CA State Auditor Response to El Cerrito Report of March 2022

Yesterday the CA State Auditor finally released its response to the El Cerrito March 2022 report. The State Auditor retired earlier this year and thus things are moving slowly. We have been told by their office that they anticipate updating the At Risk Dashboard in October/November. We hope it happens before the election. They are also releasing reports on two cities ranked even worse than El Cerrito in October.


All bold quotes are from this author, not the auditor.


What does the report say? It says the same things we have been saying. There is a reserve now which is good. However, the reserve is based on high real estate sales and federal bailout money. Which means it is not sustainable. They said

“El Cerrito’s ability to meet its goal of a sufficient reserve can be attributed to multiple factors that it may not be able to rely on in the future, risking the depletion of that reserve. First, the city’s increased revenue can largely be attributed to an unexpectedly robust real estate market. The city’s real estate transfer tax generated $4 million in fiscal year 2020–21, 53 percent more than expected. If the city’s real estate market slows, the city may not generate sufficient revenue to cover its costs. If the city had received the amount of the transfer tax that it budgeted for, the city would have $1.4 million less in revenue. A highly variable revenue source such as this tax can leave the city vulnerable to overspending if the city increases its revenue projection based on a peak year but ultimately receives a much lower amount. As we note in our audit report, El Cerrito’s financial challenges occurred in large part because it did not adjust its spending to match its revenue.” (CA State Auditor Response to El Cerrito March 2022 update.)

The Auditor is concerned that the city continues to ignore its pension crisis.

Moreover, El Cerrito has taken only initial efforts to address its pension costs. As the city noted in its September 2021 update and reiterated in its March 2022 update, its police chief and fire chief, who are part of a union, agreed to pay a higher proportion of their pension costs. However, other unions that represent most employees have not agreed to deferrals of salary increases that could help control pension spending. El Cerrito also indicates that it is researching vendors to establish a Section 115 trust that can be used to pre-fund pension costs, but does not expect to finalize this strategy until fiscal year 2022–23.” (CA State Auditor Response to El Cerrito March 2022 update.)

The Auditor continues to be confused as to why El Cerrito is not addressing some of their hiring and compensation decisions.

“Further, El Cerrito continues to defer a decision to permanently end its system of allowing certain management employees the ability to receive salary increases above the threshold established in the city’s salary schedules. At this time, the city states that it has indefinitely suspended this process but does not indicate why it has not decided to discontinue it entirely. Our audit cited specific examples of management employees being paid in excess of the city’s salary schedule and greater than similar positions of nearby cities, so we are unclear why this process has not been eliminated.”(CA State Auditor Response to El Cerrito March 2022 update.)

Finally, they stated that the city is not following through on cost management for services. They wanted the city to be cost-neutral on senior services and recreation services. Certainly in the past recreation services were a money maker. Senior services were always subsidized. An argument can be made that they should be subsidized but at the end of the day if the money is not there it can’t happen.

“El Cerrito continues to defer taking specific actions that could increase its revenue and contribute to more financial stability. El Cerrito’s corrective action plan update notes that the city increased fees for its recreation services. However, it made those changes in May 2021 and previously reported them in its September 2021 corrective action plan update. The city continues to report that it will conduct a demand and cost recovery analysis for recreation services after normal operations resume but states that it cannot estimate when that will occur. Further, El Cerrito’s corrective action plan update states that the city is currently charging for senior services at normal cost recovery. However, when we asked for documentation of this practice, city staff provided budgetary and financial information indicating that the city continues to subsidize the senior services program. Moreover, El Cerrito expects the cost of operating its swim center in fiscal year 2021–22 to exceed the revenue obtained from fees, resulting in the city once again needing to subsidize those services. El Cerrito should prioritize efforts to ensure that its fees cover the cost of its services regardless of changes in demand.” (CA State Auditor Response to El Cerrito March 2022 update.)

For as many times as this author has been told they don’t know what they are talking about by City Staff and Council members it seems that the CA State Auditor agrees with everything, this blog has been saying for several years.

Asking the 2022 City Council Candidates Some Questions

updated 9/7/22 with Gabe Quintos website.

There are three candidates running for two seats on the El Cerrito City Council. They are listed as they will be on the ballot.

Carolyn Wysinger: Her website is here

Candidate packet is found here.

Campaign Disclosures are found here. There are few for you to click on.

Vanessa Warheit Her website is here

Candidate packet is found here.

Campaign Disclosures are found here. There are few for you to click on.

Incumbent Mayor Gabe Quinto His website is here.

Candidate packet is found here.

Campaign Disclosures are found here. There are few for you to click on.

