Saturday, October 30, 2010

Join GovLoop.com to Tell America "Government Doesn't Suck!"

If you are a John Stewart or Stephen Colbert fan you know all about their "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" today in our nation's capitol. It is going right now as we type, I believe.

This is the second shoe to drop in the war between the cable infotainment networks as they attempt to seize the imagination of the American people and exercise some influence on Tuesday's elections.

That it has all come to this is an entirely different subject, one that I doubt I have have the strength (or desire) to tackle. We generally do local politics on this site. You know, where we discuss the awful policies of those running this city, and they squawk about their victimhood. The last refuge of a scoundrel these days being political correctness, I guess. And it beats their having to actually discuss real issues. Which, I suppose, makes this blog a kind of a foil.

Oh, and I hear they will be trotting out a new message soon. Goes something like, "We're nice, so give us your money and stop asking so many questions."

Sorry, I got distracted. There is another rally going on in Washington DC today, and I thought I should point it out to you. It is called "Government Doesn't Suck," and it is a reply to last year's "Government Sucks" rally that also took place in Washington. Using the attention being given to the Stewart/Colbert rally as a way of bringing focus to their cause, an organization called GovLoop.com hopes to put a human face to the widely accepted image of the lazy and incompetent bureaucrat.

Here is how the event is described on the GovLoop.com Facebook page, a site that boasts of a membership of 35,000 government employees.

A lot of people say that government sucks. Living in DC, you're in the eye of the storm. With anti-government sentiments at record highs, we feel your pain. We know, you don't suck, you know you don't suck, so let's let the world in on this little secret.

GovLoop is getting together to put a human face on governmental bureaucracy, to show the country that you're capable of having a laugh. We'll be raising awareness for the importance of government activities by attending the Rally to Restore Sanity on Oct. 30 at 10:30 am and showing our support fro (sic) Gov't (sic) workers with signs and t-shirts.

And seeing as to how this is a GovLoop event, feel free to take pictures, video and engage in discussions that will hit the web!

There will be t-shirts, signs, reasonable indignation and, most importantly, a platform for us to rally around the mantra that "Government Doesn't Suck."

We certainly live in wild times, do we not?

There is a Christian Science Monitor piece on this pre-event to the Stewart/Colbert shindig, and the venerable news organization discussed this affair with the founder and president of GovLoop.com, Steve Ressler.

"People hate government," says Ressler. But he says the troops have been called out to march Saturday to put a human face on the institution. They've come to town to push back against the apparently widely-held assumption that, "we are all incompetent, lazy and overpaid," he says.

But is a gathering of the super hip, super ironic fan crowd that stays up from 11 p.m. to midnight - past the bedtime of most government workers - to watch Colbert and Stewart skewer every government worker in town, really the best place to make this case?

Yes, says Ressler. Because this is a largely young demographic and, he maintains, "the very ones whose attitudes we hope to change." Public service, he says, is noble, meaningful work, and not all that long ago it used to be "the goal of the best and brightest."

Good luck with that.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Sierra Madre Tattler Salutes the National Speed Trap Exchange

The worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression has had many effects on our society. Widespread unemployment, the collapse of real estate values, a debt crisis, and a general malaise that has engulfed much of the nation over the last few years.

Local government, which once seemed immune to the vagaries of economics gone sour, has begun to feel the pinch as well. With the collapse of real estate values has come property tax shortfalls that have led many such governments to worry about their ability to function financially as they had before. And those once reliable taxpayers, hard pressed in these difficult times, have suddenly become much more difficult to deal with as well. Something that has forced many city governments to look elsewhere in order to make up for their shrinking money take.

And, as most any driver in Sierra Madre will tell you, one of those places they appear to have gone looking is traffic tickets. You hear the stories everywhere.

I don't want to overstate this, but it has become quite hostile out there for the American driver. And the many road warriors among us have begun to wonder just exactly how they can fight back. And now there is a way. It is a website that goes by the name of The National Speed Trap Exchange, run by an outfit that calls itself the National Motorists Association.

This is how the NMA describes their mission:

The main premise of the National Motorists Association is that if motorists will join together in one organization to represent their rights and interests as drivers, they will no longer be ignored and exploited by federal, state and local governments.

I do like the sound of that. For whatever the reasons personal transportation and those who use it have become a kind of lightning rod in this confusing age. Drivers are now being held responsible for many of the widely perceived evils facing mankind today. Global warming, greenhouse gases, oil spills, roadway fatalities and various other social ills have caused many fashionable urbanist leaning folks to view automobile drivers as something of an antisocial element.

And in an atmosphere as charged as this one is, does anyone in local government really give a damn about how drivers feel about traffic tickets? Apparently not. As far as they are concerned, the driver is fair game.

The unique thing about The National Speed Trap Exchange is that a lot of people contribute their hard won advice there. You can click on any of the 50 states and chances are pretty good that you will get a valuable city specific rundown on the behavior of the local traffic cops and how best to avoid them. All from the people who actually drive there. And if used properly this resource will help you to even up the odds a little.

Most San Gabriel Valley cities are listed, and those that are all have plentiful posted information from actual drivers. Sierra Madre is among those you can click on. Here is a sampling of the kinds advice being offered about our town:

Sep 23, 2010 - The Entire City of Sierra Madre, California: Sierra Madre CA is the only city in Southern CA that does not own a traffic signal. There are two on the west perimeter owned by Pasadena - at Michillinda and Orange Grove, and Michillinda and Sierra Madre Boulevard. The City DEPENDS on traffic citations for its existence, and even though the police force is small, it's rare that you will pass through the town without seeing a black and white unit. Make FULL stops at every stop sign and obey the posted speed limits. Obedience is compulsory.

Obviously written by someone who knows the place pretty well. There are also these:

Apr 26, 2010 - Sierra Madre Blvd near Youth Activity Center: Going East or West around the park and Nursery School, a patrol or motorcycle cops sits with radar getting you from either direction in AM commute times 7AM to 9AM and on the way home 5PM to 7PM. Also watch for cops sitting at all stop signs on Sierra Madre Blvd, anywhere. Trust me, they have nothing else better to do!

Feb 18, 2010 - W. Sierra Madre Blvd. at Auburn Ave: They sit at the corner of Auburn Ave., or at the side of the Prudential Bldg radaring people or waiting for someone to do a U-Turn into a parking space.

There are times that we have actually do have to leave Sierra Madre, and when that happens the chance are good that you will need to pass through Arcadia. Here are some tips from The National Speedtrap Exchange on driving down the hill:

May 18, 2010 - Huntington Drive & Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, California: So you've sped down Baldwin Ave from the 210 exit, avoiding TWO speed traps and you know you want to make a left turn once you get to Huntington Dr. Be careful, there is another trap. This trap isn't about speeding, but crossing a double yellow line to get into the left turn lane. The Motorcycle Officer will sit at the Fire Station on the left side and watch to se if your tires cross the double yellow lines. Any tire that crosses those dreaded lines will get you pulled over.

Nov 26, 2009 - Foothill Boulevard Near Baldwin Avenue: An Arcadia patrol car sits in the parking lot of the Mormon Church watching for drivers going over the posted 45MPH speed limit.

Many people have posted observations about their cities on The National Speed Trap Exchange. A resource such as this is only worthwhile if people participate.

What we would like to do here on the Tattler today is for you to post your traffic ticket experiences, and then we will use them to update the Sierra Madre page on the Speed Trap Exchange. All done anonymously, of course. Many neighboring towns have a lot more entrees there than we do (Pasadena has over 50), and we need to fix that inequity. And certainly there are things happening here that people need to know about.

