Take action-budget meeting August 1st

The City of El Cerrito will be hosting a virtual town hall on the budget on Saturday, August 1st From 10-12. For information on joining the Town Hall click here.   We urge you to participate, and this is why:

  1.  The city is facing a 5.5 million dollar budget deficit.
  2. The city has been very slow to take action and COVID  is exacerbating what was already a crisis situation. The longer the city takes to act the worse situation we will be in. 
  3. The city is paying consultants thousands of dollars for them to suggest cuts in services, including library, recreation and senior services. 
  4. The city has not addressed the extreme amounts of overtime paid to the fire department (over 1.5 million last year). This is an issue that was called out by the state auditor. While we all agree we want El Cerrito to stay fire safe it seems it might be prudent to look at ways to control expenses. 
  5. Public safety is 50% of the budget. Members of the public need to decide what the priorities of the city should be and let their elected representatives know what they are. Cuts need to be made. Do you want to prioritize police or the recreation center? Let the council know. 
  6. The City has poorly managed the budget for years. We need to hold them accountable for this mess and they need to get a reserve built and stop taking out pay day loans. They will tell you the crisis is COVID related but the State Auditor called the city out in October well before the current crisis.


The City Council and staff need to know that the community is paying attention and is going to hold them accountable. We need a more transparent process.Please participate in the meeting. You can send in questions via email to cityclerk@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us.  Please note that all questions will not be answered and they are not guaranteeing answers subsequent to the meeting. If you email please encourage them to answer all questions in writing on the city website. 

23k paid to consultants who advised cutting the library hours.

Management Partners, the consultants used to advise on budget issues, were first hired for a 25k contract to help revise the Strategic Plan. The original contract was for between $25,900 and $32,500 depending on whether the city had Management Partners do the public workshop or not. About half way through that contract the city modified the contract to have them to provide financial advice to the city. The scope of work includes the following:

You will note in the activities that there are several check ins with the City Manager before the report was to go to the City Council. The revised contract used $10,500 from the original contract and added an additional $12,500 to cost the city $23,000 for the consultants to bring up recommendations like cutting library hours that had already been voted on by the Council. The consultants did not have information to present on compensation rates comparisons between El Cerrito and comparably sized cities. We are left to suspect that the consultant prioritized only cuts suggested to them by City Staff.

We need YOU to run for City Council!

Three City Council Seats up for Election in November 

If you have felt like the City Council has not been representing you and the interests of the city now is the time to step up and run for council. In El Cerrito. traditionally the El Cerrito Democratic Club (which includes members that don’t live in El Cerrito) has designated the next council members. They do an endorsement and send out mailings to those who live in the city. All current members are of the Council are members of the ECDC with Council person Abelson and Mayor Lyman both part of the current leadership. The only declared person running for City Council is Margaret Kavanaugh Lynch and she too is a member of ECDC. It is anticipated that if Mayor Pro Tem Fadelli and Councilperson Pardue-Okimoto run again that ECDC will then again endorse them and it is likely that they will run unopposed. The only way for that to change is for other community members to step up and run. We encourage you to do so! The city information on running is reprinted below.

“In November of 2020, the terms of office for Mayor Lyman, Mayor Pro Tem Fadelli, and Councilmember Pardue-Okimoto will expire. On June 16, 2020, the City Council called an election for the purpose of electing three members to City Council. The term for each seat shall be four years, from November 2020 to November 2024. The nomination period for these offices will begin on Monday, July 13, 2020 and close on Friday, August 7, 2020 at 4 p.m. 

If nomination documents from any of the three incumbent officers of the city are not filed by Friday, August 7, 2020, the nomination period will be extended until Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 4 p.m. During this extension period, no incumbent is allowed to file nomination documents.


To be eligible to run for City Council, a candidate must be a resident of El Cerrito and a registered voter at the time nomination documents are issued. The City Clerk is the Elections Official and primary contact for El Cerrito candidates. To best serve candidates, individuals interested in running for office are encouraged to contact the City Clerk to ask questions. Appointments will be required for issuance, review, and submission of nomination documents. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please contact the City Clerk at cityclerk@… or (510) 215-4305. Election information is also available online at http://www.el-cerrito.org

The struggle for transparency in El Cerrito

I wrote previously about the TRAN loans that have been keeping the city afloat since 2011. On May 21, 2020, I sent a request for information on the costs of these loans. It specifically said

“I saw in the supplemental slide set some info about the trans.

