2/1/2013 Study and Budget Issues Workshop Summary

And another annual Study/Budget Issues Workshop comes to an end.

We started with brief comments by the City Manager, which was followed by a presentation by the Finance Department on our fiscal outlook.  There wasn’t much presented that we haven’t heard or I haven’t blogged about in recent months.  The message was basically that we’re in a very solid fiscal position, better than most, but that position depends on sticking to the plan, containing costs, continuing to aggressively attack our unfunded liabilities, and ensuring that future labor contracts hold to the assumptions currently built into the 20-year forecast.

There was some financial news.  We’ve got some unexpected revenue coming in, as well as some being lost.  A recent court case is going to result in some $250k/year of additional revenue from the County from now on, as well as a larger lump sum for retroactive reimbursement.  It seems that the County was charging us an excessive amount in fees, and a recent court ruling established that we should be repaid (all cities, actually).  But we’re also losing a one-time $300k due to an accounting re-assessment that I don’t quite remember the details of.

We then started the ranking process, and, as has become tradition, I took on the role of study issue killer….  First off was the Office of the City Manager.

OCM 13-01 Mayoral Appointment by Rotation: with a 2-year mayoral term and seven councilmembers who usually ending up serving 8 years apiece, going to automatic rotation of mayor means that three of the councilmembers could never be mayor, just by the circumstances of when they were elected or how many votes they got when they were elected.  Whatever problems we have with our current mayoral process, choosing the mayor by happenstance would be worse.  My preference was to drop.  Council vote: drop.

OCM 13-02 Podcasting of Meetings: it’s a good idea for us to do, and staff didn’t need a policy change to do it – it’s already permitted.  It’s just a budget decision.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

OCM 13-03, Cost/Benefit of Options Related to the Civic Center and the Sunnyvale Office Complex: staff said quite clearly that the option mentioned in the study issue is already being considered as one of many options for the Civic Center, and studying it separately and specifically is redundant.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

Community Development Department

CDD 09-11, Review of the Housing Mitigation Fee, staff explained that this is already being done as part of another process.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

CDD 11-02, Downtown Development Policies for Parking: the Downtown’s plan isn’t finished, not even tentatively, with two blocks having no plan whatsoever yet.  It’s a very good study issue that needs to be a part of the planning process, but it’s just a little premature.  My preference: defer.  Council vote: defer.

CDD 12-02, Possible Nomination of Non-Residential Properties to the Heritage Resource Inventory: this is a potentially interesting study issue, but I had a bunch of other stuff that was more important, and I really wanted to put this off to next year to emphasize the more important ones.  My preference was therefore to defer itCouncil vote: defer.

CDD 13-02, Consideration of Useable Open Space in Required Front Yards: this involves open space for condos and townhouses, and given the amount of permitting that’s going on right now for those kinds of developments, this one was important.  My preference: rank it.  Council vote: defer.

CDD 13-03, Single Family Home Parking Requirements:  staff explained that this is already being done as part of another, ongoing process.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

CDD 13-04, R-3 Height Requirements (non-townhouses): this came to us because a lack of clarity is causing the Planning Commission to have to make calls on these heights over and over again, and the PC wants direction from us.  This one was important and timely because a large number of applications that we’re getting right now are for R-3 projects.  Since I live in an R-3 project, I played some games with the rankings for 4 and 5 to try and protect this one at the expense of one I knew would be ranked high anyway.  My preference: rank #4 (but really #5).  Council vote: rank #5.

CDD 13-07, Large Family Day Care Locational Requirements: this was provoked by a day care application and some of the fall-out from the neighboring residents.  A pretty common area of land use discord is when people try to open day care centers in residential areas.  It’s a topic with two competing interests – the ongoing shortage of day care facilities and the desire for residents to enjoy the comfort of their own homes.  If there are reasonable steps we can take to protect both interests, we should do so.  My preference: rank #1.  Council vote: rank #2.

CDD 13-08, Review General Plan Amendment Initiation Process: this is the kind of thing that makes people’s eyes glaze over, but it’s easily one of the most important study issues up for consideration this year.  We have a general plan that governs our land use, but it is designed to be flexible, so that we can adapt it as the city’s needs change or as unexpected opportunities or challenges arise.  Some of that is simply the way land use has to work – we can define how we want our city’s land should be used, but changes to land use only happen when a property owner decides to change his land use.  We can’t make property owners put something on their property that they don’t want to do – we only have the power to say “yes” or “no” when a property owner decides to make a change.  Recently, there have been concerns raised about the way amendments come to be proposed, so staff wants to take a look at the process.  And since land use decisions can affect the city for generations, if there are problems with the way changes are made, then examining and fixing them is pretty important.  My preference: rank #2.  Council vote: rank #3.