Somebody out there will thank you if you do.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Thursday, October 28, 2010

We Should Have Seen This One Coming A Mile Away

After watching Tuesday evening's rather graceless performance on the water rate increase matter, you'd have thought that The Gang had already figured out what it is that they wanted to do. I mean, nobody could have been quite that boorish without actually having everything already worked out, right?

However, if you choose to believe what you can read in today's Pasadena Star News, maybe we are going to have to cast aside those illusions and replace them with more current hallucinations.

Because, you see, somewhere along the line, and perhaps when nobody was looking except possibly their consigliere, the Brown Council went and hired a consultant to work out the water rate hike details for them. I mean, isn't that what our tax money is for? We certainly wouldn't expect that kind of heavy lifting to be done in house, could we?

Here is how the account reads:

Sierra Madre staff to bring back water rate hike proposals: Sierra Madre staff members will work with consultants to bring back three water rate hike scenarios to the council at a future meeting following direction council members gave Tuesday night ... The proposals will aim to more evenly distribute water rate increases over a five-year period rather than have a larger increase upfront as originally proposed ...

Now I had watched this meeting pretty closely, and drank plenty of coffee throughout the proceedings so that I wouldn't miss even the slightest nuance of what went down. And for the life of me I cannot remember anyone up on the dais instructing city staff to hire consultants to cook up a few water rate increase strategies. Or anyone there voting on a budget to fund such studies. Can you?

Of course, maybe the paper got it wrong and this is the same old consultant that did the original water rate study. You know, that dude with the template and tiers. But wouldn't it take more money to rehire this guy? And shouldn't that consideration have been discussed and voted upon in a public forum?

The article goes on to share this important information:

The three scenarios will differ as to what year the city would get into compliance with bond covenants related to the issuance of its 2003 Water Revenue Parity Bonds - either by year two, three of five years of the proposal ... About $12.6 million in debt service from the 2003 bonds is still owed ...

Remember when the water rate hike was supposed to be all about repairing those old rusty pipes? Now it doesn't even get mentioned.

I am going to have to look into this a little bit and get back to you all. Important details like exactly what consultant was hired and just how much was spent to do so need to be uncovered so that we can share it with The Tattler readership. And right now nobody is talking about this one.

Now here's a City where people know how to get things done!

I don't know much about the City of Rowland Heights except that it is near Walnut. I can't even remember having ever been there, unless a freeway runs runs through the middle of it and I just drove on through. But when it comes to stopping unwanted development and sneaky changes to their General Plan, these good people have got it going on. Check out this bit of exciting news from the SGV Tribune:

Huge crowd causes cancellation of Rowland Heights planning meeting: County officials Wednesday night were forced to reschedule a hearing regarding a 537-unit development after hundreds of angry residents flooded the meeting's venue ... Los Angeles County Fire Department officials shut down the meeting at Los Angeles Royal Vista Golf Course in Walnut after almost 800 residents - double the maximum occupancy - showed up to voice their opinions regarding proposed Canyon Residences housing project in Rowland Heights ... The room echoed with emotional outbursts, jeers and stomps as residents chanted "We say no" to developer Trammell Crow Residentials proposed high density apartment complex ...

So besides the actual development itself, what were the issues that concerned the good people of Rowland Heights?

A majority are opposed because they said amending the (general) plan would lead to spot zoning and possible increases in crime, water costs and expanding development.

Nice to read about a community that knows how to get it done. And amending a general plan to accommodate outsized high density development? Oh gosh darn, that just isn't done now, is it?

You couldn't make this up if you tried ...

This wonderful article showed up yesterday on the L.A. Times "This Just In" webpage. I had to read it twice just to make sure I was comprehending the sheer mad genius of it all. It is that choice.

Irwindale officials spent lavishly during business trips to discuss housing for the poor - The Irwindale officials charged Wednesday with misappropriating public funds took lavish business trips to New York City, including meals at five-star restaurants, evenings at Broadway shows, chauffeured rides and nights at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, according to records obtained by The Times.

The spending came as leaders in Irwindale spent $87 million in affordable housing funds over eight years, but only built 42 homes. Two trips to New York were for the purpose of discussing bonds for housing the poor in the San Gabriel Valley city of about 1,500 people.

Astonishing chutzpah, and from officials straight out of Irwindale? Apparently the $38,000 in taxpayer cash spent on these little Fun City junkets bought our intrepid city officials seats at a matinee of "Jackie Mason Laughing Room Only," dinner at the Atelier, tickets to Phantom of the Opera, a hockey game, a couple baseball games, and an array of fine dining experiences at the very best Manhattan eateries.

One of those arrested, retired Irwindale City Manager Steve Blancarte, was involved at the time in something called "10-Year Strategy to End Homelessness." Perhaps Mr. Blancarte's strategy would be to have life's unfortunate vagabonds check into the Ritz Carlton?

I hope those poor and homeless people appreciated all the hard work these busy officials did for them when meeting with those bond bankers.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sierra Madre's City Council Doesn't Trust Sierra Madre

"We don't have to do that, MaryAnn." - Josh Moran

In listening to last night's City Council meeting I couldn't help but reflect upon what it is the Gang of 4 really fears here. And that is the people of the town they claim to govern.

Take the water rate hike. Their first year proposed increase was 15%. But then a group of folks went out, collected over 2,000 protest signatures, and effectively shut their water rate hike down. So now they're talking about what, a 7% first year increase?

If the people of Sierra Madre hadn't hit the streets and gotten all of those signatures, that original 15% water rate hike would not have only stood, but we'd also be paying it by now.

The people of Sierra Madre defeated this City Council over raising the cost of water, forcing them to come back and ask for less than half of what they'd hoped to get in the first year.

Obviously "The Gang" has something to be concerned about.

At last night's meeting we heard plenty about "tiered payments." The Gang of 4 spent an awful lot of time defending them. For an hour or so it was just about all they talked about. Was that because they really care all that much about what is statistically, at least in its current form, something that amounts to only a little money? How do you explain this strange passion?

The answer to that question is clear. In order to avoid a return to the Proposition 218 protest process (in their opinion), this City Council could not in any way change their original water rate increase proposal. And that includes the part about tiered payments. If they had heeded the will of the people and gotten rid of something almost unanimously reviled here, it would trigger Proposition 218 and bring it back into play. And that could lead to the same kind of embarrassment at the hands of the people of Sierra Madre they'd experienced last spring.

A prospect that obviously disturbs them.

MaryAnn MacGillivray proposed the formation of a rate payers committee that would study the water funding problems this town faces, and come back with some recommendations for the City Council. You could almost hear the squeak of John Buchanan's Fruit of the Looms climbing up into his great beyond. Because a committee that would represent a cross section of Sierra Madreans could only mean one thing, the potential for them not getting our money for a second time. And the last thing this City Council would ever want is to have to hear the voice of the people on that topic again.

After what happened last April and May, they have some trust issues.

MaryAnn also raised the point that in order to properly engage the rate payers of this town in raising the cost of water, the City Council should really consider bringing back the Proposition 218 process. After all, if the rate hike proposal they're cooking up now is fair and equitable, whatever would they have to fear?

You'd have thought the Gang of 4 had just seen a ghost.

Many of the misgivings the people of Sierra Madre feel for their City Council stem from the perception that it is a closed and secretive society, one that steadfastly refuses to listen to anyone but its own small circle of friends. That it is the voice of an elite group of people, one that believes only their own opinions and priorities count. An entitled group that instinctually feels the need here is to rule through force and intimidation rather than consensus and compromise.