What I would like to know is

1. What year did the city first start getting trans? That year how much was it for, what was interest rate, and actual dollars of interest, and cost of obtaining the Tran (such as what is indicated in the contract you sent me for NBA) 2. From 2012 to current date the same info, interest rate, actual dollars paid in interest, and cost to obtain the loan.“

A week later I got a response from the City Clerk

“This information is available by searching the archives of agenda materials on our website at http://el-cerrito.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=43. “

That is the link to all agendas and minutes for El Cerrito City Council meetings. I was expected to go through them all. Many of them are over 100 pages long.

I unhappily replied

“With all due respect that is a ridiculous response. I am expected to go through years of agenda items to find this? Information that should be easily gotten from the finance department. This is not transparent government. ”

I recevied the following responses

“All of the information you are requesting is contained in the staff reports and resolutions. The results in the first two pages provide all the information you requested”

She then immediately sent this reply

‘My apologies, I tried to paste a link and accidently hit send. The results in the first two pages provide all the information requested.”

If you click on that link there are 2560 links below it.

I actually tried to dig through the materials. But I could not find the information for 2011 and 2014. (Though with further digging later I did find 2014) so on May 29, 2020, I sent the following reply

“I did dig through this. I am unable to find the cost of the loans (fees to obtain) for 2011 and 2014. And also wanted to confirm if WestAmerica had them.

I found this for 2014 listed but it seems like there was further action taken. I did search agendas for a few meetings past this with no luck. 

http://www.el-cerrito.org/DocumentCenter/View/3913/cc140819-7b?bidId=

All I found for 2011 was this

http://www.el-cerrito.org/DocumentCenter/View/1040/cc111121-5d?bidId=

If you could fill in these pieces I would appreciate it.”

I never received a reply to that email.

Others have also tried and not fared any better. I have let the Mayor and some city council members know and still not gotten a response.

I have been connected with some policy wonk researchers in the community. One of them did a dive into California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission (CDIAC) data that is available on the State Treasurers website. He complied the data in an excel worksheet and sent it to me. I have linked to it here. It shows TRANS for lower amounts going back to the 1990’s. Which as you remember was one of the questions I had in the original request-how long has this been going on for?

This experience is the epitome of what has been happening in El Cerrito. There is no transparency. The law requires that the city give information to its constituents. That obligation is clearly not being met by sending pages of thousands of links. It also says something that the city council members and mayor I reached out to over the past weeks were not able to get the information to me either.

I just just sent a new request for information on Fire Department Data. Some of this data has been long requested by others. It is hard for any of us to do an analysis on the Fire Department without data on overtime usage. We have not gotten data on how the city decided to not hire new staff but instead pay OT. Or how much the Kensington contract costs the city. Or how much we were reimbursed by the state for OT for state fires. Or how much OT was given for the fire fighters that stayed in our community when others were fighting state fires. It shouldn’t be this hard to get information from the city. If I, someone who knows how to dig and push, can’t get it, how is an average citizen suppose to get information? I have documented my efforts in both the TRAN request and this new request. I recently learned that there are lawyers that love this type of case. Because if the city refuses to give information and loses they pay lawyers fees. I feel like a city bordering on bankruptcy should not put itself in the position of a citizen having to take such severe action to get results.

Looking backwards-El Cerrito did not get into a 5.5 million dollar hole yesterday. Part Two of Two

El Cerrito is in the midst of a major financial crisis. This the second of two blog posts addressing four issues we have found with how El Cerrito has managed it’s financial issues for years. Please refer back to the first post here and that post has the references used here also. 

NO LONG TERM PLANNING BY STAFF

Although there were cautionary tales about limited revenues, etc. the city took a very short-term approach and narrow course of action when it came to growing reserves or managing costs. The City turned to the community for new taxes, but expenditures continued to rise.  

EVIDENCE

Since 2013 every year the report has named General Fund Budgets, Cash and Available Fund Balances as an issue. While the auditors did not begin stating that the city was at risk of not remaining a going concern (not going bankrupt) until 2017 the four years prior they called the lack of financial resources an issue and often recommended cost cutting measures. The City typically responded by stating that they anticipated a growth in revenues and would be monitoring expenditures.  

Since 2011 the city has been borrowing money to keep the city afloat. It started with 3.5 million dollars in 2011 and in 2019 last year was 9 million dollars. The interest in 2019 last year was $197,100 and the costs for the loans were an additional $33,000.