CDD 13-12, Payday Lending Establishments: this is an issue that San Jose recently looked at.  Because of the recession, there has been a dramatic increase in usury among payday lending establishments.  And when usury occurs, it is at the expense of the most economically vulnerable in a community.  We have a responsibility to protect people against abuses like this, and that’s what drove San Jose to place restrictions on the large number of payday lending establishments that they have.  We should do the same.  This would have been #1 or #2 for me, except I knew my colleagues would also rank it high, so I downgraded it a little to help two others that I wanted to promote.  My rank: #3 (but really #1 or #2).  Council vote: rank #1.

CDD 13-13, Standards for Bird-safe Buildings: urban planners have been increasingly concerned about the significant impact of building design on the bird population (no pun intended).  Definitely worth doing as soon as possible, but I simply had three items I considered more important.  I did bump this one down to help a weaker one I liked, because I knew my colleagues would support this.  My preference: rank #5 (but really #4).  Council vote: rank #4.

CDD 13-14, City Options for Funding a Homeless Shelter and/or Other Solutions to Homelessness: social services like this are the purview of the State and the County (and the county runs Sunnyvale’s homeless shelter).  And one challenge with issues like this is that if we start supplementing the County’s spending, the County will simply start decreasing their own efforts in our region, effectively transferring their responsibility to us – at the cost of other services that we must provide.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

CDD 13-15, Measures for Preserving Affordable Housing as an Alternative to Rent Control: this is a part of the ongoing staff efforts with the Housing Sub-Element.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

Department of Public Works

DPW 09-07, Sunnyvale Cyclovia Event: I was a big supporter of this early on, but it’s become this zombie study issue that doesn’t die and doesn’t get approved.  Part of this is the economy, part of this is the state of the Downtown, and part of the is the reality that successful city events are usually driven by private organizations, not by the city.  I like this item, and I’d love to see some private organization run with this and come to us asking for support in specific ways.  That’s the better way to run this.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 10-09, Reliable Electric Power Options: this was provoked by complaints from Moffett Park business operators back in 2010 about power problems.  We approved the bulk of this for study last year, and we brought in PG&E, which reported on what they’ve already done in that region and what is still to come.  Their report was very encouraging.  Most of what remains of this issue involves exploring alternatives or supplements to PG&E, like going our own way with power, a community solar array, and so on.  Other proposed study issues cover most of these, really only leaving “going our own way with power”.  And we recently talked with a Sunnyvale resident who also works for Santa Clara power, who explained that arrangements like Santa Clara’s were only possible decades ago before the state changed power-related laws and rendered the necessary power agreements considerably more expensive.  Given that information, what remains of this study issue is pretty pointless.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 13-01, Pedestrian Anti-Harassment Ordinance: this was spawned by last year’s cyclist anti-harassment ordinance.  It’s a good sentiment, but last year’s ordinance was provoked by actual experiences and real incidents.  I’ve never heard of pedestrians being deliberately harassed by drivers in the same way that cyclists frequently encounter, so this seemed like a solution in search of a problem.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 13-04, Extending Vision Triangle Restrictions at Private Driveways and Alleyways: this could be good, but the scope is so huge as to create parking shortages far too great for us to handle right now.  There are private driveways and alleyways everywhere, and the resulting reduction in parking would be enormous.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 13-06, Review of On-Street Parking at Private Residences in Order to Emphasize Bicyclists Needs: maybe it was just the wording, but this one rubbed me the wrong way.  Maybe it was just the word “emphasize”.  Our goal is to provide a balanced transportation system, that equally supports cars, cyclists, pedestrians, public transit, and all forms of transportation.  This study issue proposes creating a deliberate imbalance, so I didn’t like it.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 13-08, Implementation of Bikes Use of Full Lane Signs: staff already has the authority and legal right to use these signs.  The decision is budgetary, not policy (just like the podcasting study issue).  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 13-10, Pilot Bicycle Boulevard Project on East-West and North-South Routes: I liked it.  My preference: rank #4.  Council vote: rank #4.

DPW 13-11, Community Solar Array System: I liked it a whole lot, and it was my #1 issue for DPW.  My preference: rank #1.  Council vote: rank #2.

DPW 13-12, Acquisition of Approximately 18 Acres of Land Bounded by Highway 85 and Stevens Creek: this is a great opportunity for Sunnyvale to gain a big chunk of open space right next to residential neighborhoods, so I like it a lot (which is why I co-sponsored it).  The only reason not to do so ASAP is the four-city Stevens Creek Trail joint task force, which is developing a plan for the Stevens Creek Trail.  Staff recommended delaying this until that plan is finished, which should happen this year.  My preference: defer (just to next year).  Council vote: defer.

DPW 13-13, Feasibility of Establishing a Community Animal Farm for Children at the Sunnyvale Landfill: I appreciate the intent of the proposal.  But when we have land to put to some use, the way to make that decision is not “we’ve got land, let’s put X there!”.  It’s “we’ve got land, let’s come up with all of the different uses that we can think of, so we can make a smart decision”.  Having a laser focus on one use eliminates even considering any other uses, and that’s just bad policy.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: rank #5.