And by attempting to shut down the rate payers right to redress their grievances over this badly mishandled water rate hike, that is exactly what this City Council showed us last night.

Another point

Let me tell you what I believe this is really all about. You might not agree, but at least you are allowed to post your opinions here and be heard. Even if it takes more than three minutes. Or involves clapping.

What this City Council is actually concerned about here is Sierra Madre's bond rating. Currently we hold a bond rating of 'AA,' which puts us in the third tier (so to speak) behind cities holding 'AAA' and 'AA+' ratings. Double A is not a bad thing. It is considered to be the mark of a town that has an acceptable balance sheet and is capable of paying its bills on time. But it is an inferior rating. And in a time when credit is as tight as it is right now, why would any financial institution want to give its best rates and terms to an also-ran rated City like ours?

But if water rates were increased, allowing the City to accumulate cash above and beyond the bond covenants that bind us, our rating could very well rise back up to the 'AAA' level we enjoyed before the Shenanigan Era laid us low. Despite our being $19 million dollars in debt.

Joe Mosca, speaking at this City Council's recent "Strategic Planning Goals & Objectives Retreat" held at the YAC, expressed his feelings about the need to sell more bonds. When Elaine Aguilar expressed her doubts about this being a politically wise move right now, Joe challenged his fellow Councilmembers to act like leaders and convince the people of Sierra Madre that in order to function like modern cities we would have to take on even more debt than we have now. It was an embarrassing moment for the adults in the room.

The Gang's agenda is based on the sale of more bonds, and the accumulation of more debt. The rate hike would barely touch the pile of water infrastructure repairs that are required, instead, as Elaine Aguilar noted in her letter to Earl Richey, go almost exclusively to the servicing of bond debt. With the actual repairs requiring an additional $14 million above and beyond what the rate hike would provide. There are also sewers and street paving to consider, and bond sales are the preferred route there as well. The Gang apparently wants to run this city on the Sacramento formula of debt and indifference to the burden it will put on future generations.

All of which made John Buchanan's "duty now for the future" remarks seem especially trite.

It is also important to look back and see how this City Council's position on the water rate hike has changed over the last few months. At first it was all about repairing the City's water infrastructure. And that was how the 37% water rate hike was first marketed to people here. We needed to hand over more of our cash or face the catastrophic collapse of our water delivery systems.

But now that argument is apparently inoperative. Mostly because of the revelations about massive bond debt first made public on this blog. And at last night's meeting it was all about maintaining the sanctity of our bond covenants lest we some how go into some sort of credit crisis that would cause us all sorts of financial misfortune. Like a collapse in our bond rating, or the loss of some as yet to be identified federal grant money.

But as we said, there really would be precious little money in this water rate hike to fix our pipes, no matter how rusty or old. Despite what you might have heard now from this same City Council last Spring, it was always about bonds and servicing the debt.

So why wasn't information about Sierra Madre's considerable bond debt shared with the residents last spring when the rate hike process first began? As legally required? Why were we told this was really all about raising the cash necessary to repair water infrastructure instead?

Because back then we had legal recourse through Prop 218, and paying more money for something as mundane as Enid Joffe and Bart Doyle's costly bond investments might have had an unintended effect on the bill payers. Or so they feared. They chose to go with the rusty pipes story instead.

This City Council believes that they have effectively denied us our Prop 218 rights, thereby rendering us powerless in this process. So now they can afford to tell us the truth. Why? Because they think we can no longer fight back.

It might be your money, but this City Council believes it is their right to take it, and with minimal bother from the likes of you. As we saw last night, they get very annoyed when people put up a fuss about such things.

But you know what? You really aren't supposed to know all that much about this stuff. It's just the kind of information you needn't have. Because if you did you might begin to question the legitimacy of claims just like the ones that were made last night from the City Council dais.

If there is one thing the Gang of 4 does not like, it is townies with opinions and the desire to express them. It is obvious that they just don't trust those kinds of folks, or particularly want to hear from them.

Just ask Earl Richey about his experiences with a very snotty Joe Mosca.

One more thing

Yesterday this blog went over the 100,000 'page views' mark. When Blogger (a part of Google and the host of The Tattler) first put a "stats checker" function on this site last July, I was astonished by what it showed. This little local blog, which discusses the political affairs of a rather small out of the way LA County town, actually has an awful lot of people reading it. Far more than I ever thought.

What this means is that every time someone clicks on a Tattler article, a "page view" is registered. And since July 1st of this year 100,000 such page views have been counted. And friends, that is quite a few for a town like this one.

People are hungry for real and meaningful news about this town, and know they just aren't getting it from poorly executed lockstep party line publications like the Sierra Madre Weekly and the Looney View News.

And the numbers show it.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Agenda Man Won't Stop Clapping

In certain orthodox religious societies dancing is strictly prohibited. Along with card playing, singing, a sense of humor, and showing a little too much ankle. But apparently we as a community are not to be outdone when it comes to the prohibition of inappropriate behaviors. Because thanks to Mayor Mosca's proclamation last Tuesday evening, clapping for those speaking during public comment is now on that list of things that are just not done at City Council meetings.

Some have been taken aback by this. Certainly applause and politics go together in a hotdog and mustard sort of way. But Mayor Mosca, a man with a sensitivity for political correctness equaled by few others, has come down hard on the clapping thing. And why, dare we ask? Because it makes those not receiving any applause for their efforts feel bad.

Which as why Agenda Man has been clapping for almost the entire week. Much to the annoyance of Agenda Woman.

But this isn't what we're here to talk about today. There is a City Council meeting tonight, and some very important issues will be under consideration. So let's put aside any of this lesser stuff and get down to the real nitty gritty.

Some of the most interesting things being covered this evening will not be for your eyes. Certain matters can only be discussed in closed session, and there are a couple of those tonight. The first is the ongoing negotiations with Sierra Madre's Police Department. Given the SMPD's obvious support for the Bobblehead Slate during our last election, plus the pro-public union predilections of doctrinaire L.A. County politicos such as John and Joe, the chances of this City Council not giving away the ranch to the SMPOA are slim and more slim. While there is still a 2% cushion left before the UUT is maxed out at 12%, that might not be quite enough. Something that could lead to a voter referendum for the approval a new tax hike, one needed to cover a raise and benefits increase promised the SMPD by City Hall.

The other preliminary bout is a job performance review for our highly compensated City Attorney, Sandi Levin. The timing couldn't be better here as much of the conflict expected later in the evening over the water rate hike can be credited to some of the poor decisions advocated by the celebrated Ms. Levin. Particularly on what was supposed to the crown jewel of her professional expertise, Prop 218.

Of course, since Sandi has taken care to see to the needs of the current City Council on this and other matters (and not those of the people actually paying for her robust fees), chances are good that she will emerge from this ordeal with all flags flying. Oh, and did you know that Sandi is asking for more money? I mention this in case anyone might be wondering why Joe brought his wheelbarrow to the meeting.

After that the City Council emerges into the light and begins the public portion its deliberations. Mayor Pro Tem John Buchanan will be leading the community in tonight's moment of inspiration. The rumor I've heard is that the Mayor Pro Tem might be assisted in this by an actual Druid Priest. Though a dispute over the appropriateness of human sacrifice could put a kibosh on what might have otherwise been a very colorful moment in Sierra Madre history.

