Follow The Money!

Brea Matters has been purposefully silent since the new Council was seated. Operation Clean Sweep left many exhausted and in need of a little peace and quiet for a change. Now that Council is settling in… I’ve turned my attention to money matters, our largest and most threatening issues.

debt_400Unfunded Pension Liabilities was a widely used campaign buzzword. Though some attempts have been made to rein in it’s almost exponential rate of growth, Brea remains strangled by debt.

I made a list of financial topics to investigate and my initial inquires uncovered a maze of interrelated issues.

Revenue Over Expense, a smoking gun?

Forever I guess, Brea’s P&L (Profit and Loss) statement has concluded with Revenue Over Expense… which has been treated like free money. Honestly, I’d never noticed it before. I am familiar with the myth of free money however.

Every year, Council and staff announce, with much back patting and fanfare, that a balanced budget has been reached. However, try as I might, I can’t remember ever hearing mention of these leftovers.

Typically, I’m told, this money has been put into FARP (Fixed Asset RePlacement Fund). How much has gone into the fund, how FARP spent the money and how big this Revenue Over Expenses might be is still a mystery. I’ll keep digging, we deserve to better understand how our money is being managed.

Do not pass GO, do not collect $200 dollars.

MrMonoplyAt an upcoming Council meeting (I’ll give you a heads-up) staff will, for the first time, suggest splitting the reallocation of Revenue Over Expenses. The plan, I’m told, would reduce the FARP allocation to 90% and 10% would go to Fund 150.

Also known as the OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) Fund, OPEB pays for retired employee medical coverage (previously unfunded) plus current employee premiums. The unfunded debt is $16 million. This is the mystery component not generally mentioned in discussions on Unfunded Pension Liability which is now an additional $70 million. Don’t look for a calculator, that’s $86 million and growing.

Roy Moore, in his independent analysis and public presentation on our Unfunded Pension problem a couple of years ago, did include OPEB in his audit and projections. Sadly, neither Council or staff at the time allowed Roy’s efforts to gain any traction.

Bank error in your favor, collect $200 dollars.

wormsWell, if we can fold OPEB into the mix, what about Unfunded Pension Debt? What about repaying the 560 Fund the $1.4 million borrowed to make solar payments? Could we tap Revenue Over Expense for a little money to put drought tolerant landscaping at the Civic Center?

Opening this can of worms opens a lot of questions. I’m confident Council, especially if they seek answers publicly, where we can wade in with our comments and suggestions, will make the sort of policy changes needed.

Doubling up payments to CalPERS makes perfect sense, why hasn’t this been done already? The 560 Fund should never have been tapped to pay for a solar project that was sold, in part, on the basis that it would pay for itself. Why has there never been an audit of this project, framed in terms that all could easily understand?

Defining, once and for all, the proper use of the 560 Fund, conducting audits of O’Donnell’s Fire Department reorganizations and accurately calculating the ROI on the solar energy project have been systematically kept off calendar and away from public input. Why? What are they trying to hide?

Drought garden planted the seeds of public distrust.

FB_palmtree_300The original drought garden, jammed through at the last minute and without considering public input, was a poorly designed masquerade to avoid spending proper funds on a public works project. The story leaked to the public, objections and outrage could be heard from all sides, the Mayor was counseled to postpone discussion and refused.

Today’s Council has a win-win opportunity to bring the “Rock” Garden back for further discussion. Here’s a chance to reverse a major blunder of it’s predecessors, to be honest with the public and clear the air, once and for all.

First, admit that repairing the leak in the Civic Center parking structure and avoiding spending Building Maintenance funds on it was the real objective. Put a standalone item on the agenda for a Public Works project to fix the leak. Pay for it with the Building Maintenance fund.

Put  a second item on the agenda to put drought tolerant landscape on the effected area once repairs have been completed. Tap MWDOC for their sod removal subsidy and Cal Domestic for the promised grant. That’s $17,500 in the bank. Allocate another $17,500 from Revenue Over Expenses. Boom! The budget is now only $35 thousand dollars, not the quarter million as originally stated. Invite CSUF grad students to do the design.

Please, it’s a business, not a board game.

govt_money_400The City Manager has often characterized himself as the CEO of a large corporation as justification for his salary package — twice that of California’s Governor.

Okay, it’s time to start running this city like a real business instead of a board game.

Start trapping all expenses against all projects and programs. No More soft costs. No more robbing Peter to pay Paul. No more hiding special interest projects by calling them something they’re not.

