Monday, May 25, 2015

Why Is The Sierra Madre Police Department Offering To Make The Least Amount Of Budget Cuts?

Tuesday evening's City Council meeting will be dedicated almost entirely to trying to find a way to make the budget fit into the new 6% utility tax (UUT) reality Sierra Madre is now heading towards. In a municipality where the solutions in the past have always been simply to ask for more money, and as often as possible, this is quite a culture change. Especially for those running City Hall. This should make for interesting and at times emotional viewing Tuesday evening, with many concerned individuals pushing to save the budgets of those departments reflecting their particular areas of interest.

As you can see by the colorful pie chart above, each department budget shown is based on the old 10% UUT rates. Among the highest in California, this was something that the taxpayers here in town voted twice to get rid of. At tomorrow night's meeting the City Council will attempt to make that happen.

Or at least some of them will. One or two there do believe they know better than the people actually paying those utility tax rates.

Below are figures each department prepared for this meeting, and are contained in a report called "Budget Reduction Alternatives" (link). All but one department offers up options that represent a significant cut in their overall budget percentage.

That one exception being the Police Department. For the purpose of saving money this is a problem since the SMPD represents 40% of the overall General Fund budget, or nearly $4 million dollars. In order to keep that figure nearly intact other departments would have to sustain significant percentage cuts. With Community Services and the Paramedic Program for all intents and purposes going away altogether.

With projected future deficits ranging in the $700,000 to $1,000,000 range, the reluctance of the SMPD to consider significant reductions to their budgets potentially shifts a lot of the burden onto other city departments. The question that needs to be asked being is this really the smart way to go. In a traditionally low crime city such as Sierra Madre, do we really require quite so large a police force? And at the expense of so many other, possibly more important, things?

Here are the projected "budget reduction alternatives" numbers:

Administration, Finance, Human Resources, Elected & Appointed - Current $500,000

Community Services - Current $153,000

Fire & Paramedics - Current $1,768,000

Library - Current $810,000

Planning & Community Preservation - Current $600,000
 Public Works - Current $532,000

Police  - Current $3,953,000

As you can clearly see, the SMPD's proposed percentage reductions are minimal when compared to what is being offered by other departments. This despite the $4 million allocated to this one department. Additionally, what is not discussed in this Agenda Report is the reasoning behind this lack of sacrifice. Why the budgets of the SMPD should remain nearly intact while those of other departments would be significantly slashed, and in some instances at draconian levels, is problematic in my opinion.

There is a section of this report that deals with department outsourcing. It would be possible to save enough money through outsourcing the Police Department to save all of the other departments and preserve most of their services. The saving would be approximately $1,000,000. This would supposedly include closing the Police Station, which honestly I don't buy. 

There is also a superfluous cost of $200,000 for event police staffing considered, but aren't those costs recouped from the involved organizations anyway? And at very high rates?

Here is my question. Wouldn't it be better for the Police Department to come up with a more realistic budget cutting proposal? Particularly when by doing so it would not only save itself from having to be outsourced, but also help preserve most of the services offered by the other city departments?

Sierra Madre has been one of the safest cities in California for decades. No matter what the size or focus of the Police Department. Given the numbers supplied above, perhaps this is where the City Council needs to look tomorrow night. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pasadena Star News: Rose Bowl Ticketgate more ‘Far Side’ than outrage

Free tickets for fun city officials 
(Mod: The latest in those every other Sunday opinion pieces I am doing for the Pasadena Star News - link.)

There probably isn't a more politically correct city this far east of Santa Monica, nor one that tolerates the shenanigans of its elected leaders quite so much, as Pasadena. It is more of a belief system than government. Maybe a mood. Say no perceived evils, never see them as well.

As most people who scribble columns about politicians know, there is no more happy combination than petty malfeasance combined with effortlessly assumed self-righteousness. It is what you pray for. And what better place to find this than on the west side of the Michillinda Curtain?

Recently it came to the attention of the world that Pasadena's elected officials, along with their institutional whipping boy, City Manager Michael Beck, had received $150,000 dollars in free tickets from the Rose Bowl Operating Company. RBOC being folks whose interests these officeholders vote upon.

And as was stated in the paper you are holding now, "The Seco Street Residents Association’s complaint accuses Darryl Dunn, the Rose Bowl stadium’s general manager, of operating a 'slush fund' of tickets that he uses to 'build political favoritism from council members,' according to the complaint."

Of course, everyone already knows about this. The FPPC has the complaint before them now. Though, outside of the faintest of wrist slaps, plus a few days of news stories, this will likely go the way of the Wooten Scandal. That is how it usually rolls.

However, I believe there is a more important dimension to this kerfuffle, one that is receiving absolutely no coverage. Anywhere. That being what exactly it is these usually prim city officials went to see.

The performers who entertained Pasadena's elected elite at these Rose Bowl events were Beyonce, Rihanna, Jay Z and Eminem. All artists known for lascivious lyrics and salacious live performances. I thought I'd take the opportunity to quote you a few of their more intriguing librettos.

Eminem: "I may fight for gay rights, especially if the dyke is more of a knockout than Janay Rice/ Play nice? B**** I'll punch Lana Del Rey right in the face twice, like Ray Rice in broad daylight in the plain sight of the elevator surveillance/ Till her head is banging on the railing, then celebrate with the Ravens."

Beyonce: "Ya man ain't never seen a booty like this, And why you think ya keep my name rolling off your tongue, 'Cus when he wanna smash I'll just write another one, I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker."

Jay Z: "'Now eat the cake, Anna Mae,' said, 'Eat the cake, Anna Mae!' I'm nice, for y'all to reach these heights … Sleep tight, we sex again in the morning."