After God, Country and the City Council Reports have been so honored, the money spending will commence. During this evening's Consent Calendar the neat sum of $711,022.50 will vanish in the twinkling of an eye. The usual suspects will be the beneficiaries to this end product of our labor, including the CRA, the Sierra Madre Library (home of the largest Belva Plain collection in the Western United States), employee payrolls, liquor bills, Guatemalan cigars, iPads, all that rhythm and blues.

Also tagged onto the Consent Calendar is a hoped for approval of the Mayor's recommendation regarding the selection of a Council Liaison to the Tree Advisory Commission. This year, and for the first time ever, an actual tree will be selected to perform this important function. Further cementing this Council's reputation for being the greenest ever. I'm not supposed to mention this, but that has never stopped me before. The selected tree is an 8 foot high Knotty Pine.

Item #2 deals with appointments to the Utility Users Tax Oversight Committee. Now I had the dubious honor of serving on this turkey last year, and I have got to tell you, it was perhaps the most complete waste of this body's time in a life noted for its time wasted. What you do on this committee is pore over long lists of numbers denoting items that were purchased with money raised through the Utility User Tax. And what is expected of you is to make sure that all of that money was spent on the professional needs of the Police Department and Paramedics alone.

Try as I might last year, I could find no kegs of beer listed, no subscriptions to magazines of questionable morality, nor could I find any expenses related to donut or energy drink purchases. Much to my lasting disappointment they just weren't there.

This UUTOC deal is a relic from the last Sierra Madre Police Department raise. Which is when the City Council had to go to the tax payers to get them to approve the nearly 100% UUT hike required to meet a new blue reality. A well meaning soul at some meeting or other had asked if there was any possible way to guarantee that this UUT hike dough was used for what it was supposed to be used for, and not bled off into other things. So this committee was decided upon. And it is still with us.

My sincere condolences to whoever gets selected.

Item # 3 is the main event. That being the Water Rate Hike. Now after last Tuesday evening's joyous public demolition of the Walk & Talk nonsense that was supposed to be a critical marketing strategy in creating the illusion of some sort of public consensus on gouging water rate payers, I really don't see how they're going to make this fly. It certainly isn't the style of Mayor Mosca to come to a decision before he has convinced himself that everyone admires him for the vision and wisdom of his leadership. Which in this case has been even more sorely lacking than usual.

Plus there is also the question of whether this rate hike is supposed to help pay debt service on $19 million dollars worth water bonds, or repair Sierra Madre's ancient pipes. Maybe Joe will flip a coin and resolve this matter for us once and for all. But please, only after somebody has checked the coin first.

The key thing to look for here is the "billing rate tiers" issue. People hate those things with a passion, and ever since they showed up on our most recent water bills there has been quite a lot of poor decorum and incivility. But the problem for the Bobblehead Quadrant is if they take those hated tiers out of the mix, they will have changed the rate hike into something it wasn't before. Which means that the public will be entitled to reclaim their right to a Proposition 218 protest that was - let's be real here - stolen in an extremely unpleasant fashion by City Hall last spring.

This is something that I do not think Joe and John will dare risk. The last rather massive water rate protest took them completely by surprise and I don't believe they are confident this rate hike could survive a second uprising no matter who does the counting.

But will they have the cheese and crackers to pass a water rate hike that includes tiered billing? Or, for that matter, any water rate hike at all? Certainly that would be a little abrupt for this City Council. My money says that they will fall back on process and push this doggie down the road a couple of months in hopes that everyone will fall asleep and forget about it.

Of course, there is another option. And that is the forming of a Citizen's Water Rate Hike Commission. This would be a group of residents who would sit down and ponder just what exactly the populace at large might be willing to pay for their water. Having access to all the facts and figures (including bond debt both present and future) could help to build a consensus on this trickiest of questions. Particularly if they choose the right people, and not just folks who think our water tastes good.

Certainly this would be far preferable to more of the deception and double-talk that have typified the failed efforts of Mayor Mosca and his acolytes on this matter.

Item #4 is the last item for this evening's get together. It has to do with a meeting held at the YAC recently to discuss "strategic plan goals and objectives." This is the meeting where Joe spoke about the need for selling more bonds in order to help make his administration seem more glorious. A notion that was met with something approaching horror by City Staff. The more sober conclusions arrived at during the YAC meeting will then be blessed with the City Council's approval, then filed wherever it is such things go.

And then whoever is left in the room will file out of the building and into their cars. They will then drive home.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sierra Madre in 2015: Population 23,212?

There is a lot of concern about the possible direction our new General Plan is taking here in town. Particularly now that the City Council has wedged a couple of concerned attorneys onto the General Plan Update Steering Committee. These new members, whose personal and professional interests are decidedly on the large development side of things, have an obvious agenda. Which is hardly surprising. If you were a real estate development executive, or a highly compensated employee at one of the most powerful utilities in the United States, wouldn't you be pushing the economic interests of the outfits you work for? I'm sure the people they answer to wouldn't have it any other way.

In this regard these folks are strikingly similar to our Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem, both of whom are employed by cash hungry uber-utilities that see local control on development issues as an impediment to commerce. Something that puts these companies and their well-placed employees in direct opposition to the desires of a many of the folks living here.

So anyway, today I have a bit of irony to share with you. And we love irony here at The Tattler, no matter what Jedidiah Purdy says about it.

What if this coup from above at the General Plan Update Steering Committee wasn't all about shoving new priorities into the General Plan? Such as the land use ingredients necessary for large scale development in Sierra Madre? What if the intention was actually to keep things that have been in there all along from being taken out?

Follow along here, it is worth the trip.

When the 1996 General Plan (which is still our current General Plan) was being slapped together, there were three people on the Committee who later rose to political prominence here in town. Those being its Chairman, Doug Hayes, along with Enid Joffe and Bart Doyle. All of whom were to later serve as Mayors of this fair city. None of whom turned out to be what you might call mainstays of the Sierra Madre "slow growth" majority.

In our hands today we have a copy of the Environmental Impact Report on the 1996 General Plan Update. Something that was prepared by Impact Sciences of Thousand Oaks, CA. Environmental Impact Reports of this kind are tasked with alerting concerned parties to the potential impacts of a General Plan on its community. Or, more succinctly, how things would play out once its decrees were actually put into play. And we're not just talking about air and water quality here, but the entire rainbow colored arc of livability issues as well.

In this particular EIR's Impact and Mitigation Summary Table the following potential consequences of the 1996 General Plan are spelled out:

Impact 5.7-1: By the year 2015, the population could increase by 12,450 from the 1990 estimate of 10,732 residents to a theoretical capacity of 23,212. Using effective capacity of 11,978 residents, the population would increase by 782 residents. This would be considered a significant impact under the theoretical capacity, however, not considered a significant impact under effective capacity.

Quite an interesting theoretical population increase (as opposed to the "effective capacity" increase) projected here in this EIR. You can only wonder what it is they found in the 1996 General Plan that would indicate such a population boom for Sierra Madre. Is there gold in them thar foothills? Or perhaps a development rich Downtown Specific Plan?

Of course, in the eyes of the Downtown Investors Club, even in its 1996 neonate stage, that gold has always been development. Something spelled out in the next passage.

Impact 5.7-2: By the year 2015, up to 5,224 dwelling units could be added to the City's housing stock under the theoretical capacity and 340 additional dwelling units under effective capacity. This is considered a significant impact under the theoretical capacity, however, is not considered significant under effective capacity.