Every time accounting principles are pushed to their limits the door is opened to slip the difference into Revenue Over Expense.

The ball’s in your court now.

Thanks to Operation Clean Sweep and a voting population interested in rebooting City Council, we now have five Council members with open door policies, offering greater transparency and accountability in government and dedicated to fostering meaningful community engagement. Let’s not waste it.

The time to stand up and be counted is now.

Send your thoughts via email to:

Of course you can always come share your thoughts at Council meetings during Matters From The Audience. Check the Council’s agenda on the city’s website so you know what’s coming up. You’re not limited to commenting only on agenda items. Something bugging you? Speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask Council to pull an item from the Consent Calendar for discussion or to move a discussion item from the Study Session to the formal meeting in Council Chambers.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to send positive vibes their way too. Council is a big commitment. It’s hard work. It shouldn’t be a thankless job. We have a winning team now, there’s nothing wrong with showing a little team spirit and cheering them on.

Oh, and in the unlikely event you’re one of those who didn’t vote… never mind.

 

A Garden In Four Acts.

Act One: The Development Committee.

money-barrel_c“Cal Domestic is offering $10,000 grants (i.e. your money) for educational projects on water conservation. Any ideas?”

“A drought tolerant garden at the civic center would be cool but we’ll need more than ten grand.”

“What about MWDOC’s turf removal subsidy, we could call that a grant (i.e. your money) and add $17,000 to the pot.”

“Yeah, and if we add $8,500 out of the Water Fund (i.e. your money) and call it matching… that might be enough to get started… you know, hire a consultant or something.”

“Okay, let’s get some estimates and see how far $35,500 will take us.”

Act Two: The Finance Committee.

“Next item, an 8,500 square foot educational garden demonstrating drought tolerant landscaping on the slope under the flag poles at the Civic Center. Cost, $215,000 dollars.”

“A what? To do what? For how much? Are you kidding?”

“They got three estimates, this is the lowest. Mostly grants from the water companies and nothing from the General Fund… well, not exactly.”

“What does that mean?”

“$188,000 comes from the Water Fund and the Urban Runoff Fund (i.e. your money).”

“Is that even legal?”

“I don’t know, let’s kick it upstairs and let Council decide.”

Act Three: Behind closed doors.

murdock_inbox“I can’t make Study Session next week, I need to hit the Arovista back-to-school night. You’ll have to cover for me.”

“What! I don’t want to explain that you’re out campaigning instead of doing your job. No!”

“No worries you two, we’ll just cancel Study Session and bump your garden downstairs for a vote.”

“Can we do that?”

“Sure. We have three votes in our pocket, with only two days prior notice how much discussion could there possibly be? It will be a slam dunk.”

Intermission.

  • BreaNet leaks the news to 500+ involved Brea citizens.
  • News breaks on nextdoor.com and the public is outraged.
  • The story is picked up on the Brea Matters blog and registers the highest reader response in over three years.
  • Angry and disappointed comments abound, from a former Mayor, high visibility residents and members of the silent majority.
  • Council email inboxes are flooded with admonitions to reject the project, postpone discussion to allow for public comment and with alternatives infinitely smarter and markedly less expensive.

Act Four: The Council Meeting.

“Item 10: Civic & Cultural Center Educational Garden. Any discussion?

“I think this isn’t an urgent matter. We need to open this up for public discussion… besides, I’m getting huge input about other, potentially better sites. I move to postpone.”

Dead silence.

“Motion dies for lack of a second. Any further discussion?”

“This garden blah blah blah drought tolerant blah blah blah educate residents blah blah blah grants available blah blah blah need to conserve water blah blah blah renovation blah blah blah draw a lot of visitors blah blah blah public amenity blah blah blah.”

“Don’t forget the memorial. I love memorials. I’ve spent half my life in combat. There’s a gravel path around the memorial with bees and butterflies.”

“I’m always the cheapskate on stuff like this. I’m sure we could do this for less.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get three bids and besides… it’s almost free.”

“All in favor say aye.” (Murdock, Marick, Garcia)

“All opposed?” (Moore, Simonoff)

Lights dim. Curtain drops. Bring up the house lights.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

This can and should be reversed. There is no legitimate reason to bury this much pork on the Civic Center lawn. Grant sources are uncommitted and can be refused. Public monies are not allocated for this type of expenditure and should be denied. The Water Fund and Urban Runoff Fund are not slush funds.