We sent each of the candidates the following questions. We have asked that they respond within 14 days. We will post responses as we receive them.

  1. What do you see as the most pressing financial issue for EC?  If elected, what are your plans to address this issue?
  2. What do you think needs to be done to address the city’s pension crisis?
  3. What would you want to see as far as financial reports to the Council? How often? What level of detail?
  4. What is your stance on accepting campaign contributions from Police and Fire Employees or their unions?
  5. What are your plans for small business development?
  6. Are you satisfied with the budget process? If not, what changes would you suggest? Should FAB do an analysis of the budget’s assumptions or just make general recommendations such as “try to save $1 million”
  7. How will you evaluate the city manager’s performance?
  8. 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, and if so, how would you go about making them?
  9. What would you like the city to do that will restore residents’ confidence in the competence, accountability, and responsiveness of the city?
  10. Do you support a bond measure for the library? Are you concerned that El Cerrito’s BBB- credit rating will impact the ability to sell bonds at a reasonable interest rate?

Is the 22/23 Budget Stable?

Last week I wrote a post updating you all on the current status of the budget. I brought up some points that were reiterated in the 8/16/22 Council Meeting. The question I have is this 22/23 budget sustainable and are the forecasts accurate?

The first issue is the Transfer Tax. 

I brought that up in the last post but William Ktsanes, who is also Vice-Chair of the Financial Advisory Board (FAB), wrote a lengthy comment about his concerns about the Real Estate Transfer Tax that was submitted as a public comment.. (pgs. 10-14) His projected scenarios are 1 million less in income than the El Cerrito scenario. Now Mr. Ktsanes says he could be wrong, but on the other hand, he could be correct. If he is correct, that money will wipe out any surplus in the budget. 

The second issue is inconsistencies and confusion in the budget.

The budget also has $465K in one-time projects that were not included in the budget document. Yea as I type this I get that does not make sense. They have listed the projects, but they did not subtract them from the budget. If you remember from the last post, there was an 812K surplus (not the FAB recommended 1 million) and there is this 465 K in expenses which, if subtracted, bring the surplus to 347K. You may also remember FAB asked the council to put a million dollar surplus in last year. You can see below the surplus as amended was a little less than 600k. This is not the way to be building a reserve. The reserve is all there because of ARPA (bailout) money and a strong real estate market which meant lots of dollars for the real property transfer tax. 

The forecast document below also shows a concerningly low 3% inflation rate estimated. If there is anything we have all heard a ton about this year it is about how high the inflation rate currently is. According to the Bay Area CPI it is not 3% but is 6%. It should be forecast as such for this year with a higher than 3% rate again next year.

The third concern is pension costs

The pension issue is the worst of El Cerrito’s financial issues and the one they have not addressed at all. CalPERS suffered significant losses in FY 2022, which will not show up for another year in municipal budgets, but it is likely to sting. A change in the discount rate is also likely coming in another year or so. You can see how the unfunded liability costs have increased since last year. We can expect a bigger leap next year. 

Is this budget sustainable? I think this year we will be fine if only because of the second 3.1 million in bail-out funds. The city will probably contribute less to the reserve than estimated. I do think the future projections continue to minimize the increasing pension problem and we are in trouble next year 23/24. There still have not been the structural changes necessary to stabilize this house of cards.

We’re Back and El Cerrito’s Budget Process is still a hot mess!

Gosh has it been 10 months since the last post? Holy Moley does time fly? The author of this blog moved out of state and tried hard to move on with their life. But in the past few weeks, they got a few emails begging them to come out of retirement. Or at least focus back on El Cerrito finances. I have agreed to do so because this November El Cerrito has a competitive election for City Council! This is a huge opportunity to add fiscally inclined people to the council. Three people are running for 2 openings. We will cover the candidates and we are creating a list of questions to ask all the candidates as we have in the past. If you have suggestions email betterelcerrito@gmail.com.

So enough of all of that! Let’s get down to the business of updating you on the El Cerrito finance situation. Because if you are watching the City Council meetings you might think all is well. The Biden Bail-Out of 3+ million last year and again this year along with an INSANE real estate market has helped the city quite a bit. No more pay-day loans (TRANS) to keep the city afloat. The budget planning documents now include much more detail on the assumptions used. There is a new Finance Director. There is an actual 17% reserve. That is all huge progress. However, problems remain.

What are the issues that remain?