And the wheel of somebody else's fortune spins on:

Impact 5.7.3: By the year 2015, it is projected that land uses generating employment in the city could increase by up to 3,528,360 square feet under theoretical capacity and 2,082,168 square feet under effective capacity. It is estimated that these land uses would provide additional employment opportunities in the City for up to 357 jobs for a total of 3,747 by 2015. According to SCAG, additional employment opportunities in an area that is housing rich is thought to be beneficial. A such, additional employment in the City would not be considered a significant impact.

This was back during those storied days when the bureaucratic SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments) was predicting that a colossal wave of new immigrants was heading to Southern California, and therefore we had some sort of moral obligation to build vast new tracts of housing to accommodate these latter day pioneers. Something we can all laugh about now since these waves of new arrivals never showed up.

Of course, that imperative is inoperative today and SCAG, along with its Sacramento enablers, have now replaced it with the notion that we still need to build condos for as far as the eye can see, but this time in order to save the world from global warming. Something that would be equally hilarious except that a lot of befuddled idiots apparently believe it.

All that said, it is important to note that Ms. Joffe, along with Mr. Hayes and Mr. Doyle, were laying building blocks for the Downtown Specific Plan all the way back in 1996. Three folks who were working very hard to make that "theoretical capacity" of 5,000 or so new dwellings a reality. Their subsequent political careers apparently being born out of the need to make those kinds of things happen.

There is a certain logical progression to all of this. And you can see why the current heirs to those bold folks, Joe Mosca and John Buchanan (along with the Bobbleheads, I suppose), could be concerned about slow growthers on the General Plan Update Advisory Committee possibly deciding to lance this 14 year old boil when that moment in the process arrives. It is pretty much the land use crown jewel as far as Joe and John (and their patrons) are concerned, and losing it would set their plans back considerably.

There are several directions we can go with this. One, the Water Rate Hike, which is either necessary to repair pipes or service bond debt depending on which day of the week it is, can now be seen as being a part of the DIC development scheme as well. If our water rates go up our deflated bond rating could improve, something that would make the selling of additional bonds (also known as the "Joe Mosca Solution to Everything") far more practicable.

With our existing General Plan calling for an explosive population increase to 23,200 souls, along with the additional 5,224 "dwelling units" needed to accommodate them, building that $17 million dollar San Gabriel Valley Metropolitan Water District pipeline into our little town now has a certain crazy logic to it as well. Despite Bruce Inman's brisk assurances that this has nothing to do with development, you certainly can't increase the population of this town that much without piping in a lot of outside water. It being highly doubtful that our current wells and water infrastructure are up to that kind of demand.

There are a lot of other insights in the 1996 General Plan Environmental Impact Report as well. And I will have to spend a lot more time with it. But one other nugget from this EIR Report that we need to discuss today involves our Police Department. Check this out:

5.8.2 Police Protection

Impact 5.8.2-1: Anticipated population growth, as estimated by the land use policy of the General Plan Update, would increase the need for law enforcement, requiring additional personnel and support facilities. This (is) considered a potentially significant impact.

Certainly there can be little doubt about that. With the kind of high density development and population increases called for in our current (albeit 1996) General Plan a veritable crime wave would probably ensue. If it hasn't already.

Residential development is anticipated to increase the population within the City from 10,762 in 1990 to 23,212 by 2015. To maintain existing levels of service estimated at 1.39 officers per 1,000 population, approximately 9 additional sworn officers would need to be added to the police force to support the projected 2015 population. This increase in population could have a significant impact on police services, thereby creating a need for additional sworn officers and equipment due to the anticipated increase in crime rate that often accompanies increases in population.

Impact Sciences, Inc., the authors of this EIR (as noted above), was not exactly accurate in its projections as the head count here has actually decreased since 1996. But the Sierra Madre Police Department, oddly enough, has undergone something of a population explosion.

Using the Impact Sciences mathematical formula, we can see that 1.39 officers per 1,000 residents comes to just under 14 for a town of 10,000. Today, however, we have 31 sworn Police Officers. Something which, according to this EIR report, means we now have the necessary amount of cops to accommodate a city of 28,000.

Now I wonder whose idea that might have been?

Bonus Coverage: The Looney Views News Insults Chief Diaz

In this week's Looney Views News the paper's obituary writer, in a front page article on last Tuesday's City Council "special meeting" on the water rate hike, made the following fallacious claim:

Several residents who support the council's proposed actions also spoke, encouraging personal responsibility for conserving water resources as a way to ease the 'pinch' should a rate increase be implemented. At least one such speaker, however, was subjected to interruptions from the back of the room by opponents.

Since Susan Henderson was only at this meeting for fewer than 5 minutes, and then only to take a couple of pictures, it escapes me how she might have known of any interruptions.

But had she actually walked into the room instead of standing in the doorway Susan might have noticed that this meeting was being carefully watched over by Police Chief Marilyn Diaz, someone who takes a very dim view of rudeness at City Council functions. Henderson's assertion that Diaz did not do her job last Tuesday evening is not only untrue, but a gratuitous insult to the professionalism of this career Police Officer as well.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Smoking Water Gun

After months of being told that the proposed water rate increase was based on the need for repairing water infrastructure such as deteriorating pipes from as far back as the 1920s, the truth has finally come out for all to see. Even for those who ordinarily don't notice that sort of thing, or would wish to even when it becomes unavoidable.

Reinforced by 5 different City of Sierra Madre sponsored "Walk & Talk" style events, the water infrastructure message was repeatedly cited as the reason why rate payers here would need to reach deeper into their pockets and pay more. Even to the point of making it the major argument for more money taking by the City in the Proposition 218 mandated legal mailing sent out last May. Which under California law was supposed to list all of the major reasons why water rates would have to be increased, but apparently did not. A risky move on City Hall's part that is likely come back to haunt them.

In his speech Tuesday evening before the City Council, former Sierra Madre Mayor Kurt Zimmerman cited in his arguments a passage from a letter sent by the City of Sierra Madre to a resident named Earl Richey. Mr. Richey was troubled by what he saw as obvious inconsistencies in the City's arguments for this nearly 40% water rate increase, and had brought those concerns up at the August 10th City Council meeting. Foremost on his mind were how those increases would be assessed, the "tier system" of billing, and rate hikes that would somehow be based on water meter gauge sizes.

However, there amongst the minutia regarding the convoluted systems the City was proposing for charging rate payers more for their water, was the following question and response between Mr. Richey and City Staff. We are reprinting the last few sections of it here.

Earl Richey: How much more money can the Water Department borrow over the $7,500,000 debt which the City presently has?

City of Sierra Madre: This question cannot be answered. The City does not have an adopted policy on credit limit; and the credit market would also factor into this question.

(Ed: The water department debt load, at $19 million, is far higher than Mr. Richey had feared. Add the CRA debt to that figure and you are talking about debt well into the $20 to $30 million range. And as far as an "adopted policy on credit limit," perhaps this is a matter for a future ballot?)

Earl Richey: I would like to know why Sierra Madre City Council failed to approve these questions to be agendized for the up and coming city council meetings?

City of Sierra Madre: The City Council will be discussing the Water Department and water rates in the fall. Your questions can be addressed at that time. In addition, staff was directed to address these questions as part of the City's public outreach and your questions and answers will be incorporated into future public information.

(Ed: Since the City's arguments in favor of raising water rates essentially stayed on the "at risk infrastructure" message - why else would they have taken 200 people to the pump house? - it doesn't look like the debt question ever quite made it all the way into prime time.)

City of Sierra Madre: Staff noted that in your presentation to the City Council, you began with an inquiry as to whether or not the 37% increase is actually enough. While not specifically asked in this letter, it is a good question that should be addressed.