Keep writing Council members. Keep writing letters to the editor. Keep talking to your neighbors. Shake off your fears and come speak to Council during Matters From The Audience. Keith loves a parade and deserves your support.

Make your voice heard. Make your opinions count.

cleansweepAnd, for heaven’s sake, whether you vote by mail or make the trek to the ballot box, do not vote for any incumbents… for any office. Not this year. Not in 2016.

It will take a clean sweep to get local government rebooted. Do you want your voice, the voices of your friends and neighbors, to be heard?

Click Restart.

NoBrett

 

Council Is Blindsided Again!

While watching Tuesday’s Council meeting (04/15) my cellphone blew up with calls and texts saying, in one form or another, that Council is blindsided again. Most referenced last December’s Council reorganization meeting as the blindsiding benchmark.

Madrona-yes-1After receiving Planning Commission approval, first in 2008 and then in 2013, the Madrona development was challenged again by a small but vocal special interest group Hills For Everyone. Their Vice President/Treasurer, Bev Perry, took the lead role as appellant and asked Council to overturn the Commission’s decision.

After several hearings going back to November of last year, the appellant presented their objections to the project, the applicant presented overriding considerations, both sides rebutted the other’s facts and figures and the public was given the opportunity to wade in, on the record, with their opinions.

The finish line was in sight.

Or was it? With the public hearing closed, this was to be the wrap-up discussion by Council with a vote to either uphold the appeal or deny it – in essence to deny or approve the development moving forward. Then Council, at least some of them, had the rug pulled out from under their feet.

brett_praysSuddenly we were listening to Mayor Murdock and Mayor Pro Tem Marrick dive into their special list of additional considerations ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.

No one calling or texting me thought this was appropriate and wondered why neither other Council members or the City Attorney interjected and pulled the plug on their dog and pony show.

Well within their rights.

christine_talksI discussed this with folks either having  a strong background in planning and development or legal authorities specializing in development law.

Murdock and Marrick were well within their rights to present their considerations.

But what is legal may not be prudent. Many still question their secretive style which seemed more than a little politically motivated. Plus, the items they rattled off, with marginal support from other Council members, added weeks to a process most in the community were ready to put to bed.

How critically important are these last minute considerations?

roy_intervenesHere, lifted from Roy Moore’s Brea Net (#682) newsletter, are the items in question. (The commentary is mine, don’t go calling Roy on this.)

Roy concludes, “As you can see many are relatively harmless with minimum cost impact. Others are major and may be hard for the developer to comply. The Council approved a motion to ask staff to develop a draft of the [above] conditions for approval of the Madrona development. The Madrona saga continues on May 6.”

1.  Madrona should not be a gated community.

Claiming that good old Brea’s reputation would be poorly served by creating a security barrier around executive estates, that it would appear snobby… I guess Marrick overlooked the numerous gated apartment and condo properties throughout Brea.

Besides, why would owners of million dollar plus homes want that sort of security anyway?

2.  Other than for emergency uses, Olinda Place will never be used by Madrona residents for daily use.

This really doesn’t provide an overriding consideration benefitting much of Brea outside of Olinda Village residents, the loud voices droning on and on supporting Hills for Everyone.

marty_motionsNoteworthy however is that this allowed emergency use provides the second ingress egress point felt mandatory by Councilman Simonoff who seemed to be weighing his total view of Madrona based on a public safety technicality.

To be sure, Simonoff has a lengthy track record of fighting for public safety issues. Someone should remind him that Fire Chief Kanaabe was satisfied with the plan as written.

When I questioned Simonoff about this, he reconfirmed his position relative to safety issues and said that, if Olinda Village came to him today for approval, he would likely vote no on it as well.

3.  A system should be included in the development to collect and recycle water runoff.

For most concerned this is a useful and feasible consideration. Not sure where they want it collected or how they want it redistributed. I suppose we’ll hear more at the next meeting.

4.  Each home should have the capability to collect and recycle “gray” water.

This will likely prove more difficult, more costly, because it calls for two parallel plumbing systems, doubles the number of connections and requires the addition of individual purification systems. No figures were given regarding water savings. And again, I have to ask what is the overriding benefit derived by the rest of us living in Brea? Weren’t water issues determined to be non-issues now?

5.  The developer should procure water shares in Cal Domestic for the City.

david_respondsIn a word, impossible. There are no shares available now. The current price per share is $16,000 dollars.