In 2014 when revenues were dropping the city decided to not look at budget cuts but to instead put a tax measure on the ballot (2014 CAFR page 32). They successfully passed Measure R, extending and RAISING the sales tax in El Cerrito. Many felt that the city was deceptive in their outreach for this tax and the city was warned by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for irregularities in a mailer backing Measure R. Many voters thought it was an extension of an existing tax, not a raise in taxes. 

Again at the close of 2017, the report issued to the city recommends a move toward cuts in order to bring spending in line with revenues.  The City response suggests otherwise, noting they are planning to launch another tax that will shore up revenue and reserves.  

And as recently as June 2019, when the independent auditor called out the city’s ability to continue as a going concern for the third straight year, the City Manager and Finance Director went before City Council and said everything was fine. The City Manager told the Council, “The City will be taking steps to restore a positive fund balance position through the upcoming biennial budget cycle and expects to successfully achieve this by FY 2021.”

 This was just 4 months before the state auditor called out that El Cerrito was 7th on the list of CA cities most likely to go bankrupt. 

BELIEF THAT STAFF WAGES NEED TO BE HIGH FOR STAFF RETENTION

There appears to be an assumption that in order to have quality staff, we have to compete with wages paid in larger metropolitan communities, wherein other communities of comparable populations have significantly lower costs. This has been repeated at numerous community meetings and most recently at City Council regarding education. As a result our expenditures in salaries and benefits increase even when not prudent to make such increases.  

EVIDENCE

Our city has 25k residents and 384 city employees of which 159 are full time. The cost per resident is $1,163, which is $328 per resident more than the next closest city of Albany. Our city has 132 more employees than San Pablo which has 5k more residents. 

Per Transparent CA in 2018, employee compensation rose almost 5 MILLION dollars from 2017 to $29,323,885 for 384 positions 159 of which are full-time. In 2017 there were 375 total positions and 138 were full time year round. These raises and additional positions were added even though the auditor had for two years warned the city about their ability to continue as a going concern. 

In the most recent negotiations with public safety staff COLAS were suspended for 2020 but promised for 2021.

In the City Council meeting on May 19th it was revealed that 25 staff members received car allowances of $300 a month. This is an outrageous number of staff with this benefit when a simple reimbursement for mileage for required travel could be implemented. This was costing the city 90K a year

When citizens have sent in public comments questioning the high staffing numbers they have heard council statements full of praise for their excellent staff. They have said that no comparisons to other cities can be made because we are a full service city. This definition has yet to be adequately described as most local cities also have their own police and fire departments, recreation departments and senior services. Albany has all of the above and runs on half the budget El Cerrito does.

So is it time for El Cerrito to take a deeper look at how it provides services? The personnel classification system? The number of management positions? Since 50% of our budget is dedicated to public safety, we may want to start there.  

There is a budget meeting June 9th at 1pm. Please send public comments in with your thoughts on the budget crisis. It is agenda item #2

To make a public comment

Public Comments may be submitted one of two ways:

Via email to Cityclerk@Ci.El-Cerrito.ca.us Email must contain in the subject line Public Comments ­ Not on the Agenda OR Public Comments ­ Agenda Item #.

Via Voicemail at (510)­306-­2558. The caller must start the message by stating Public Comments ­ Not on the Agenda OR Public Comments ­ Agenda Item # followed by their name and city of residence, followed by their comments

Looking backwards-El Cerrito did not get into a 5.5 million dollar hole yesterday. Part One of Two

El Cerrito is in the midst of a major financial crisis. In October 2019 the State Auditor stated that El Cerrito was #7 on the list of CA cities most likely to go bankrupt. The issue was so serious that the auditor got state approval to do a full audit of El Cerrito. Unfortunately due to COVID-19 the audit is currently on hold. If you read the City Manager’s reports you would think that prior to COVID-19, the city’s finances were smooth sailing. While COVID-19 certainly exacerbated an existing problem, the problem with El Cerrito’s financial issues is long standing. 

After reviewing the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, The Memorandum of Internal Controls (MOIC), City Council Meeting Minutes, and press coverage from the last decade, we see a City that fails to analyze and anticipate the outside threats to City finances, or chooses to simply ignore them.

We have identified four issues that warrant further analysis. 

They are 

  1. Staff not competent with governmental budgeting
  2. Interfund Borrowing
  3. No long term planning by staff
  4. Belief that staff wages need to be high for staff retention

These posts are meant to give us additional depth to this crisis but the issues we have identified are not the only issues. This will be part one of the post and part two will cover the second two issues. 