Now all that said, I cannot claim to be too offended. As an almost two decade long veteran of Atlantic and Interscope Records, this is just the old hat corporate rhythm to me. We call these "booty shows." I paid for my house selling this kind of stuff to Wal*Mart.

Then again, I am also not an elected official in the political piety capital of the 210 Corridor. It is easy for me to say something.

So yes, I am having some trouble figuring out what the likes of Bill Bogaard, Terry Tornek and Jacque Robinson were doing at these shows. It just doesn't gibe with their daily drag. Hanging out in some of the finest free seats ever handed out by a solicitous promoter to possibly complicit local government.

It had to have been some kind of sight.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Monday is Memorial Day - Your Attendance is Requested

McMansion Development Brown Act Lawsuit in Arcadia 

Mod: Here is some excerpts from an article that ran in the Pasadena Star News earlier this week.

Arcadia resident may file lawsuit against city for alleged violations of California’s open meetings law (link) - An Arcadia resident Monday gave city officials 30 days to respond to alleged violations of California’s open meetings law before he files a complaint with the District Attorney or pursues a lawsuit against the city.

In the letter, Highlands resident David Arvizu offered two alternatives to litigation: the council would either set aside the decisions made in closed session on May 5, or make the meeting minutes available to the public.

In a closed session May 5, the City Council voted to suspend comprehensive updates to the city’s commercial and residential zoning codes, postpone the Neighborhood Impacts Committee and proceed with a historic preservation survey, excluding the Highland Oaks Homeowners’ Association.

Kelly Aviles, open government attorney and vice president of Californians Aware, said the analysis of the act is not cut and dried but rather more fluid.

“We are talking about the intent of the Brown Act and how these types of laws are supposed to be interpreted transparently,” she said. “Closed sessions are supposed to be for the exception to the rule ... and are supposed to be interpreted narrowly.”

Aviles has prosecuted several cases involving Brown Act violations. If the decisions were ones that could not have been made in closed session before litigation was initiated, she said, they cannot be made in closed session just because litigation is pending.

In the lawsuit, filed March 12, Save the Arcadia Highlands challenged the council’s approval of two residential developments. The suit asks the city to conduct an Environmental Impact Report based on the cumulative impacts of the two projects, in addition to several others that have been approved in the past few years.

Arvizu, who is also a member of the grassroots organization, said since 2012, nearly 30 homes larger than 5,000 square feet have been proposed in the Highlands neighborhood alone.

(More …)

A common thread among Arvizu and other residents who spoke during public comments Tuesday was concern the city did not give notice about its intention to take action on the three items, something open government advocate Gil Aguirre said is clearly stated in the law.

“They can’t piggyback items into a closed-session agenda item,” he said. “The agenda has to be very specific.”

April 7 and May 5 special meeting agendas state only that the city will confer with legal counsel regarding the matter of Save the Arcadia Highlands v. the City of Arcadia, et al. It says no business other than the above would be considered at the meetings.

Arcadia resident Arthur Lane said he was concerned the city was not being as transparent as it could be.

“I am discouraged very much by not seeing these kinds of topics that affect so many residents being discussed in open session,” he said.

Highlands resident April Verlato said because the public had no idea the city was going to be discussing zoning code updates or the historic preservation survey, they were unable to direct comments toward those items.

“It’s kind of huge that they excluded the Highlands from a historical preservation survey,” Verlato said. “I think a lot of my neighbors, had they had proper notice, would have liked to come and comment on that. The biggest problem now is none of us really know or understand why they made those decisions, and I don’t think that’s fair to the public.”

(Mod: There is a great reader comment attached to this article on the Star News website. I thought I should post it here as well. Note the City of Bell connection.)

Sierra Madre Middle School Update

The PUSD is saying that new contractors are supposed to be in place and they're stating that the same timeline will be met. As to why the three project leaders were let go, that is "confidential."

They are apparently doing everything they can to keep a lid on this story. Here is a reader comment from this morning that might shed some light on what are some pretty murky doings:

After several years of increasingly fractured leadership from senior PUSD administrators, Frazer resigned and has taken an administrative position in the SF Bay area. Had there been a history of open and honest communication from PUSD, as well as some assurance that his work on behalf of the District was appreciated, he would have stayed because he really didn't want to uproot his family. 

Other long term Facilities staff has either left or is planning to leave in the very near future and it is likely that things will slow down considerably while Mr. Cayabyab tries to get a handle on the work. If he follows his past history at BHUSD, PUSD will probably hire a much higher priced construction management firm (such as Bernard Bros.) . Gee.... I wonder when the witch hunt will start..... 

More when we find it.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Sierra Madre Tattler Friday News Dump

Hopefully they're not moving to Arcadia
Mod: I am not quite sure where to put these news compendiums anymore. Trust me, I have been losing sleep. I used to post them on Sundays, but now I have other things that need to go there. I tried Monday once or twice, but that always interfered with City Council meeting coverage. So I am going to try Fridays. If you don't know, a "news dump" is where publicity people try and hide stories that they have to release, but hope people won't see. Fridays being the day when news reader interest is at it lowest point. We'll have to see how this works out. But in the meantime, here is the Sierra Madre Tattler news dump. A collection of news items that caught the eye of readers who were kind enough to send them our way.

Here’s what celebrities’ lawns look like during California’s drought (The New York Post link): “Let them drink dust!”

As these aerial photos from The Post prove, Hollywood celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Barbra Streisand and Jennifer Lopez continue to suck up water to keep their gardens fresh and lawns green, while Southern California withers from a devastating drought.

Experts predict California reservoirs have less than a year’s worth of drinking water left. An emergency law passed last week forces local cities to conserve water immediately. The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which supplies many of these elite enclaves north of Los Angeles, will have four weeks starting next month to cut water use by a staggering 36 percent. But the mandate is toothless, with the maximum fine a paltry $100.

