As I conclude eight and a half years as City Manager, I might be expected to dwell on our many achievements as well as our difficult struggles. But I think it is more important to look forward.
It was during a similar turning point in American history that President Lincoln said: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and we must act anew.”
Last week, another former president put his finger on the biggest problem we face here in Ventura. It’s arithmetic. You see, we worked hard to make sure that our budget is balanced this year. That’s a major achievement. But looking forward, what Ventura citizens expect of city government costs more than our current revenues can afford.
Our citizens want to maintain Ventura’s quality of life and improve our economic prosperity. They also expect a safe and clean Ventura. They also want to fix our streets and reduce the number of homeless. They want parks and libraries and they insist on protecting our environment. Yes, citizens disagree on which services are important to them, but when it comes to the services they care about, just about everyone thinks city government should do more, not less.
I think nearly everyone understands the problem. The question is: how do you solve it?
Some advocate deeper cuts in staff compensation. I’m afraid they’re right. Everyone knows pension costs are rising, so we will need to ask employees to contribute even more in the future. But that won’t cut expenses – that just keeps us even. Moreover, if you cut pay too deeply, you lose the quality workforce you need to provide the services you want and we are approaching that danger zone.
I agree with those who say Ventura government should become more efficient. But that’s more challenging than it seems during political campaigns. In reality, you don’t get efficient government by proposing cost-cutting ideas. You get efficient government by setting clear goals, working as a team and continuously improving. The reality is that community politics often delivers mixed messages and muddled priorities.
Many say we need to rely more on volunteers and partnerships and rely less on government. I agree. But if you’ve ever helped build an effective community partnership to tackle a real community problem, you know it is not easy or cheap. Sure, people will rally in a crisis, but the critical year-round functions of government still rely on a core of trained and committed professionals to ensure accountability and deliver results. Even in the new normal, we’ll still need greater resources to maintain a safe and clean Ventura.
There’s another way to pay for what Ventura citizens expect. That’s to increase our revenues by promoting business. That is also not as easy as it sounds. Sure, people clamor to cut red tape and streamline permit approvals – until a project they don’t like is proposed in their neighborhood. It’s not hard to develop a plan for economic development. What’s hard is devoting the time and the money to successfully implement that plan in a brutally-competitive global economy that’s changing all the time.
There’s one more option, although it is not a popular one. We could again offer the citizens of Ventura the choice to vote to increase tax revenue. The councilmember who has advocated this most clearly is Mayor Tracy. I personally agree with him. But we all know how difficult that would be to achieve.
Let’s face it. There isn’t any simple answer nor any single answer to this math test. To figure out what we can afford, Ventura is going to have to add as well as subtract. Both our state and federal systems are flunking this test. Ventura can’t afford to flunk it or we will end up as broke as they are.
We can’t duck the fierce urgency of now. Change can be an opportunity – but only if we embrace it. Ventura’s math problem is pretty clear: right now when it comes to adding up what we want we mostly hear from organized interest groups. And when it comes time to figure out how to pay for it, we mostly hear from organized interest groups.
Let’s be clear about the solution to Ventura’s math problem: We won’t find the right answer until we come together as a community to figure out what we can afford and agree on how to pay for it. That’s not a job that can be shifted to the next city manager. It’s a job for every one of us who call Ventura our home.
You know, I’m profoundly grateful for everything this community has given to me and to my family over these past eight years. I have been blessed. But as the Bible tells us, to those whom much is given, much is asked. You probably didn’t choose to live in the toughest economic times in seventy years. But you can choose whether we fight against our common challenge– or whether we fight against each other instead. By working together, we’ve done surprisingly well these last few years, especially compared to the communities you hear about in the news. But this is not the top of the hill, this is only the side of the hill. The climb gets steeper from here. We can get to the summit, but the only way up is to work together. We’ll all get to the top if we pull others up, instead of cutting others loose. Our goal is shared success.
My fellow citizens, if we take the long view and we take the high road, I believe Ventura’s best years are still to come. We are a great community. We can be greater. We have successfully lived within our means – now we have to find a way to thrive within our means.