STAFF NOT COMPETENT WITH GOVERNMENTAL BUDGETING

Looking at past audits, clearly the staff were not experienced with governmental budgeting, having a particularly hard time when revenues were on the decline. 

EVIDENCE

There is a document called the Memorandum on Internal Control and Required communications. (MOIC) This report is one that the auditor prepares as a part of the Comprehensive Financial Report (CAFR) every year. What has become clear in reviewing them is that the city has been financially mismanaged for years. During the period between 2013 -2016, records indicate that the Finance Department experienced high turnover with many positions filled with temporary workers or staff with little or no governmental accounting experinece.  

The MOIC’s from 2013-2018 repeatedly cited evidence of accounting practices that were either missing or misinformed. The report basically stated a lack of financial controls that ultimately resulted in the city’s inability to fully close out a fiscal year and start a new fiscal year with accurate accounting. Although they repeated this as a problem, and the city made new hires in the Finance Department problems persisted.  

Overall, a city agency that cannot successfully close out its books, collect reimbursements, and manage grants ultimately impacts the health of the general fund and hinders decision making on clear facts. 

Interfund Borrowing

For at least the past 8 years, the other funds borrowed from the General Fund with the intention of replacing funds the next fiscal year, but never doing so. Funds were borrowed from the General Fund and the debt was listed as an asset even though the other funds had no funds to pay back the General Fund. 

EVIDENCE

The 2015 MOIC reported that the General Fund and Capital Improvement Fund had borrowed $2.2 million from other funds as of fiscal year end, including borrowing from restricted funding resources such as the Integrated Waste Management Enterprise Fund and the Municipal Services Corporation Special Revenue Fund. “ (MOIC 2015 page 5) This interfund borrowing depleted the General Fund. 

A review of the years 2015-2017 demonstrates that management ignored warnings and continued to make transfers that resulted in inaccurate accounting and budget information. As a result, the “so called” balance budget reported by the City staff, and passed by the Council, is by no means balanced. When funds were transferred out of the general fund it was done without action by the Council and without a plan for repayment. The auditor also reported most of those agencies did not have any identifiable ways to pay back the money.” In short, these were not loans, but a debit. 

Who should we attribute or hold accountable to a continued pattern of what appears to be accounting practices that ultimately defer the inevitable situation that bring us to our situation today?  The Finance Director?  The City Manager? The City Council? In other words, who was reading the reports and who was holding City Management accountable to the promises made to redress these issues? 

Please refer to part two here. 

REFERENCES

2013 Memorandum of Inner Control 

2014 Memorandum of Internal Control

2015 Memorandum of Internal Control

2016 Memorandum of Internal Control

2017 Memorandum of Internal Control

2018 Memorandum of Internal Control

2019 Memorandum of Internal Control

List of all the CAFRS

El Cerrito is in a major financial crisis-major cuts proposed

Today the city of El Cerrito put out a packet for the planned budget meeting June 9th at 1pm. The Consultants were brutally honest. The link is here. I will copy some slides below but it is really important to view the entire packet. The consultants call out that El Cerrito was in a fiscal crisis before COVID contrary to what the City Council and City Manager have been stating. See the slide above.

The cuts proposed are dramatic. LIBRARY HOURS are back on the table. Reduced fire station services at station 72 are on the table.

If you care about the library or any of these other services please send comments in for the meeting.

So what is confusing to me is that the first priority of cuts is service delivery cuts. There is no mention at looking at staff compensation which has been increased an astronomical amount over the past few years.

To make a public comment

Public Comments may be submitted one of two ways:

Via email to Cityclerk@Ci.El-Cerrito.ca.us Email must contain in the subject line Public Comments ­ Not on the Agenda OR Public Comments ­ Agenda Item #.

Via Voicemail at (510)­306-­2558. The caller must start the message by stating Public Comments ­ Not on the Agenda OR Public Comments ­ Agenda Item # followed by their name and city of residence, followed by their comments

El Cerrito’s history of loans to keep afloat

El Cerrito has been using Tax Revenue Anticipation Notes (TRANS) since 2011 to keep the government afloat. Someone online calls them payday loans and to a large extent that is what they look like. Each year more is borrowed. It started in 2011 with 3.5 million and in 2019 it was 9 million which was a 3 million dollar jump from 2018.