DPW 13-14, Feasibility of Establishing Additional Dog Parks and Alternatives in Sunnyvale’s Park System: I liked it, and I ranked it higher than #4 and #5 because we had residents specifically ask for it.  My preference: Rank #3.  Council vote: rank #3.

DPW 13-15, Protecting Burrowing Owl Habitat on City Facilities: I liked this.  I simply liked the Community Solar Array System more.  My preference: rank #2.  Council vote: rank #1.

Environmental Services

ESD 12-03, Impact of Sea Level Rise on Land Use: I like this, but I bought staff’s argument that this should happen after the LUTE/CAP is finished later this year.  My preference: defer (just until next year).  Council vote: defer.

ESD 13-01, Power Purchase Agreements for Alternative Energy Allocation: loved it.  My preference: rank #1.  Council vote: rank #1

ESD 13-03, Revolving Loan Fund for Water and Energy Projects: this is a cute idea, but it has fiscal impacts to the city that were unpalatable to me.  To give this any serious impact means lessening the liquidity of the city’s reserves, which isn’t good.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

ESD 13-05, Ecodistrict Feasibility and Incentives: I co-sponsored this, so I like it.  But staff raised LUTE/CAP again, and I bought that argument.  I’m fine losing on this one, because it’s a good one to do.  My preference: defer (just until next year).  Council vote: rank #2.

ESD 13-06, Notifying Residents Regarding Potential Health Effects of Fluoridated Water in Baby Formula: this one is very much not our jurisdiction.  We’re not a water district, we don’t have the means to make medical judgments on things like this, and we certainly shouldn’t politicize medical warnings.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

Finance Department

FIN 13-01, Explore Business License Tax Exemption for Low Income Businesses: I proposed this, but staff’s write-up on this was pretty scary.  The big issue here is that if we make a mistake, it’s difficult to undo.  We can lower taxes and fees whenever we want.  But to raise taxes or fees, we now need a 2/3 ballot vote.  So if we drop the tax on low-revenue businesses and it turns out to be more significant than we thought, we can’t fix it without placing an issue on a future ballot.  And staff was discussing big budgetary impacts for this.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

Human Resources Department

HRD 13-01, Civic Openness In Negotiations: this was a well-meant proposal by a resident who didn’t really understand how labor negotiations are conducted in Sunnyvale.  It proposes that Sunnyvale adopt a series of labor negotiating requirements recently enacted by Costa Mesa.  But the most effective aspects of COIN are already in effect here.  Our negotiating personnel are always either specifically-hired independent negotiators or department-level staff (who aren’t permitted to join a union) or both.  We frequently use independent auditors to justify the city’s position on budget negotiations.  And so on.  So when I ran down the list, my reaction to most aspects were “we do that, we do that, that has no effect on us, we do that…”.  My bigger concern with this is the mandatory 30-day delay that COIN would build into labor negotiations, which can create some serious unexpected consequences.  For instance, had COIN been in place, we would have missed the PEPRA deadline of December 31st this year, and we would therefore have permanently lost our opportunity to get two-tier retirement in place for four of our six bargaining units.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

Department of Public Safety

DPS 13-01, Develop Plan to Address Traffic Flow and Parking Impacts from Future 49ers Stadium: again, this was my study issue.  Staff made the argument that they’re already doing everything proposed by this study issue.  My sole remaining concern then was community engagement – making sure that residents are aware of what may happen in their neighborhoods and making sure the city is getting the input from the people who actually know the neighborhoods.  Once staff gave me the assurances I needed that that is going to happen, then it became clear that the study issue actually contributes nothing.  I came in prepared to move to drop this if I got answers I liked, but I then decided to move to defer it until next year.  That way, we could pass it if we didn’t like the community engagement that we saw, or drop it if all was going well.  My preference: defer.  Council vote: rank #1.

Budget Issues

Budget issue #1, Update to the Heritage Tree Inventory: this is a good one to do, but I’m still a bit nervous about our budget, and it’s not timely.  My preference: defer.  Council vote: defer.

Budget issue #2, Assumption of Landscape Median Responsibility on Central Expressway: this was a nice idea – trying to clean up the appearance of Central.  But it has a huge price tag.  And in taking it on, we basically give the County the ability to lessen their own responsibility to maintain that area, because we’d be doing it for them.  The easiest way to cause another government agency to stop doing its duty is to start doing it for them, so that always warrants caution.  The other issue is that staff came back with a budget issue only looking at the median – and most of Central also includes significant slopes on both sides of the expressway.  There’s little point in maintaining the median unless we maintain the slopes as well, and that’s an even bigger task and budgetary hit that we can’t afford.  We simply have other, more important priorities, and the numbers for this are too huge.  My preference: drop.  Council vote: drop.

That’s it for this year’s study issues.

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