What, you want a check so if and when shares become available we can acquire them? How big a check? At what price per share? Putting this “water in lieu” idea on the table is unfeasible, impractical.

Did you not listen to staff when they told you this? You keep laying it on thick how wonderful, how brilliant these folks are who, as Murdock put it, “get the big bucks…” Why don’t you listen to them? They’re trying to earn their keep. Let ’em!

6.  The future buyers should have the option to include solar panels on their home.

ron_babblesAnother half baked snake bit idea. From your conversation it’s clear that you have no clue how this would be implemented. Kudos to Garcia for mumbling something about solar panels he saw once at a League of Cities meeting that look like shingles. Maybe I was the only one who heard him because the discussion raced off in another direction and the whole matter was dumped into staff’s lap.

7.  The development should contain 10% of the homes as true custom homes on minimum one-half acre lots.

There are half acre lots already, maybe they could be designated as your “custom” lots Ms. Marrick. But wait! This sounds really snobby to me! Big fat mini-mansions in the hills? How does this not completely conflict with your wanting no security gates? You can’t have it both ways, pick one and argue for it.

8.  At least one of the pocket parks should contain amenities such as a tot lot.

Hmmm, pretending that you didn’t come up with this months ago Ms. Marrick, the idea still gets stuck in first gear for me. Tell me how many families able to afford million dollar plus homes have kids still in the toddler stage? Are they supposed to wait until they become grandparents before the amenity is useful to them? Or maybe you thought all of Brea’s young moms and dads would flock there, through the un-gated entry, on weekends and holidays. Yeah, that will help sell executive homes.

9.  Provide back up generators for the two water pumping stations on Carbon Canyon Road.

Might be a bit excessive considering that the Fire Chief, already satisfied with the development, has a clear plan to cover this need. This sounds more like bankrolling political collateral. We’ll know for sure if, during campaign season, we see another of those “Look What I Did For Ya” flyers circulating all over town.

10. Get Cal Trans approval to the ingress and egress to the tract before beginning any excavation.

This is an absolute. It should have been on the “list” months ago. The space out there is tight and Cal Trans has a reputation of taking forever on matters like this. The Olinda Village signal took what, two years to get approved? Seems like it. This is the developer’s number one mission. Without this, nothing else being discussed matters.

11.  Increase projected school fees.

12.  Increase projected transportation fees.

These get lumped together because they’re statutory fees and arbitrarily doubling them, as pointed out Tuesday night, is actionable. The school fees are totally out of the scope of city business and Murdock needs to start paying better attention in class. These should be pulled off the list before the next meeting if for no other reason than to minimize the embarrassment to the community.

At the risk of opening Pandora’s box.

markman_chidesAfter the meeting the applicant’s attorney approached City Attorney Markman seeking to confirm that he and the applicant’s people will now be allowed to meet with city staff.

Both Murdock and Marrick, in there comments, alluded to this needing to happen. Markman confirmed that access was assured.

Really? What I discovered is that the appellant and her people had unlimited access to Council and staff during the hearings but that Markman barred city staff from having any contact with the applicant or their staff. What purpose did this serve?

It’s like trying to negotiate peace between Russia and the Ukraine… and telling the Ukraine they can’t come to the negotiating table. Sorry, but that sounds totally counterproductive to me and I’m surprised Council put up with it.

As long as the box is open.

Another issue that surfaced was, with all of these “new” considerations on the table, should the public hearing be reopened allowing the public to speak on the record again? When I queried Markman about this via email, here is his response.

“A reopened additional hearing would not be required legally. A Council may modify a project through conditioning as a result of a hearing process without reopening the hearing to discuss the Council’s revisions. The Council may reopen the hearing if the Council decides to do so by motion.”

Roy Moore asked the question. Brett Murdock said absolutely not. Markman said it’s possible but not required. The more people talked, the more they thought about what meaningful contribution John Q. Public made in this whole affair and the less interested they were in reopening public comment.

I agree. Don’t reopen the public hearing. Seriously, go back and watch the meetings.

Except for three or four very well articulated positions, everything else became a din of emotionally delivered soundbites of canned Hills For Everyone rhetoric delivered over and over like a broken record.

I know I’m going to get royally jammed up on that one so I’m hoping all of you who have turned off Matters From The Audience half way through to watch a rerun of Waking Ned Devine will support me with your comments.

It’s Time To Fish Or Cut Bait.