(Ed: The following is in bold for emphasis.)

The proposed rate increase is enough to meet the requirements of the City's existing debt obligations and to begin rebuilding the water fund reserve. It is not enough to fund a pay-as-you-go capital improvement program. Funding a capital improvement program to begin immediate replacement of deteriorated water mains (for example) would require a rate increase significantly higher than what was proposed earlier this year.

There you have it, the smoking water gun. After telling the citizens of Sierra Madre that they would be required to bear up under a 37% rate increase to keep water infrastructure from collapsing, it turns out the money raised wouldn't be used as advertised. Rather it would have been spent on servicing old debt.

Apparently we had not been told the truth. Instead we were told a bedtime story. And we were told that story because the city wanted our money, but didn't believe that if they told us the truth they would get it. So we got "Water Walks" and "Walk and Talks" instead.

While this letter was signed by Elaine Aguilar and Bruce Inman (and cc'd to the Mayor and City Council, along with Sandi Levin and Karin Schnaider), I am not sure we can hold them completely responsible for the mixing of messages here. City Staff carries out policies set by the City Council. They are not here to act as independent thinkers, rather they are tasked with carrying out decisions made by elected officials. If the rate payers of this City were fed a lot of crap in order to get them to pony up more money for water, the authors would have to have been the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem. Only they could have made such an ominous decision and made it stick.

Look, here's a point that has to be made. This isn't just about whether or not we will end up paying more money for water. Maybe we will have to do that some day. Certainly the huge levels of debt incurred by select City Councils of the past will eventually exact some kind of damage upon our personal finances. The situation is pretty bleak.

Of course, there are plenty of other things we would need to try first, like meaningful cuts to City budgets. And before I would ever be willing to put up a single additional dime I'd expect to see a lot of that kind of thing first. There is no reason why we should be paying so much for something that serves our interests as poorly as this City's government. At least as it is currently constituted. I for one want a City government that works for the people of Sierra Madre, and not one that willingly serves as a branch planning office for SCAG, SGVEP and CARB.

If we want to save this city from bad government and its effects, there will have to be some changes made. And rescuing our little town will not be easy.

But to my mind there is now another issue as well, a very big one. That being if the people of Sierra Madre were essentially lied to by our elected City Council leadership in order to coerce them into paying more for water, then we all have a responsibility here as well. This is a situation that cries out for a remedy.

And we now need to start considering what that remedy should be.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who Are The Most Powerful People In Sierra Madre Today?

Forget the Mayor, forget the City Council, forget City Staff, forget the Police, Fire Department, Chamber of Commerce, Woman's Club, or even all those guys who sit out in front of Bean Town every morning reading the newspapers. None of these people really mean that much anymore. Their time has passed and their once mighty influence in this town has apparently wafted off into senescence.

Today a new group has risen to prominence. And while it is true that they haven't done much up until now, one remarkable and singular achievement has thrust them into the very nexus of power here in our picturesque foothill village. All eyes have now turned to them in hopes that a solution can be realized, and our future prosperity assured well into eternity.

Who are they, you ask? They are the Water Walkers, 200 Strong. They took the City sponsored Walk & Talks, and have been made aware by that experience. A people whose like we have never seen here before. They've witnessed the pipes, and the pump house, gazed upon our mighty reservoirs and tasted of our sweet cool spring waters.

So what makes them amongst the most powerful people in Sierra Madre today, you ask? Folks who have more influence than all those aforementioned folks in the first paragraph combined? Not to mention the other 10,300 people who also live here? What is it that makes "The 200," those people who learned of the ways of our water infrastructure, above all the rest?

It is because tonight, at the Special City Council Meeting on the Water Rate Increase matter, the City Council will listen to the opinions of The 200 like it's the word of the Almighty.

Now you might ask how so relatively small a group of people, many of them neither rate payers or even adults, get to hold so much sway in this town. Or why it is that the 2,000 or so folks who signed water rate protest forms last Spring are not held in anywhere near that level of esteem? After all, there are 10 times more of them than there are Water Walkers.

It is because "The 200" is just some cooked up dog and pony City Hall marketing fabrication designed to bamboozle the people of Sierra Madre into thinking that there is some sort of consensus in favor of raising our water rates. Which there is decidedly not.

This is a strategy coming from a City Council that would prefer talking about a small sampling of folks who agree with them rather than such unpleasant topics as $19 million in water debt, millions in CRA debt, the vast sums of money taxpayers are expected to pay in order to support runaway empire building at both the Police Department and City Hall, plus the fact that under their leadership this town is now a couple of years away from a pretty nasty financial crunch.

Which really isn't all that new if you think about it. I mean, it isn't the first time the dogs and ponies have come to town, right?

So get a load of these bananas!

In the Agenda Packet supplied to the City Council and other assorted folks there is a grid where all the desired water infrastructure items are listed along with their estimated cost. These are the things that are supposed to made possible by raising water rates. Which apparently would also qualify us for some Federal funding. The total price tag here is $43,134,800. Or the more chill $43 million if you prefer rounding your numbers off.

While at least a portion of this mighty sum could be handled by grants from the Feds, that's still a lot of bubble baths.

Here are those items listed in the City Council Agenda Packet under the rubric of Water Infrastructure Improvements:

Auburn Reservoir replacement ----------------> est $4,052,000
Carter Reservoir replacement ------------------> est $230,000
Main Plant Reconstruction ----------------------> est $2,310,000
Replace fence at Maint/Spreading ------------> est $127,200
San Gabriel Court Main replacement --------> est $112,000
Santa Anita Court Main replacement --------> est $112,000
Water System Repairs ----------------------------> est $1,604,800
Well 7 construction -------------------------------> est $1,800,000
Wells 3-6 Replacement --------------------------> est $4,403,000
Zone 2 interconnect w/ Arcadia ---------------> est $975,000
SGVMWD pipeline --------------------------------> est $17,000,000
Sierra Vista Park Irrigation replacement ---> est $50,000
Sturtevant Landscape Project ------------------> est $50,000
Santa Anita Creek Div. Pipeline ---------------> est $200,000
Santa Anita Creek Div. Structure --------------> est $372,000
Santa Anita Dam Rehab -------------------------> est $100,000
Santa Anita Debris Basin Rehab. -------------> est $2,781,500
Santa Anita Spreading Grounds Pump Stn-> est $1,000,000
Sierra Madre Creek Diversion Rehab -------> est $85,000
Sierra Madre Spreading Grnds Rehab ------> est $1,254,000
Reconstruction of Library ----------------------> est $7,000,000
Remodel Front Counters at City Hall --------> est $50,000

All of which strikes this observer as being quite excessive. Can it be that this City has been allowed to fall into such a state of decay that everything related to water infrastructure has fallen into a state of abject disrepair? And it will take $10s of millions of dollars to undo this debacle?

There another possible scenario, of course. It could be this isn't as much about replacement or repair as was first advertised. Rather it appears that things such as the $17 million dollar San Gabriel Valley Metropolitan Water District Pipeline have a lot more to do with creating the water infrastructure necessary to accommodate high levels of new development here in Sierra Madre. Something the City's current elected leadership has seen as their mission for quite some time.

And then there is the matter of a $127,000 fence. Does it go around the new $50,000 City Hall counter?

