Another very long night to end the year. We started with a closed session to review the City Manager’s performance. No comment, but he did attend the general meeting that followed, so take that for what it’s worth…
We then had an annual study session, where councilmembers express an interest in the Mayor/Vice Mayor positions. Since Mayor isn’t being appointed this year, it was only Vice Mayor, and Councilmember Davis and I expressed an interest in the position, and Councilmember Moylan expressed a willingness to serve. Then it was on to the general meeting. There was one announcement from a resident who is now a candidate for the 2013 election.
We then had a presentation regarding Caltrain modernization, and Vice Mayor Whittum recused himself from the discussion due to the proximity of his home. I thought that wasn’t necessary, but there’s no harm in being too cautious when it comes to conflict of interest. The presentation described the “blended” system. Due to pushback from some cities (Atherton, Palo Alto, others), Caltrain is not pursuing the four-track option, which would have high speed rail run alongside Caltrain for the entire peninsula. Instead, the trains will share tracks, with shorter four-track stretches to allow passing at certain areas.
The consent calendar came next, and the list of bills and the tract map approval were pulled. The balance of the consent calendar was approved on a 7-0 vote. We then had public comments. The only ones of note involved more discussion of the Fairoaks Mobile Home Park situation, and requests to have the city examine rent control. I think there’s some ambivalence about that, since that topic has been examined and voted on twice before, and voters didn’t like it (and it created some bad feelings). But a study issue was proposed to look at alternatives other than rent control to address some of the low-income housing problems that may exist. Oh, there was a suggestion to look at a landscaping maintenance agreement to keep medians looking good on Central and other county routes, and it was sponsored as a budget issue. And another study issue was sponsored to look at issues regarding burrowing owls and other protected species.
Item 2 involved adopting a new contract for the Sunnyvale Employee’s Association (SEA). This has been about six months in the making, as we’ve negotiated with them to try and get what we need to maintain fiscal stability. There are a number of pieces to the agreement, but the big pieces are
- two years with 0% raises
- a 3% raise on the third year
- three successive bumps in the employee contribution towards retirement costs, from the current 1% of a possible 8% rising to 4%.
- adoption of a second pension tier, moving new hires from the current 2.7%@55 plan to 2%@60. So new hires can get, at most, a pension that’s 25% lower than the current limit, they vest more slowly (2%/year instead of 2.7%/year), and they get five fewer years of pension as well.
Obviously, we’ve been talking about this issue in closed session for some six months, so there weren’t many questions of staff on this. After a couple of public speakers, we approved the new contract on a 6-1 vote (I agreed). I do have some thoughts about what this agreement means to the city, but the whole issue is still a little raw, and I’d rather let it sit for a while. From a numbers standpoint, there are up-sides and down-sides. The down-side is the 3% raise, which will cost the city some $550k more than is currently budgeted, which is not good. The up-side is the second retirement tier, which will save the city an average of $3800 per “lateral hire” per year. Since “lateral hires” tend to be experienced hires, that average is probably actually low.
This second tier is important for another reason. The legislature’s recent “pension reform” initiative creates a second tier of 2%@62 for all new hires that are not lateral hires, but it does nothing for lateral hires that we pick up. So if we didn’t get this second tier in place, then Sunnyvale would be left with one of the most generous pension programs for CalPERS enrollees in the state. So employees would flock to work in Sunnyvale in huge numbers, and we’d end up paying a whole lot more for retirement benefits than other cities. This issue is important because it not only saves us a lot of money – it really prevents us from having to spend even more money. We needed to reduce benefits not only for the fiscal savings, but we needed to get down to an “average” or lower level as something of a defensive action. And the second tier has the potential to save us tens of millions of dollars over the 30 years during which those “lateral hires” may exist for us.
And unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to negotiate this. The legislature dropped this on us around Labor Day with a deadline of December 31st to adopt a lateral hire second tier, and it took lawyers throughout the state about a month to figure out exactly what the legislation actually. That left us barely enough time to negotiate the second tier, with no other real options available to us. This had the makings of a disaster, but we managed to avoid a very bad result.
We inadvertently did item 4 next, which was the Public Safety Salary amendment, based on this year’s salary survey. The survey actually resulted in a slight decrease for public safety officer salaries, so the vote to accept was obviously 7-0.