“We’re right up there with Beverly Hills,” said one official who estimates 70 percent of the district’s water is going to the lawn maintenance of about 100 manicured estates. “And that means we have to get the A-listers on the bus.”

The Hidden Hills estate of Kim Kardashian/Kanye West is so lush, even their wealthy neighbors are outraged. “The Kardashian flowers and hedges are right in our face,” one resident told The Post. “It’s disgusting. You walk by and you can smell the freshness.”

(Mod: Well there you go. Class warfare has come to the drought. And from The Post no less. If I had a subscription I'd have to cancel it.)

Man Gets Prison Sentence For Collecting Rainwater On His Own Property (Washington Weekly News link): His story quickly went viral after a rural Oregon man was slapped with fines for collecting rain water on his own property. But now, as of last Wednesday, Gary Harrington of Eagle Point, has been sentenced to 30 days in jail and more than $1,500 in fines, all because he had three reservoirs on his own property, that he used to collect and use rainwater.

Harrington says he plans to appeal the conviction in the Jackson County Circuit Court. That conviction revolved around nine misdemeanor charges that come from a 1925 law. That archaic ordinance bans what state water managers called “illegal reservoirs.”

“The government is bullying,” Harrington said in an CNS News, last Thursday.

“They’ve just gotten to be big bullies and if you just lay over and die and give up, that just makes them bigger bullies. So, we as Americans, we need to stand on our constitutional rights, on our rights as citizens and hang tough. This is a good country, we’ll prevail,” he added.

(Mod: Most governments don't react well when their monopoly interests are challenged. Sierra Madre residents collecting rainwater in barrels might want to keep them hidden from sight.)

Alleged Sierra Madre thieves jailed after confrontation with resident (Pasadena Star News link): A Sierra Madre man confronted a trio of burglars in front of his home early Wednesday, chasing them off before police arrested the suspects, officials said.

A man heard noises about 4 a.m. coming from the front of his Grove Lane home, Sierra Madre police officials said in a written statement. He looked out his window to see someone breaking into his car.

“The resident went outside and confronted the suspect, who was now inside his vehicle, and a brief struggle ensued,” according to the statement. “The suspect had a large silver object in his hand which the resident felt was a gun. Fearing for his safety the resident backed away from the suspect allowing the suspect flee southbound to a dark-colored SUV.

Another suspect ran out from another nearby home and jumped into the SUV, which sped away, police said.

Police quickly found and stopped a vehicle matching the reported description and arrested three suspects after finding them in possession of suspected stolen property and drugs, according to the police statement. Police were still looking for the rightful owners of some of the property.

“We discourage residents from confronting suspects for their safety but are glad the victim is okay,” Sierra Madre Police Chief Larry Giannone said.

(Mod: The Chief needs to think about why a resident might decide to take things into his own hands rather than calling him.)

How Can Twins Have Two Different Fathers? (Yahoo Parenting link): One New Jersey woman got the surprise of a lifetime when she discovered that her 2-year-old twins have two different fathers.

The mother (identified as “T.M.” in court documents) got the news this winter, when she received the results of a paternity test mandated by family court as part of her application for public assistance, The New Jersey Law Journal reported on Thursday.

The Passaic County Board of Social Services had required the mother to establish paternity of the twins — in order to make the toddlers’ father pay child support — because she revealed that she’d been intimate with another man during the same week in which she believed her children were conceived with her former partner. DNA test results revealed in November that T.M.’s partner was the father of only one of her children.

(Mod: That must have been embarrassing. Then again, now the twins will have three grandmas.)

China may have edge in race to build California's bullet train (Reuters link): Chinese state firms are poised to be strong contenders in the race to make high-speed trains that will sprint between Los Angeles and San Francisco, part of a $68 billion project to bring the service to the United States for the first time.

While "bullet train" manufacturers from Germany, Japan, South Korea, and France are expected to be among those jockeying for the estimated $1 billion train contract, China’s ability to offer low prices and hefty financing appear to make it the one to beat, say lobbyists and industry insiders.

Lacking experience in the technology, California must turn to foreign firms to build the trains – albeit domestically and with American workers - setting off a geopolitical race to grab a foothold in the nascent U.S. high-speed rail industry.

Germany's Siemens is expanding its rail factory in Sacramento to incorporate a “high-speed lot.” Japan has voiced its interest, boasting a record of no fatal accidents in over 50 years operating high-speed trains. France’s Alstom, which produces rail cars in upstate New York, is also a potential contender.

Awarding a piece of America’s most ambitious and expensive infrastructure project in decades to strategic rival China – over a long-term ally such as Japan - would be prone to political controversy.

But a Chinese bid with generous financing attached could prove hard to resist for California’s government, which has so far secured only a fraction of the total funding needed for a project that would see trains speeding at over 200 mph (322 kph) to connect the state’s biggest cities in under three hours.

“They are the 900-pound guerilla," said Rod Diridon, former board chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), the state government agency tasked with issuing the bid and selecting a manufacturer. "They have huge advantages, because they have so much funding.”

(Mod: First the 710 Tunnel and now the bullet train. Anyone detecting a pattern here?)

Husband, wife run against each other for Bremerton City Council (NBC News Seattle link): Two candidates. One seat on the city council. And one very unique bond.

Roy Runyon, a six-year incumbent representing District 6, learned this week that his wife, Kim Faulkner, filed for his seat.

The couple is married and living together.

"I just sat down and said I think the city of Bremerton, District 6, needs more qualified people to run for office," said Faulkner, sitting next to her husband at a coffee shop. "I'm going to put my name in the hat."

"I was surprised," said Runyon. "I said, 'Boy, you could do a really good job.'"

