Tessa Rudnick answers the budget questions

As I wrote recently ECCFRG asked all of the candidates a series of questions in regards to the budget crisis. Tessa Rudnick sent in her responses Tuesday. We did allow each candidate a brief bio space also. The words below are all the candidate’s except for when I repeat the question. We thank Tessa Runnick for taking the time to answer our questions.

Brief Bio

I care about smart government and sustainable communities. I’m a Public Sector Technologist with more than a decade of experience working as a Project Manager and Business Analyst, implementing software solutions for local governments. I have worked for the City of Berkeley and the City and County of San Francisco. I’m a proud Bay Area native and hold a Masters degree in Public Administration. I’m also a mother with a nearly 5-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old stepson. To me, smart government means being responsive and agile to support the needs of our community. I believe in El Cerrito’s future, which is why I am ready and willing to make the tough decisions needed to get us there.

1. What is your analysis of how the city became insolvent and what changes will you make to ensure it does not happen again?

It’s a case of, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” During the recovery period from the 2008 recession, El Cerrito chose to dip into its reserve funds instead of eliminating full-time employees (FTE’s). Many neighboring jurisdictions actively chose to eliminate FTE positions in favor of dipping into reserves. The City tried to do right by its employees and the community. However we are now in the situation we are in because we missed some fundamental principles of public sector finance.

If El Cerrito was a person, she’d be living paycheck-to-paycheck, she’d have no savings, and she’d be a medical emergency away from total financial ruin. We have to take this situation seriously, and make the hard decisions needed for a few years. Which using the person analogy, means cutting up our credit cards and eating top ramen noodles in order to build up our savings.

2. How will you independently verify staff budget projections and analysis?

My motivation to run for El Cerrito City Council is to be that independent verification required by the community. Staff projections and analysis are only as good as the data they have access to, so I will make sure that city staff are: a) Using the right analytical techniques b) Have access to the correct datasets c) Are able to produce reports which are informative and accessible to Council and the community.

I have no problem asking targeted questions about line items on the budget and looking deeper into the data. Council should have the competencies to understand how government works, and working in local government has allowed me the opportunity to understand the in’s and out’s of critical reporting.

3. Describe what you understand to be the working relationship between the City Manager and the City Council. Are there any changes you would like to see in the current culture, and if so, how would you go about it?

I have worked in local government as city staff for a decade, and have a strong sense of the City Council/City Manager framework. The City Manager is responsible for the operations of city management, and the City Council represents the constituents who have elected the members of Council. Council sets the policy direction for the City, and the City Manager reports to Council. The culture of local government is constantly shifting and adapting to changes, and it’s up to the City Manager to ensure a healthy and inclusive culture for city staff.

4. How will you evaluate the city manager’s performance and hold them accountable?

El Cerrito is lucky to have a City Manager who is widely regarded and respected in the public administration field. We will evaluate the CM’s performance based on agreed upon goals and a framework for success. The most critical thing our City Manager needs to address is our dire financial situation, and we cannot be blindsided by any unaccounted for expenditures. Our City Manager must manage in crisis mode for the next few years until our financial situation is better, which to me means a reserve account with $6M and a better bond rating.

5. What role do you you think short-term borrowing has in the budget? If there is no role then what is your plan to eliminate it? If there is a role then what do you see as the impact on the city’s bond rating, borrowing costs and our ability to finance other capital projects?

Short-term borrowing unfortunately has been a pattern in El Cerrito for the past few years to stay afloat. We may need to borrow again to get us through this year, but I believe drastic cuts to all of our department budgets will set us up to avoid unnecessary borrowing. We should focus on attracting and retaining our small businesses, so we can begin to increase our tax base. If we do not increase the City’s bond rating, we will not be able to take on the community projects the majority of us in the community want, such as a new El Cerrito Public Library.

6. What are the details of your plan for El Cerrito getting out of the financial situation we are in?

We must operate under lean principles and the principles of ethical public sector finance. We can no longer accept the “shoulder shrug” with empty explanations of why we need to spend money which we did not account for… We must say “NO.” Often and frequently. Similar to the concept of wearing a mask and keeping your distance is how we show our love and respect for another, saying “NO” to expanding programs is how we will show our love and respect for the community. We have to become financially solvent and establish a reserve if we’re going to make our community stronger and have the ability to fund forward-thinking capital improvement projects. I imagine these next few years on Council will be tough, which is exactly why I want the job.

We have to build more affordable housing, we must attract and retain high-quality businesses, we must keep our community disaster-resilient, and we have to invest in our own community through our actions. Shop locally, use public transportation, and bicycle. If we focus on “winning on the basics,” we can create the type of community we are all proud to call home.

7. What do you see as the issue behind the over 1 million dollar amount of overtime for the Fire Department? How would you resolve this issue and keep El Cerrito fire safe.

In order to keep the community safe and maintain minimum staffing, overtime is a necessary evil. Minimum staffing ensures that ECFD has the capacities to respond during our neighbors deepest time of need. I believe we can use data to better understand our call types and call volumes and adjust staffing based on this data. Do we need to send an engine for every “lift assist?” Let’s use CAD data to better understand our Department, and tailor our responses better to our community needs. Overtime is ultimately less expensive than adding more FTE’s, and maintaining minimum staffing is critical for keeping all of us safe.

In order to keep El Cerrito fire safe, beyond maintaining minimum staffing, we must look to the State and our regional partners in order to expand our Emergency Preparedness capacities. We cannot afford to do it on our own. Disaster response is both a municipal and community effort, and we need the support of our El Cerrito Public Safety professionals.

8. What changes would you make with the police budget?

The police budget, along with other department budgets, has been reduced and will continue to be reduced. The most important thing we can do as a small city is ensure public safety. Which means safety for all stakeholders: housing insecure, low-income, communities of color, women, business owners, new families, and families that have been here for generations.

I most recently worked for the San Francisco Department of Police Accountability, an independent civilian-oversight law enforcement agency. I implemented a web-based tool for community members to file a complaint independently of the SF Police Department, and learned a great deal about 21st century policing models in the process.

The El Cerrito Police Department has been an innovator in community-service based law enforcement, and we can continue to innovate while operating on lean principles. We must look to our 911 data, daylight any inequities, make data-driven decisions, and work collaboratively to keep El Cerrito safe. Officers in El Cerrito receive extensive bias training in addition to their typical police officer training, and officers have an extended probationary period so we can make sure we’re retaining only high-quality officers.

Our country is facing a much-needed reckoning around local law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement is beautiful, and its principles belong here in El Cerrito. We should end qualified immunity nationally, we should reevaluate POBRA protections, but we also cannot carelessly reduce our public safety budget. We must approach public safety budgets with a surgeon’s knife instead of a hammer.

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