Next came item 3, which amended the CalPERS agreement to implement the second tier. And with just some speechifying, we approved it 7-0. I did notice when replaying this that I was probably unclear about the impact of this in my comments. The action we took only applies to new hires who come to us from other CalPERS (or “reciprocal”) cities. It does not change benefits for existing employees. The best and latest interpretation of the law seems to support the notion that cities cannot retroactively cut employee retirement benefits (something that San Jose is putting to the test). That may not have been quite clear from my comments – I did explain that at one point, but not initially. But even applying to just the new hires, it’s potentially an issue for up to 600 positions for up to 30 years. So do the math, and you can see that the money involved is huge. If after 15 years, we replace half of applicable employees with “lateral hires”, that’s an average of 15 * $3800 * 300 = $17.1 million, as compared to the half million that we hadn’t budgeted for for the 3% raise.
Item 5 was the big one, consideration of an expanded polystyrene (EPS) food packaging ban, and we spent a lot of time discussing options and listening to public input. There wasn’t a single speaker in opposition to the proposed ban, surprisingly. Usually, the American Chemistry Council (plastics manufacturers) show up to argue against a ban, but they didn’t this time. So after a lot of public input and council discussion, I broke the topic in half and moved staff recommendation except for the “no retail sale of EPS packaging” provision, but adding research into the impact of such a ban into the city’s “initial inquiry”. And surprisingly, that passed on a 7-0 vote. I really expected more resistance on this topic. I then moved the final portion of the recommendation, implementing a ban on retail EPS food packaging sales, and that passed on a 7-0 vote.
Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time on this topic in my role as a County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commissioner. EPS can be recycled – but only “clean” EPS. And used EPS food packaging is never clean enough to be recycled. So this is a unique case of a very specific “bad actor”, similar to mercury or lead-based paint. It cannot be recycled, it does not decompose, and it does leach chemicals. With normal EPS (electronics packaging, for instance), there may be recycling or collection options short of a ban. But we also don’t control the “entry point” of those other forms of EPS the way that we do for restaurant and retail EPS, so that becomes a bit more problematic, as compared to EPS food packaging.
I’ll just add that it was impressive to see the way that the various Sunnyvale high school students got involved in this issue, both from Homestead and from Fremont Union. And it really did make a difference.
Item 6 involved the final fiscal year 2011/2012 report, in which we finished $3.5 million under budget (basically $2.8 million from increased revenue, $800k from decreased expenses). With very little discussion, we voted 6-1 to stick $1 million of that into our Other Post-Employment Benefits (“OPEB” – basically medical) reserve fund, to pay down the unfunded medical fund liability even further, and put the balance into the budget stabilization fund (I agreed). Basically, this is a debt that we’ve incurred, and we need to pay it down, and using some of the money to do so is the responsible thing to do.
Item 7 involved the laws involving food trucks. This was provoked by a couple of things, mostly a perception by staff of weaknesses in the existing ordinances, plus a perception by brick-and-mortar restaurants that food trucks are unfairly impacting their businesses. Staff went off and looked at this, but in the end, they found lots of case law saying that cities cannot use regulations to address market competition. That pretty much ruled out things like “no food trucks within 1000 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant”, and it caused us to instead focus on tweaking the code to manage enforcement and regulation of food trucks. With some discussion, we approved staff’s recommended changes on a 7-0 vote.
And item 8 was a wholesale tweaking of the parking requirements for non-residential developments. Staff took a holistic look at how parking works on non-residential properties, as well as the latest view of “best practices”, which resulted in a large number of proposed changes to requirements for different types of property (increases and decreases in both minimum and maximum limits). One example is, for instance, the now common view that “compact car” parking spaces are actually ineffective. Not only do non-compact cars use them, but they frequently take up two spaces, making the concept counter-productive. So we discussed the various pieces of this before passing staff’s recommended changes on a 4-3 vote (I agreed).
This was one of those “do you take the risk” items, and the risks are high. We only need to look at places like the Cherry Orchard to know what happens if parking isn’t adequate. But issues of parking and traffic are often counter-intuitive. For instance, we’ve down-graded some streets from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction with a center passing lane and bike lanes on the side. While it seems like that would slow traffic, it actually helps with “complete street” modeling of streets. So this was a case where some colleagues were willing to take staff’s advice and take the risk in the hopes of making things better, while others wanted to stick with what we’ve got. It was a tough call, with merit on both sides.
We then returned to 1C, the bills, and we passed that on a 6-1 vote as usual (I agreed).
Then came 1L, approval of a tract map. It was pulled despite the fact that this is a ministerial item, so we approved it on a 6-1 vote (I agreed).
That’s about it. We then closed the meeting in memory of the events in Newtown, and in memory of Sunnyvale native Michael Wagner.
We’re off until January 8th, at which time we’ll choose a new vice mayor and new seating, plus approve our intergovernmental relation assignments