Runyon added, "She has a different approach, which might serve the citizens. She's eminently qualified. She's not experienced in government. But she does have a different approach."

(Mod: Who says married couples don't communicate. The debates are going to be especially interesting.)

Late Edit

As was pointed out by a reader this morning, the latest City of Sierra Madre "e-blast" states that the agenda for the 5/26 City Council meeting is available the city's website. As of this typing (10:00AM) it is not.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Oxy Moxie: Fun With the $15 An Hour Minimum Wage

I get into these bizarre arguments over on a Facebook page called Pasadena Politics. Can't help myself really. It isn't always easy being right in a world where everyone else is wrong. And nowhere are they more wrong quite as remarkably as at Pasadena Politics. It is a place where people who venerate government, and particularly the government of their special city, like to congregate. Needless to say, I don't quite fit in. Though the nice lady who moderates the place does treat me kindly.

Here's an example of what I mean. A couple of years ago the Pasadena Unified School District went through its "redistricting process." Which is the politically correct term for political gerrymandering based on racial and ethnic identity. Or pretty much the opposite of what some obtrusive people attempted to accomplish with busing back in the early 1970s. So it isn't a totally bad idea.

Unfortunately, those who were in control of that PUSD so-called redistricting process threw in something a little extra. They denied three of the more traditional suburban locales in this area (such as Sierra Madre) the right to vote for their subdistrict representatives until a full 2 years later than the urban subdistricts.

Terribly unfair in my opinion. If the term "taxation without representation" doesn't come to mind, then you must have slept through history class.

Among those responsible for this PC vote theft is a gentleman straight out of P'dena named Ken Chawkins. And when I attempted to discuss this matter on the Pasadena Politics site with him, he reacted in the following unfortunate and intolerant manner:

Come on, Ken. Can't we all just get along? 

Another of the Pasadena PC Posse who finds my mere presence on the Pasadena Politics page entirely intolerable is Occidental College Professor Peter Dreier. Peter, in case you are blissfully unaware, is a lifetime radical activist who carries on like he believes that 1968 never ended. And woe to anyone who might disagree with him.

A quixotic pursuit made comfortable for him due to his tenured professorship at Occidental College, a liberal arts institution in Eagle Rock that costs parents of the youngsters who go there about $60,000 a year. 

I'll bet you can buy some real nice office furniture with that kind of dough.

Now one of Professor Dreier's bugaboos these days is the $15 minimum wage. He's written whole articles on the matter, and has even given a few speeches about it as well. Here is a portion of an LA Times op-ed piece he penned a year or so ago (link).

It's surprising, then, that Los Angeles has not yet seen a campaign to adopt a citywide minimum wage for the more than 800,000 city residents — 46% of working Angelenos — who make less than $15 an hour. That comes to less than $30,000 for year-round full-time work.

That amount of money doesn't go very far in Los Angeles, where the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,523. A family needs to earn $29.29 an hour to afford that rent, according to the Southern California Assn. for Non-Profit Housing. At the current state minimum wage of $8 an hour, two minimum-wage workers would each have to work 73 hours a week to afford that apartment.

Worse yet, wages are going down in Los Angeles even as the cost of living rises. Between 1979 and 2011, the median inflation-adjusted pay of L.A. workers declined by 14%. For the working poor — the bottom quarter of income earners — yearly pay plummeted by 26%.

Where, then, is the City Council? Where's the Mayor?

Now this matter has been up for discussion on the Pasadena Politics site lately, mostly because the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Garcetti, along with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, got with Peter's principles. And nobody was more giddy with delight than the Professor. Check this out:

As you know, I always try to be as helpful as possible, no matter what someone's opinions might be. And one of the ways I try to do that is to point out the contradictions in things people are saying. The contradiction for Professor Dreier being that the college where he serves as a senior professor, Occidental, pays their more blue collar help simply terrible wages. Or at least by Dreier's standards.

Here are some unhappy examples:

I am not sure being an "on-call banquet assistant" for $11.66 an hour is quite in the spirit of that $15 an hour minimum wage campaign Peter Dreier has been championing. I attempted to point this out to him, but wouldn't you know it? He cussed me out quite roundly, and with little regards for my feelings I might add.

Then he posted the following bold statement:

But here is the thing. And believe me, I take little pleasure in saying this. While the Los Angeles City Council did pass something along the lines of what Professor Dreier describes, it isn't quite what he has represented it to be. Here is how CNBC describes that pain (link):

As Los Angeles moves to become the largest city to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour from $9 an hour over the next five years, a key question is which other large cities might follow suit and hike pay.

The Los Angeles City Council agreed on Tuesday to draft a proposal to raise wages by 2020. The plan will go to a vote next month and Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he will sign it into law.

And there is the catch. This is a $6 an hour raise over the course of five very long years. And in the next year or so current $9 an hour minimum wage earners will see their life's bounty make a feeble leap up from what they earn now to the rather unlordly $10.50. 

I am not sure this is going to make all of those Tiger Temps and Banquet Assistants at Occidental College jump for joy. Or put in their orders for new Audis, either. 

This despite the bold promises of a $15 dollar and hour minimum wage Professor Dreier made on their behalf over at the Pasadena Politics Facebook page. And failed to deliver in a timely manner.

Just don't you dare go and tell anyone.

Late edit

This article has since been pulled from the Pasadena Politics page.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

PUSD Project Manager Frazer Thompson Has Been Booted Off The Middle School Project. Will This School Ever Get Finished?

Now what?
(Mod: The Middle School that never seems to get finished has suffered yet another setback. Project Manager Frazer Thompson, the popular and familiar spokesman for this project over the last 3 years has, and for reasons yet to be revealed by the Pasadena Unified School District, been kicked off the project. So possibly have two other members of the management team. No replacements have been named, which isn't particularly good Human Resources work. Usually the big domes have people already in mind before they go canning folks. What this means at best is even more delays. And at worst? I think you can probably guess what that might be. Here is an e-mail blast that went out yesterday from one concerned resident to many Sierra Madre parents.)