At the next City Council meeting on June 2, 2020, this will be discussed. What is very significant is that since the start of these loans the majority of years (still confirming every year) West America Bank has taken the loan on. As the City staff said in their reports “By selling the TRAN directly to a single investor, the City avoids the costs associated with rating agencies, disclosure counsel, and underwriting firms.” You will see in the chart below how the cost of the loan is in the $17,000-$37,000 range.
This year West America declined to take on the $8,5000,000 loan. This means that the loan will be offered to the public and the estimated cost of OBTAINING the loan will be $105,000. Interest at the 2-3% rate will cost somewhere between $170,000 and $255,000.


This is yet again an example of how El Cerrito’s financial mismanagement has cost the city over a million dollars since 2011. If the city had not allowed their bond rating to drop (before COVID) perhaps West America would have taken the loan again and saved the city at least $70,000 this year alone. Nowhere in any of the many financial documents that I have reviewed is anything stated about working towards not needing a TRAN annually. The additional concern is that if it is more challenging to get the TRAN this year what about next when COVID effects and the effects of the recession will deepen? If a TRAN is not issued either this year or next then how does the city avoid bankruptcy?

If you are interested in learning more please join our IO group for El Cerrito residents concerned about these issues found here https://groups.io/g/ECCfRG

Please also consider making a public comment on this agenda item 7A before the meeting on Tuesday. If you send in your comments after 1pm they have to be read into the record. It is important for the City Council to understand that people are watching.

To make a public comment

Public Comments may be submitted one of two ways:

Via email to Cityclerk@Ci.El-Cerrito.ca.us Email must contain in the subject line Public Comments ­ Not on the Agenda OR Public Comments ­ Agenda Item #.

Via Voicemail at (510)­306-­2558. The caller must start the message by stating Public Comments ­ Not on the Agenda OR Public Comments ­ Agenda Item # followed by their name and city of residence, followed by their comments

References

TRAN Chart-some information on the cost of 2011 and 2014 loans I have yet to access. The chart will be updated when I obtain the information. The interest rate estimate for 2020 was put into the spreadsheet at the higher 3% rate.

The packet for. the June 2, 2020 meeting has a lot of information on the 2020 TRAN found starting on page 68. Information on past TRANS were found here.

El Cerrito was giving over 100K in car allowances

Post Updated with information from public records request June 2, 2020. I have added the employee positions that received this benefit. I have also clarified that the benefit for everyone except the city manager is $300 (I was told the prior number from a Council Person so I apologize for the error). The City Manager receives $323.08

In the May 19, 2020, City Council meeting at around the 3:16 mark, it comes up about the city staff car allowances. The City Manager suspended those April 5th right before she tried to cut the library hours. At that time we did not get full details as to the amount and extent of those allowances. In this meeting Councilperson Fadelli asked more questions. It is worth watching how both the City Manager and Assistant City Manager evade the question of what the monthly amount was ($300). The Assistant City Manager does say that it is $100K savings. When Councilperson Fadelli pushed the City Manager stated that 25 people received this allowance. Which comes out to $105K. I have a public information request pending as to what positions were receiving this benefit.

The positions receiving this benefit are as follows

City Manager

Assistant City Manager

Assistant to the City Manager

City Clerk

Three Employees in the Finance Department including the Director

Two Employees in Information Technology Department

One employee in Environmental Science

Three Public Works Engineers

Two Employees Public Works Maintenance

Two employees in Community Development/Admin

One Employee from Community Development Planning

One Employee from Community Development Building Services

Two Employees from Recreation-Adults

One Employee Recreation Staff-Childcare Admin

One Employee Recreation Swim Center

One Employee Recreation Senior Services

One Employee Recreation Youth

It appears from the document I received that all senior management is getting this benefit. That is not confirmed.


The point here is that these benefits for those many staff members is outrageous. This is yet another example of the ongoing fiscal irresponsibility that got us into this crisis. The current IRS reimbursement rate is 57.5 cents a mile. This means the staff has to travel over 600 miles a month every month for the city to break even. Also, in the conversation, the City Manager stated that there are city cars available. Both the City Manager and Assistant City Manager minimized the benefit saying that it saved the reimbursement paperwork and the City Manager calling it a moot point right now as there is no travel.

I appreciate Councilperson Fadelli pushing back on the issue and hope he continues to be vigilant as I would expect as soon as the crisis is over that staff will try and get that benefit again. With the exception of the Fire Department and Police Chiefs who may have to respond to emergencies in their personal cars I have no understanding of why this benefit was necessary on top of staff’s already high salaries.


I also want to note that Councilperson Pardue-Okimoto was questioning the benefit packages of the management staff and requested that a comparison be done with other cities. Thank you for that.

May 19 meeting