Let’s say you’re in downtown Santa Rosa, waiting for the start of the city council’s regular Tuesday meeting. You walk half a block to Juilliard Park, which now includes a lot of dying, barely watered grass in its 8.8 acres. A car goes by with a Bennett Valley Golf Course bumper sticker. You’re pretty sure the grass on the 148.32-acre golf course property is healthy and green. A fire truck goes by, not on an emergency run but returning from grocery shopping for a firehouse. You go to the meeting at City Hall, where council members approve a budget that hires more police and firefighters but doesn’t allocate more water for various city parks. You remember there was a recent scandal (or two) involving the Recreation and Parks Department. You wonder: What the heck is going on here?
In response, here’s part one of a two-part, “connect the dots” series on how the city of Santa Rosa spends money—or doesn’t.
First, the scandals. Two high-ranking officials in the Recreation and Parks Department, including the head of the department, unexpectedly retired recently, one in late December 2012, and one in February 2013. One had 27 years of service with the city and the other had 41 years. Their retirements followed an investigation by the city manager, who found both officials had accepted thousands of dollars in golf rounds, lessons and discounts from the operator of city-owned Bennett Valley Golf Course over a period of more than five years. The gifts violated annual limits. Both officials also failed to report the gifts. And, as a separate conflict-of-interest violation, the head of the department accepted gifts at the same time he negotiated a 10-year contract with the golf course operator. The contract resulted in profits for the operator even while the city lost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, much of it due to paying off the cost of building a nifty new clubhouse.
The officials were fined by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and were required to pay the value of the freebies. They also had to re-file several years of annual disclosure forms. And, of course, they retired. It’s possible that none of this would have come to light had it not been for the excellent work by Kevin McCallum, staff writer for The Press Democrat. The city didn’t disclose any information about the investigation and its consequences until directly asked about agenda items scheduled by the FPPC pertaining to the officials.
The ink was hardly dry on that story before we learned the city owned two homes managed by the Recreation and Parks Department and rented out for $100 per month and $200 per month, respectively. The same department head involved with the golf course issues offered the $100-per-month home to one of his employees. The other renter declined to say how he learned of the rental opportunity.
Returning to the topic of numerous parched parks in Santa Rosa, I was fascinated to read this sentence in a Press Democrat article: “One of the reasons the irrigation budget is under pressure is because the cost of water the city purchases from the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) has been on the rise for years.” In the last three fiscal years, Santa Rosa’s cost for irrigation water went up 38 percent, from $578,000 to more than $800,000. And that still isn’t enough money to provide regular water, except for certain parks, playing fields and one great big golf course, each of which is rentable. Part of the increase is just due to using more water, but SCWA rates have definitely marched steadily upward. That’s the same Sonoma County Water Agency that’s launching Sonoma Clean Power, the full-of-unanswered-questions electricity program to which city council members just committed the residents of Santa Rosa (see "Power Play," Sept. 2013). Nothing to worry about there, right? There’s no way electricity rates under that program could rise as inexorably as water rates, right?
Water isn’t the only thing lacking in our parks. Maintenance of parks suffered as the department cut 39 jobs during the recession, almost one-third of the total staff. Two council members tried to carve $400,000 out of the new budget adopted in June to hire back six park maintenance workers, but that motion was voted down. The city manager is working on an alternate funding plan, but nothing has been proposed as of the writing of this column.
Since we’re talking about money for parks, would you like to know the total 2012 cost for those two Recreation and Parks officials who retired so unexpectedly? Well, the head of the department had a base pay of $153,404 in 2012, plus “other pay” (probably vacation and sick time) of $55,488. Medical/dental/vision insurance cost $13,247, and the 2012 pension contribution by the city was $27,964. All told, the head of the department cost the city more than $250,000. The other official had base pay of $112,095 and other benefits for a total cost of more than $154,000. Combined cost for two officials for one year: more than $400,000. Our tax dollars at work (and play!).
In summary, the Recreation and Parks Department has suffered, perhaps in leadership and certainly in personnel, funding and water. The city council adopted a fiscal year 2013 to 2014 budget of $340 million, spending 9 percent more than the previous year. The budget didn’t include new hires for Recreation and Parks, and didn’t allocate funds for however much water is needed to keep parks green. Where could the city council find that money, if it was so inclined? I’ll answer that question in the next Open Trench, but here are some clues: two powerful city employee unions, Measure O, binding arbitration and no relief in sight.
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