Hi Parents: I hope that you will all forgive me for using this email forum to urge you to take action about the middle school. I know that you have all worked hard to ensure a bright future for your children.  I have seen most of them grow up over the years as a school volunteer and marveled at their development into great kids. I hope that our collective actions now will allow them to get the great education they deserve. I know that some of you have older children at the middle school and are acutely aware of all the problems we face there. The most obvious problem is the constant delay with construction.

We are sorry to report that the district has officially removed Frazer Thompson from his position as Project Manager at the middle school. This means the completion of the middle school will again be delayed. At the Board meeting we asked you to attend, about 20 parents showed up. This was nowhere near enough support to prompt the district to change course. Unfortunately, if we want the district to listen we need at least 200 people to do so.

Please help get the word out. If you have a child in or heading to middle school you must be a part of the action. This is a 3 year school and the majority of the original parents have moved on. We need a new group of parents to step up now. Who can take the next charge?

(Mod: The following message from Gretchen Vance was posted on the Organize Sierra Madre Schools Facebook page last month.)

Dear Sierra Madre Schools Family,
A new challenge has arisen with the completion of the middle school. Please read the letter from our Measure TT committee representative Gretchen Vance:

PUSD’s newly hired Chief of Facilities, Nelson Cayabyab, is in the process of making decisions that will directly effect the completion date of Sierra Madre Middle School. We believe that he will not be extending the contracts of both the Project Manger (Richard Kent) and Owner Representative (Frazer Thompson) assigned to SMMS, as well as firing the architect (who has done an outstanding job).

It is VITAL that ALL of these people remain in place in order to see our project through to completion. They have all been with us for the duration of the project, know the history and have effectively managed the relationships of all parties involved (contractor, inspectors, DSA, etc.). Because of them, our project remains on time with an expected classroom completion date of mid-June.

PLEASE join me in urging the PUSD School Board to investigate these rash actions by Nelson and stop this nonsense from delaying our project, once again. We need CROWDS of parents and students at the meeting because we have proven that there is power in numbers!

Date: Thursday, April 23
Time: 4:15pm
Place: PUSD District Office Board Room #236
351 S. Hudson Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91011
Let’s work together to see our project to completion ON TIME! We are almost there!
Gretchen Vance
Measure TT Oversight Committee Member and Co-Chair

(Mod: Crowds did not show up. And remember, it was only through turnout and protest that the PUSD finally consented to get rid of its packing crate Middle School and replace it with a real one. Oh, and here are a few more pieces of information. New Board of Ed member Patrick Cahalan posted these observations last night on the Pasadena Politics Facebook page.)

(Mod: Anybody know what the truth is here? Did Frazer Thompson resign or was he fired? And does anybody know what a "constructability review" might be? You'd think they'd know whether it was "constructable" or not by now. Should we take that to mean the PUSD doesn't know how to finish the Middle School? And we are talking about years of delays and nonsense already. A sudden and radical change in the management team at this late hour does not make very much sense.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Massive Doyle - Stockly Era Water Bond Debt: Could It Cost Sierra Madre Its Library?

One of the sad ironies regarding Rob Stockly's leadership in the purported fight to save Sierra Madre's Library from the budgetary chopping block goes as follows:

The amount of money it will take to pay the interest only 2003 water bond debt racked up when Stockly and some other equally careless and irresponsible individuals were on the City Council would today pay all of the costs associated with maintaining Sierra Madre's at risk library more than 8 times. Or, to put it in another big number way, we would not have to pay a dime in Library costs until the year 2023. Unfortunately for us, it is all going to the Bank Of New York instead.

Have you ever wondered what kind of cerebral dysfunction it took to lock this city into $6,750,000 in water bond debt, and then somehow decide to make interest only payments on the principal until 2020? Without even paying off even $1 of the original amount until 17 years later?

I am not sure I know the answer to that. Or at least I cannot quite find the words to describe my reaction in a family friendly manner.

Here is another question. What exactly is the cost of all that debt and interest to the people of Sierra Madre for the $6,750,000 2003 water bond? That I can answer for you. The combined figure is $14,925,486.00. In other words, due to that unique repayment schedule Sierra Madre's tax and water ratepayers will have ended up paying way more than double the cost of that 2003 water bond once it is finally retired in 2034.

To be exact, that would be 31 years later, and at a total cost in interest debt service alone of over $8 million dollars. Talk about your mad stacks from sad sacks. You could have bought 4 entire libraries with that amount of money and still had something left over for a firetruck.

According to City Hall the total cost for maintaining the Library last year was $804,000. According to the consultant Raftelis, the folks who steered the City Council through its latest round of water rate hikes, the yearly cost in water department debt service is as follows.

Or nearly $200,000 more than the yearly cost of running the Library.

About two years ago City Hall issued a report titled Debt Administration. It makes interesting reading, and can still be found on the City of Sierra Madre website if you look hard enough. In case you haven't seen it yet, here are the bizarre dollar figures associated with that ill-fated 2003 water bond.

I would hope that the Water Department's outrageous bond debt, much of it brought about by the borderline crazy decision to make interest only payments until 2020, would start coming up in some of the budget outreach (or is that input) meetings now taking place.

Water bond debt service costs more each year than what it costs to run Public Works, Planning, Community Services, and, of course, the Library. All of which could see their budgets cut, or even go away altogether.

As this city begins to make its decisions on where and what not to cut, maybe people could take a second to reflect upon what that squandered $8 million dollars could have saved from the chopping block.