Contentious matters to be sure. And far too important a decision to be made based upon opinions from the 200 or so earnest citizens who happened to take a tour of the City's waterworks. There are far more people in this town than that.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Your Tattler Water Rate Increase "Special Meeting Agenda Packet"

"Tuesday October 19 at 6:30 at City Council Chambers will be devoted to water operations. The meeting is NOT about the bond issue." - Terry Miller, Sierra Madre Weekly

Ever wondered how some City Councilmembers seem to have the most arcane information at the tips of their fingers, and are capable of producing it at the most opportune time? While you, the concerned resident, don't seem to ever have any of that kind of data available to you? Try as you might to find anything of value in our useless local newspapers?

It really isn't a secret. A few days before each meeting Sierra Madre City Councilmembers are supplied with a book of information called an "agenda packet." And in this book you will find just about everything that a full time staff of handsomely remunerated professional city employees can supply on each and every topic to be discussed. City Councilmembers are basically scripted by those seeking their guidance, while you, the conscientious resident, is stuck with little more than the Looney Views News for your research.

If information is power, then the City Council is driving a fully loaded battle tank while you have been equipped with only a plastic trash can lid. The odds are not good.

As any regular attendees to Sierra Madre's City Council meetings can tell you, certain elected officials are not above using that advantage as a prop to confirm their authority. Sometimes to the point of even rubbing folk's noses in it.

But today, dear readers, that all changes. Because, through the natural inquisitiveness of The Tattler, we have obtained a copy of tomorrow evening's "City Council Special Meeting" packet on the water rate hike. I am posting the Agenda Report for your edification. Because knowledge really is power, and here at the Sierra Madre Tattler we like to even things up when we can.

Oh, and I am certain Terry Miller will appreciate the part about water bond debt.

First, here is what little information on this meeting was made available to residents via the City of Sierra Madre website:

1. Discussion Regarding Sierra Madre Water Utility Operations And Water Rate Increase: Recommendation that the City Council provide staff with direction.

That is it for you. Not much in the way of clues. But the City Council Agenda Report, which is available to elected officials, along with the City Manager, Director of Administrative Services and the Director of Public Works, has a lot more information. You could have picked up a copy at City Hall if you had known about it. But did you know that? Not too sure very many do. Why it wasn't posted on the City of Sierra Madre website where most people get their information is a mystery.

Perhaps it was another case of "the legally required least notification possible?"

Here is most of that report. A couple less relevant sections have been excised for the sake of the typist's sanity.

Summary

Since May 2010, the City Council has received a number of reports, reviewed detailed analyses, and initiated a public information program to familiarize Sierra Madre water customers with the operations and financial condition of the City's water department and to obtain input and feedback from the community.

This staff report does not go into the details presented in previous staff reports; instead copies of the water related staff reports have been included as attachments. However, staff is prepared to present any information included in the previous staff reports, should the Council desire.

At the July 27th meeting, the City Council approved a two month long education and public outreach program aimed at:

a) Providing information to the Sierra Madre Community on the City's water utility
b) Responding to questions about the water utility operations, including, but not limited to questions about debt, operational expenditures, Prop 218, etc.
c) Explaining the reasons the City initiated a water rate increase process
d) Engaging the community in a dialog about the City's water utility, water rate increases and the city's future

Staff was directed to return at the end of the two month outreach period. This staff report provides a summary of the input received from five outreach events.

As directed by the Council, tonight's special meeting was intended to provide an additional opportunity to receive input, answer questions, and begin discussion of possible next steps.

Analysis

There were five outreach events held. The events were:

a) August 14th Walk & Talk
b) August 17th Community Water Forum (was also broadcast on SMTV3)
c) September 1st Community Water Forum
d) September 13th Community Water Forum
e) September 29th Walk & Talk

In addition, the following outreach tools were used:

a) Water Fact Sheet inserted in water bills
b) Two postcards mailed to all postal customers (a postcard notifying the public of the outreach events, and a postcard notifying the public of tonight's special water meeting.)
c) Information on the City's website
d) E-mails to subscribers of City's e-mail notification system
e) Surveys were available at all outreach events
f) PSA on SMTV3
g) Staff presentations to community organizations, such as Kiwanis, Senior Lunch program, and Coordinating Committee

Feedback

Staff estimates that a total of 200 individuals attended the five events. The first Walk & Talk on August 14th had the highest turnout, with almost 100 attendees. The remaining 100 individuals were spread out over the other four events.

(Ed: Within that 200 figure, did City Staff include the school children that were invited on those "Walk & Talks?" How about those non-rate payers living in senior housing? Or people already predisposed to the City Council's desire for a water rate hike? If this slim sampling is what they are taking as proof of community approval for a water rate hike, then I think skepticism about some of the conclusions reached below is in order.)

Overall, the vast majority of attendees rated these events as "excellent" and "very useful." There were definite "themes" that occurred at each of the events. Below is a summary of the main themes; "majority" reflects that these comments were heard frequently, and from a majority of individuals in attendance; "minority" reflects that the comment was stated by a few individuals in attendance (less than 3 individuals), and/or was stated infrequently (not stated at every meeting.)

To summarize the main themes:

Majority:
a) Comprehension of the necessity for a water rate increase, however "the 15% increase" the first year was "too high."
b) Water rates should be increased; there hasn't been a water rate increase in years; all other utilities have increased in cost.
c) The events were useful, informative, interesting, professional and well done.
d) The City is doing a good job of providing information, all available media/outlets are being used.
e) If there was a plan to increase water rates gradually over the past five years, why weren't the rates increased?
f) Appreciation of the city's outreach efforts and the information; there was a lot of misinformation.
g) Preference that the City maintain control over its water system; local control is best.

Minority:
a) Comprehension of the necessity for a water rate increase, and the City should proceed with the rate increase originally proposed in July.
b) Form an assessment district to raise funds for debt repayment and capital, instead of a water rate increase (preferred because of the income tax deduction). Would result in lower water rate increase to cover ongoing, day-to-day operations.
c) More printed materials/handouts would have been helpful.
d) It would be helpful to have more information regarding the water rate tiers.
e) The City should host a picnic to draw residents out for an information session.
f) Sell the water utility to a private water company; city should not be in the "water business."
g) Eliminate tiered meter rates.
h) Cost differential between the water rate tiers should be more significant; could result in a lower 1st tier cost and would also encourage water conservation; people who use more water should pay more.
i) Concerns that water conservation/reduced sales would precipitate another rate increase.
j) Comprehension that a rate increase was necessary; preference that a lower increase be instituted in year 1, progressing to higher percentage increases in out years, i.e.: Year 1 = 3%, Year 2 = 5%, Year 3 = 7%....this would permit adjustment to household budgets.
k) Water fund should go bankrupt so the debt will be erased.
l) There should not be any water rate increase.

(Ed: I guess they saved the best one for last. 200 attendees - some elementary school age, some living in retirement housing - versus the over 2,000 people who signed water protest forms and petitions. Who also apparently did not show up for the dogs and ponies. 10 to 1 is a very negative ratio, and I doubt it's the kind of result they were looking for.)

(Ed: And now we get to water bond debt part ...)

There were questions regarding the Water Fund debt at each of the events. After questions were answered, the majority of individuals at the events did not continue to perceive the debt as excessive or with a negative connotation. However, there were a few individuals who expressed a major concern about the water utility debt. Because debt was the subject of frequent questions, general information about the water department is included in this staff report.

(Ed: As obviously slanted towards increasing water rates as staff's "agenda report" is, this portion is the most obviously cooked up. And again, it is based on small turnouts at City run events designed to sell the water rate hike. Some of the very real concern over water bond debt stems from it having been left out of the May 17th Proposition 218 mandated water increase notification. Which many in town regard as a flagrant violation of the spirit of that law. This question was raised at these events. The non-inclusion of that information here is a clear indication of City Hall's continued refusal to face up to the consequences of their bad faith.)

