibly even laying people off. Over the next couple of months, we will be making even more severe cuts in city services. We may well ask the voters for an increase in the sales tax. But even if it passes, that won’t generate enough money to restore all the services we have now. So we will be faced with terrible choices. Do we want to lay off police officers in order to keep the libraries open? Shall we close the parks or stop paving the streets? Shut down a fire station or stop servicing our vehicles?
Nobody wants to make these kinds of choices, whether it’s in government, in our private businesses, or in our personal finances. And it’s been hard for all of us to face up to what has to be done. Whenever I’ve talked to people around town about making cuts in their favorite service, they’ve reacted all kinds of ways. Many have simply insisted this can’t be happening. Some have yelled at me. Others have insisted that there must be some other way – cutting back on paper clips, firing the overpaid top managers, cutting somebody else’s favorite program. Others have been combing through government budgets trying to prove that money is wasted. Many have suggested that I cut my own salary as a City Councilmember. (I’d happily do so, but that fat $7,200 per year is set in the City Charter and can’t be changed without a vote. By the way, it’s hasn’t gone up in 35 years.)
As I have talked to constituents over the past few weeks, I have been recalling the five stages of grieving laid out in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous book On Death and Dying, which I first read in college more than 30 years ago. The five stages were meant to be applied to grieving over the death of a loved one (or one’s own mortality). But as it turns out, they can be applied to the grieving process you go through whenever you suffer any kind of loss. The recent loss of our prosperity – and the consequences for both our personal life and our civic life – means not just a loss of material things but also a loss of confidence and a loss of our sense of well-being. In dealing with constituents – and dealing with my own feelings about the current financial situation – I have come to recognize all five stages of grief, which are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
In both our personal lives and our civic life, many of us have been in denial. This library can’t be closing! A lot of people have moved on to anger, which is why I get yelled at so much. It’s all the City Council’s fault! Or it’s the fault of the stupid library director, who should be fired! Many people get stuck there, but I notice a bunch of constituents moving on to bargaining. Let’s raise enough money just to keep the library open for a year, and then maybe things will improve!
Maybe because our city’s financial woes have been coming on for a while, I guess I feel like I have worked through those first three and right now I’m at depression. Things are awful. Why bother continuing to make them better? That’s how I feel a lot of the time these days.
But I also know that people have faced tough times before. I’m trying my best to move toward acceptance. Acceptance is liberating, because it makes you realize that some things are going to happen that you can’t control. We are less prosperous than we were a year or two ago. We will have less money to make things happen. This means we will have to endure some cutbacks; but it also means we will have to use the money we have more creatively, and come up with solutions nobody has tried before.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope things will get better. But it does mean that we will have to pull together as a community, both to accept the loss that we are going to feel and to turn things around so our community is successful again. It’s hard to work through the five stages of grief in a situation like this. But people – and communities like Ventura – are very resilient. And that gives me hope.
Eventually, of course, Ventura did pull out of the recession and prosper again. But I have to admit that I carried the scars of the Great Depression with me for a long time after I left office in late 2011 – to Washington, D.C., then to San Diego, and finally to Houston. Maybe that’s part of the reason I moved around so much in those years. It was still hard to come to terms with the decisions we had to make in those days.
You can learn more about Talk City (and order the book) by clicking here.