That decision to make interest only payments on the 2003 Water Bonds until 2020 could go down as one of the worst ever made in this town. The consequences are not only still being felt today, but also being paid for as well.

Graphics courtesy of Raftelis

Here is a question for you. Note the difference between what water ratepayers in Sierra Madre pay versus what those in Arcadia pay. Since traditionally the water used by these two cities comes from the same place, why the huge difference in money charged to customers?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Take The Noah Green Challenge: What Would You Cut?

Ready for the Noah Green challenge?
You might recall that during the last City Council election candidate Noah Green challenged the residents of Sierra Madre to identify the things they would cut should the UUTax Measure go down to defeat. Something that we here on The Tattler laughed about loud and long. The question seemed absurd. Why would the residents ever have to make those cuts? Isn't that what we elect City Councilmembers to do? The dirty work?

But now it is more than one year later, and identifying those cuts has apparently become the responsibility of residents just about as much as city officials. So we have some work to do.

Today we are going to take a second look at the Noah Green Challenge. I'd have thought that turning down a utility tax increase twice would be enough myself, and that local government might have heeded the will of the people and gotten this unpleasant yet necessary stuff done by now. But that is apparently not the case. And the question, "What would you cut?" is now being asked quite often at a lot of meetings all over town. It is a funny old world we live in.

It has come to that. So tell me partner, what exactly is it that you would want to cut?

As Sierra Madre's budget outreach (or is that input?) roadshow continues, it is now becoming obvious that sides are now being drawn and cherished constituencies fought for. And while people are not really telling anybody too much about what they would want to cut, they sure are happy to let anyone who will listen know what shouldn't be. Not a totally unexpected result if you think about it.

Pat Alcorn, who was unfortunate enough to have to run for City Council on the same ticket as me, has become an outspoken advocate for saving the things she believes in. As well she should. Here is what she had to say on Facebook yesterday:

At Tuesday's Council Meeting, the suggestion was proposed that in order to have a balanced budget, the Sierra Madre Library be cut to perhaps two part-time employees and vastly reduced hours. This would fulfill the State requirements of not closing the library completely. It was also proposed that the Community Services Department be closed.

These suggestions would mean losing a vastly talented Library Director and experienced staff, and a Community Service Manager and staff plus cutting out those vital services that make our town, OUR TOWN. -- MWTR, 4th of July Parade and celebrations, concerts in the park, Huck Finn Fishing Derby, Halloween Happenings, to name a few.

To tell you the truth, I don't necessarily disagree with Pat Alcorn. Especially on the Library question. It seems to me that those who support keeping the Library, and those who want to preserve Sierra Madre from the McMansion wrecking ball, are actually on two sides of the same coin. Both are preservationist at heart, and want to save the things that make Sierra Madre the quaint village they love.

One side wants to preserve their idea of a small town, which includes having a Library. Something the PUSD schools in town do not have, as many parents know. The other side of that coin also wants to preserve Sierra Madre, with their focus being to keep the town as it is. Quaint, idiosyncratic, and not filled with huge and ugly parvenu palaces like Arcadia.

In my opinion those who are politically pitting these two preservationist communities against each other are some of the most cynical individuals imaginable. And I am sure everyone knows who they are, and the dishonorable reasons behind why they are doing this. It is about as nasty a divide and conquer strategy as I have ever seen.

See how easy it is to say what you wish to keep, but not what you'd want to cut? The cutting thing is hard and unpleasant, and nobody wants to be the one to do that. It is much easier to be a savior, especially when it is mostly somebody else's money.

So that all said, I will now tell you what I think should be cut. And it would be that one big thing now receiving the lion's share of this City's tax money. By quite a considerable length. Doesn't that make sense? After all, that is where the real Lulu Belle is to be found.

Here is the General Fund pie chart from the Budget Community Input Meetings handout.

As you can easily see by this fine and colorful piece of graphic art, the vast majority of this city's tax money goes to pay for things like cops. Public Safety makes up 58% (or $5.7 million dollars) of the General Fund Budget. Nearly $4 million of that goes to the Sierra Madre Police Department. So doesn't it make sense to cut the most from the place where the largest chunk of the money is found?

Now before we get any farther, I need to say something else. There is a false dichotomy that has dominated the public safety debate here for quite some time here. That being in order to save a lot of money the city would need to get rid of the Sierra Madre Police Department and replace it with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. It comes up as often as the topic itself.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Not only would this be a very unpopular move here politically, it is also not likely save this city all that much money. The numbers just do not pan out. And once the SMPD is out and the Sheriff's Department in, I am sure the LASD would start nickel and diming this city to death. In the end any savings will likely be minimal.

Besides, when things get really bad doesn't the city just call in the Sheriffs anyway?

The real way to save money would be to both reduce the size of the Sierra Madre Police Department and cut back its overly generous benefits and retirement funding. In a low crime community such as this one, the almost $4 million dollars a year now being spent to police so small a town as Sierra Madre is an absurdly large amount of money.

We're talking about a town of less that 11,000 people. $1,500 a year for every family of 4 in Sierra Madre to pay cops for protection from trashcan invading bears and parking scofflaws is a bit much to ask. It just isn't necessary.

Sierra Madre has been a low crime community for about as long as anyone can remember. Year after year articles (link) are printed declaring our community to be one of the state's safest. Our fortuitous out of the way location makes this a place most criminals are quite leery about. There is no immediate access to the 210 freeway, something that makes absconding with the loot a risky proposition.

There are other reasons as well, mostly to do with income levels and other demographics. And while it is obvious why the SMPD's union would want to take all of the credit for Sierra Madre's decades old low crime figures, it just isn't very accurate or true. It has a lot more to do with the low density nature and defensible location of the community itself.