The City's Water Fund currently has two bonds and one SGCMWD loan outstanding. The 1998 Refunding Bonds are refinanced debt. This is similar to an individual who refinances their mortgage and takes the equity out under a new 30 year mortgage. The terms are principal and interest (5%) until 2019. In 2003, when it became apparent that the City had Federal Funds available to do Capital Improvements to the water infrastructure, the City issued new debt; because for each dollar provided by a Federal Grant, the City had a dollar match requirement. The terms of the debt are interest only (5%) until 2019 and principal and interest (5%) 2020 - 2034. To receive the interest only terms, the bank required a revenue covenant of 120% operational income. The covenant is security to the "second mortgage" that the water Fund would remain financially healthy throughout the terms of the debt and that the City Water Fund would meet its obligations.

The City may only withdraw the bond proceeds after demonstrating to the bond trustee that the City (water utility) has eligible expenditures. The City's Water Fund, eligible expenses are limited to Water Capital Infrastructure as mentioned above. The City submits a claim to the bond trustee which includes invoices and payment information and the City is reimbursed for those expenditures.

The third outstanding debt in the Water Fund is an interest free 10 year term loan from the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District (SGVMWD) for $1,456,875. The FY 2009-11 Budget documents reflect the first payment was due July 1, 2010; however, the SGVMWD provided and one year extension on the loan postponing the first payment until July 1. 2011.

(Ed: This is followed by a large chart that breaks down the overall debt, both bond and loaned. The total figure owed as of June 30th comes out to around a still immense $19 million dollars, or about $4 million less than we have been reporting on this site. The discrepancy could be due to payments having been made that are not yet accounted for in the Sacramento reports that we had been quoting. That and City Hall has yet to supply us with the information asked for under the California Public Records Act. Not bad for DIY, though. Remember, unlike the people stiffing us on the 2003 water bond information, The Tattler is still lacking for a fulltime taxpayer supported staff.)

Conclusion

This report provides a summary of the input received from various community outreach events. At tonight's meeting, the Council will receive additional input from the public. Based upon all the input received, the Council could provide staff with policy direction regarding possible next steps.

This really is kind of a wacky attempt at propping up an unpopular water rate hike. Apparently a very small minority of Sierra Madre residents showed up at City events designed to market this water rate hike, with 4 out the 5 events drawing only an average of 25 people. No indication is given if these were water rate payers, or casual folks out to check out the city pump house. As schoolkids and people living in retirement housing - and therefore not rate payers - were trundled out to these events to keep up appearances, then that 200 number would have to be regarded as specious. And when you consider that some of the actual rate payers present might have been there out of support for a City Council they are politically in bed with, the validity of this slender sampling decreases to almost nothing.

To me this represents another obvious attempt to circumvent the will of city rate payers on the matter of higher water costs. That City Hall needed to cook up a consensus is hardly a sign of strength. But that said, the blithe illegality of the City's Proposition 218 water rate increase notification process, especially on the refusal to name water debt as a contributing cause for the rate increase, will in the end render all of this silliness (to use a term with ironic intent) moot.

Bonus Coverage: So what in the name of all that is good and pure in life is this all about?

Attached at the end of the City's paper pile is something that many of us had been asking for, but somehow never received. Maybe now we know why. Listed in this report are the water infrastructure items that City Hall identified as needing funding from the rate hike and related Federal grants. Here is how those sentiments are worded:

The Public Works department has identified the following needs in Water Infrastructure improvements; however, due to the concerns about the City's ability to meet its current operational expenses, all projects are listed as unfunded.

The list has a lot of water infrastructure related expenses, some of them quite costly. Including $17 million for a "SGVMWD pipeline." But also listed are these two items:

Reconstruction of Library - estimated @ $7,000,000. (Reconstruction?)

Remodel front counters at City Hall - estimated cost is $50,000.

Not exactly sure how either one of these fits into "Water Infrastructure improvements." But a $50,000 City Hall front counter must be something truly hot. Does it come with tiki torches?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sierra Madre Has A Mountain Of CRA & Water Bond Debt. So Now City Hall Wants To Sell Even More Bonds?

"Nothing defines humans better than their willingness to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs." - Scott Adams

Now you'd think that after all the revelations about Sierra Madre's considerable Water Bond and CRA debt the Gang of 4 would have the good sense to stop all the spending talk and do something about getting this city back on the road to financial stability. And with the demands coming from the City Council that we fork over more money for things like water because Sierra Madre is so economically burdened by past bad investments, you would also think that they might restrain their genetic tendencies towards irrational spending.

After all, the City Council is asking the residents of this city for more of their money to pay for what is little more than ongoing debt service. Which is what next Tuesday evening's meeting is really all about. You'd think that would be enough for anybody.

Yesterday at the Youth Activity Center something called the City Council Strategic Planning Goals & Objectives Retreat was held. It technically was open to the public, but was so poorly publicized only two residents attended. No notice of it is to be found in the "City Events" calendar on the City of Sierra Madre site. Which is where City Council get-togethers are usually listed. There is a rather airy agenda for the meeting posted under "Featured City Documents," but that is hardly what you'd call a marketing engine.

But as slight as the attendance was, it was enough for the news that follows to get back here. I have long believed that the less notice a special City Council meeting is given, the more choice the information shared is going to be.

The highlight of the affair, and the reason for this post, was Elaine Aguilar's pronouncement regarding how the City could soon be dealing with its rapidly developing cash flow crisis. Beyond raising the water rates, of course. Something they remain very determined to do.

Elaine's solution? "We may need to issue another bond." She went on to note that this would have to be done in public, which is going to need some clarification. Since this would be our first bond since 2003, the inference would seem to be that particular water bond was executed with the shades drawn and the lamps off. Whether or not there was a red light on in the window is unknown at this time.

Issuing a new bond, in addition to the 30 some odd years of paying service on the resulting debt, would also cost us $200,000 just to execute. Or about the current market value of a General Plan consultant.

When questioned about the increased debt load this would cause to our already heavily burdened city, Mayor Mosca, a man who apparently finds the further mortgaging of our future to the tune of additional millions of dollars to be no big thing, had this to say:

"Well, that's why we have a CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency). If we didn't have the CRA we couldn't have this kind of debt."

The CRA, as you might recall, is the City of Sierra Madre agency that the Los Angeles Times recently reported as having debt at around 86% of its total capacity. Which the Times interpreted as being over $10 million dollars in red ink. If so, you can only wonder where Joe intends to hide this new layer of debt. There can't be all that much room left.

So there you have it. The City Council now wants to do the same thing here that Sacramento and Washington DC have done in their much bigger worlds. Try and borrow their way out of problems they lack both the will and wit to deal with otherwise.

The one thing that remains unclear as of this typing is what exactly they intend to spend all this new bond money on, and what kind of bond it would be. There was actually talk about hiring yet another Police Officer, but that was eventually discarded as being "too political."

So why then do they need to sell a new bond?

My take is that our City government has become a very expensive enterprise to maintain. Raises, pensions, consultants, a costly desire to comply with outsized state development agendas, the service on bond and other debt, plus new hires and expensive equipment have placed a real strain on currently available budgets. But rather than have the City reduce costs and modestly live within its means, this City Council would prefer to take on even more debt. It speaks to their sense of a greater glory.

Which is now our very own microcosm of the kind of thinking that got this country into the financial mess it is in today.

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