Also, haven't you grown sick and tired of reading stories about all of the stupid and petty lawsuits this city endures from the SMPD? They have been a very entitled group of litigious budget killers for years now, with only Michael Colantuono and his law partners profiting. To the tune of millions of dollars. Link here to see an example of what I'm talking about.

So this is what I would cut. Reduce the SMPD's expenditures by about a million or so dollars, or around 25% of its yearly budget. We would then be well on our way to achieving sustainable financial independence for Sierra Madre.

Nip and tuck a few other things (Paramedics, the so-called Planning Department, various defined benefit plans), and living within the constraints of a 6% UUT would be far more achievable than what certain disreputable individuals are running around and saying.

Keep the Library, keep the Fishing Derby, the 4th of July Parade and the SMPD. Can all of that nonsense about the Sheriffs and put the Sierra Madre Police Department on a badly needed cash diet. End the stupid "we're all gonna die" paranoia campaign the SMPD's lawsuit crazy union is running as well. It is dishonest and destructive. All they want is your money.

This has all largely been SMPD union employee salary and benefits driven mission creep anyway, steadily run over the course of far too many years. It has precious little to do with real public safety issues.

There you go, problem solved.

So that is what I would cut. How about you?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Moody's: Sierra Madre Water Bonds Remain At Junk Level

Ba1: More bad bond news this week.
Sierra Madre's water woes go deep, to use a word that might not be completely appropriate. Maybe we should say they go shallow because we don't have very much of the stuff. But always looming behind any story about this community's water woes is its enormous water bond debt. Something that consumes an awful lot of the town's cash resources.

This week Moody's once again assigned a "Ba1" junk level rating to Sierra Madre's water bonds.

Of course, the steady ratings decline of Sierra Madre's water bonds has been an ongoing story here for years, and does from time to time occasionally attract some attention. And actually this whole water bond ratings disaster has quite a colorful history in town. One that has had a substantial effect on such important issues as the high levels of money we are paying for water. A good example of which would be the following Pasadena Star News article from way back in October of 2011 (link).

Moody's drops Sierra Madre water bond rating

By Brian Charles, Staff Writer
Posted:   10/06/2011 10:34:26 PM PDT

SIERRA MADRE - Credit rating agency Moody's downgraded the city of Sierra Madre's Water Enterprise bonds from AAA to an A bond rating due to insufficient water rate revenues, according to a report by the credit agency.

The downgrade does not affect current indebtedness or bond payments and Sierra Madre officials said Thursday the second year of an incremental rate hike approved in early 2011 will serve as the remedy.

"The bonds will be re-evaluated in another year, and assuming the revenue estimates and the revenues that rate payers are paying, we will regain our triple A rating," said Elaine Aguilar, Sierra Madre city manager.

Last year, rusty water pipes were paraded through Sierra Madre City Council meetings in an attempt to rally support for rate hikes. City officials said the hikes were needed to upgrade 2.95-square-mile city's water system that supplies water to less than 11,000 people.

City officials pitched the rate hike as necessary to keep the water system from falling apart and said nothing about a bond rating or bond indebtedness, according to John Crawford, resident and blogger for the Sierra Madre Tattler, who broke the story on his website early Thursday morning.

"When they first packaged raising the water rates, they pitched as the pipes were broken and the pipes needed to be fixed," Crawford said. "They didn't say it had anything to do with bonds."

It didn't take much detective work to discover the real issue was pulling in enough revenue to keep credit rating agency from dinging Sierra Madre's bond rating and making moves such as refinancing bonds next to impossible, he said.

"Later on Sierra Madre residents discovered that this was about the bond covenants," Crawford said.

Sierra Madre city officials switched tactics and repositioned the rate hike as necessary to satisfy credit agencies, but the public outcry had grown intense - there was massive opposition to the rate hike and the increase was challenged legally with the city eventually emerging victorious, he said.

The political scuttlebutt forced the City Council to hedge on a full-scale rate hike.

Instead of spiking rates high enough to meet the bond covenants requirement of 120 percent of funding for this year, the city slowly rolled out the rate increase and won't meet the revenue levels needed to satisfy credit agencies such as Moody's until 2012, Sierra Madre Mayor John Buchanan said.

"You trade-off coming fully up to speed on your bond covenants right away, against the need to bring your people along slowly ... and not hitting people with the increase right away," Buchanan said. "Of course the first proposal in front of us was for a steeper increase, but there was a second issue, the residents were opposed to a steep increase and we have a fair number of senior citizens on a fixed income."

Crawford blasted city officials Thursday for the quagmire left by not being forthcoming on the bonding issue from the beginning and a failed plan to keep the city from being downgraded.

"We pay more money and we still don't have a triple A rating."

I miss Brian Charles. This was all before our water started changing colors, of course. And I think that if Sierra Madre were to somehow ever get back to that 2011 Moody's A rating today, which seemed so bad in 2011, they'd be turning cartwheels downtown.

But I digress. You do remember when City Hall lied to us about their reasons for a water rate hike, right? As described in that Star News article? When the city tried to convince you that it was all about repairing old pipes, when actually it was to cover the costs of some monumentally bad bond debt?

If you need a little refresher course, check out an oldie but goody called "The Real Water Rate Misinformation" (link). It remains the #1 most viewed article ever on The Tattler.

So despite the wildly inappropriate optimism from the City Manager, plus the real reason for the ensuing water rate hikes (which we were eventually told about thanks to this blog), Sierra Madre never did get its AAA rating back. As a matter of fact, water rates have gone up several times since, and oddly enough our bond ratings have still spiraled deeper into the bleak nether regions of the Moody's ratings chart known as junk.

Or exactly the opposite of what we had been told would happen when water rates were increased.

An example of that misinformation would be this October 2011 story in the Mountain Views News which claimed too low water rates were responsible for the city's bond rating debacle.

Anyway, when you consider that this city continues to do stupid stuff like paying only the interest on our 2003 Water Bonds, and at an unnecessary additional cost of approximately $9 million dollars in debt service that is coming straight out of your pocket, it all starts to make perfect sense.

Last week Moody's once again reconfirmed Sierra Madre's junk "Water Enterprise" bond rating (link). This despite all of those water rate increases.

In case you are wondering where a Moody's "Ba1" rating puts us, here is some helpful information provided to us by this bond rating service.

This chart comes from Wikipedia (link).

In other words, Sierra Madre's so-called "water enterprise" remains a junk bond basket case that only continues to exist because of the tax money and repeated rate increases residents are forced to pay to prop it up.

So how did we get to this point? Do you remember something called the "Downtown Specific Plan?" That had a lot to do with it. To put it into current Sierra Madre argot, these bonds were all about paying for water infrastructure such as water storage tanks, needed to support a failed large scale downtown mixed use development project.

It has always been about development and money, you know. Maybe we should get back into that story again some day soon. It kind of is Sierra Madre's "crime of the century." And not all that different from some of the bad things that are going on in town today.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

So Where Does All Of Sierra Madre's Money Go? Plus: Arcadia Nailed On Brown Act Violations

The Budget Input Roadshow rolls on, and maybe you've been to one of those many outreach events, or are planning on doing so soon. But if you are going, you really do need to check out the Community Services Commission Agenda Packet, which was put together by city staff for their meeting next Tuesday. There is much more in the way of meatier budgetary "hard numbers" than anything that is being passed out at the outreach events. It's the inside baseball stuff you might have been looking for, but hadn't been able to get your mitts on yet.

And yes, there are spending increases. Not surprisingly, most of them are for CalPERS, employee benefits, and all of that overtime. The city's past shenanigan era giveaways to Sierra Madre's municipal employee unions are today literally blowing up the budget, but then you probably already knew about that. Here is where the real dough is being spent, and at ever higher numbers.

This should have been dealt with a few years ago, but somehow was ignored. I guess this kind of stuff wasn't a priority during the administrations of Mayors Buchanan, Mosca, Moran and Walsh. After all, there was that restroom problem at Memorial Park to deal with. And how many here lost sleep over the issue of where to store the pingpong table at the Hart Park House?

So what is all of this really telling us? That City Hall never was very serious about the UUT sunsetting. Or somehow lived in a world of special denial where it was possible to believe this wasn't ever going to happen. The result being that no matter how much money they're going to get now, it can never be enough.

And now with the UUT beginning to sunset its way back down to 6%, there is not a chance in Hades that City Hall will be getting the cash they need to sustain this level of spending.

Here are the numbers from the Community Services documents.

I ran these numbers past Robert Fellner at Transparent California (link). They ponder the budgets and spending of a few thousand city governments in California and Nevada rather deeply, so I figured a dispassionate outside look into the financial goings on here in the Foothill Village might be valuable.

And while Robert is the first to admit that he is not as intimately aware of the internal goings on here as maybe you might be, the guy does know his stuff. Here are a few things that jumped out at him.

The library costs nearly as much as fire services?!

They really can’t do much about CalPERS now that they are locked in; part of the reason that type of system is terrible for the public sector. Politicians can enact it, once it becomes costly they are long out of office and other people pay for it. It really depends on the specifics of the town.

If people there love their library, that’s a cost to bear, but it seems really high.

I’m sure they could do much more to cut the cost of healthcare. They could ask employees to contribute more. They could immediately stop paying the employee’s share of CalPERS contributions for police. That would save a bunch.

Enrolling the part-time firefighters into the reduced CalPERS rate to save on OT seems like a decent idea.

I don’t know specifics about crime and the police there, but it seems like a lot of cops for a small town. Reducing size of department by even 1 or 2 employees would generate huge savings.

Obviously City officials are never going to suggest you eliminate their jobs or reduce their pay – so all of this needs to come externally from the commissioners and elected officials.

I don’t know enough about the specifics of Sierra Madre to definitely say what should be cut and what shouldn’t. But obviously all city-produced reports/suggestions are always going to be made with the best interest of city employees in mind.

It does seem like 2015 is turning out to be a very interesting year.

Bonus Coverage!

Pasadena Star News ... Experts: Arcadia officials violated California’s open meetings law - Arcadia officials violated the Brown Act when they made three key policy decisions in closed session, law and governance experts said Friday.

At a meeting last week, officials voted to shelve a comprehensive update to the city’s residential and commercial zoning codes, postpone the Neighborhood Impacts Committee and move forward with a citywide historic preservation survey, sans the Highland Homeowner’s Association.

City Attorney Steven Deitsch reported the decisions at the City Council meeting May 5. Deitsch said the decisions came as a result of a lawsuit filed against the city targeting mansionization.

Kelly Aviles, open government attorney and vice president of Californians Aware (link), said just because there are ties between the lawsuit and policies does not mean the council can go into closed session to talk about it.

“You can’t make decisions that are tangential to the lawsuit because you happen to be in litigation, and you cannot do an end-run around the public’s right to comment or be involved in policy changes just because they relate to the litigation,” she said.

Open Government Advocate Gil Aguirre said the city attorney should have advised officials to make the policy changes and then each item should have subsequently been put on an agenda, discussed and voted on in open session.

“The problem you have is that they effectively made three important policy decisions that affect the community, and yet the community was excluded from ever having an opportunity to address these officials before the decision was made,” Aguirre said. “This sort of secret behavior is exactly what the Brown Act intends to stop.”

(Mod: Gil Aguirre and Kelly Aviles back on the front lines. There is hope for Arcadia yet. Link to the rest of the article here.)