  1. The City Bond rating continues to be BBB-. You can read my post when it dropped to that in September 2020. This low rating means borrowing is expensive or may not be able to happen. This potentially jeopardizes any Bond Measure. We expect that El Cerrito will push for a bond measure for a new library at some point. With this rating that is not possible. The rating is old so one wonders if the city has pursued getting re-evaluated at some point.
  2. The outlook for Real Transfer Tax may be overly optimistic. They are assuming an 18% drop-off from FY 2022. The July data provided by the county indicated that July 2022 income was 36% below July 2021. If that happens there might be a $1 million shortfall. The Auditor called out not counting too much on such an unstable source of income.
  3. Pension costs continue to rise with NO real plan in place to address them. The Staff continues to research a 115 Trust plan which allows them to put money aside for future pension costs but they still need the money to put aside.
  4. There continues to be a serious lack of transparency in the budget process. This year’s budget was passed on June 21, 2022, by a 4-1 vote. (Motoyama voted NO). Much of the public comment was about that lack of engagement on the process with the public. Councilperson Rudnick acknowledged in her comments that the process was not inclusive of the public. Councilperson Motoyama tried to get the budget continued to the next meeting but that failed by a 3-2 vote. (Rudnick voted Yes).
  5. The City Council continues to not effectively utilize the Financial Advisory Board (FAB). When they do make recommendations to Council they have not been listened to. For example, FAB has been recommending a budget surplus of 1 million in every proposed budget. This year’s DRAFT budget has an 812K surplus (because 812k and 1 million are the same). The budget does not include some items such as the wage and compensation study which if included would lower the surplus by 465k. Dick Patterson, The Chair of FAB, (at the time of the meeting) spoke at the Council meeting June 21, 2022 and spoke to this and other concerns FAB had about the budget. (he starts speaking at 1:44)
  6. Complacency has returned. The City Council engaged once the financial crisis hit the news. They made some demands for information. They have been getting monthly financial reports for the past few years. Which allowed the public to closely watch also. Now it has been decided that quarterly reports are enough. Why has the Council not demanded continued monthly reports? Quarterly is not enough to catch things, especially with the slow pace for action in the city. The public also deserves to keep a close eye on the budget given that El Cerrito still shows as #6 on the High Risk City List. (We do not know when rankings will be updated. The State Auditor did not respond to the El Cerrito March 2022 update)

We’re back and we hope you will be back also. Engage with the council. Pay attention. And stay tuned here!

Will the Community Fight For Fiscal Responsibility?-El Cerrito Budget Update Part 3

This is the final part of a three-part series updating residents on activities related to the El Cerrito fiscal crisis. This is the final part of a three-part series updating residents on activities related to the El Cerrito fiscal crisis. In other big news, the Finance Director has resigned and has left the building. While a new Finance Director with more forecasting experience and experience in addressing fiscal issues could be a great thing for this city we also understand the City Manager makes this hiring decision. This City Manager has been historically non-transparent and not super willing to acknowledge past mistakes or shift the trajectory. This could be an opportunity for her to hire someone who can turn this ship around and make the tough decisions. Or she could hire someone that continues to deny issues and have fights with members of the FAB when they challenge their untruths. I hope Council encourages her to hire wisely.

The response to the State Audit also reported that “the incumbent Finance Supervisor will be retired as of September 30, and the position is proposed to be replaced by a Budget Manager position that will specifically focus on budgeting and financial analysis for the City, allowing City Management to be responsive to the City Council and the public in communicating budget strategies and information. This classification is being developed and is expected to be presented to the City Council for approval in October, and staff will seek to fill this position by the end of the calendar year.”

If we fill both of those positions with these new skill sets it could be transformative for the city. The lack of forecasting has been a great disservice to the city. As of the date of this report, I do not believe this position has yet been presented to the Council. These positions need to both be filled ASAP as the City now does not have a functioning Finance Department. I know an interim Director was going to be put in place soon. The Community needs to stay on this issue as it could be used as an excuse not to produce promised information and reports.

To end this series here are a few things to keep an eye on. 

  1. Does the City Council get regular budget reports? When the Ad-Hoc Committee reported back they detailed what they wanted to see in reports and stated that these would start in November. Given the Finance Director has left I anticipate the City Manager using that as an excuse to not have a comprehensive report. They have already used that as a reason to cancel the Financial Advisory Board meetings. 
  2. Will they fill the open Financial Advisory Board seat? It seems rather convenient that they decided to reassess the Board and Commission rules right at the time the FAB had an opening. Then they added criteria that applicants need to have attended some meetings. At the last council meeting, they said it might be February before the seat was filled. 
  3. Will the Council push the City Manager to hire a competent and experienced Finance Director who has the skill set to do accurate forecasting and present information to the community in a comprehensible manner? 
  4. Will the Council assign a team to do the City Manager’s evaluation that evaluates her performance and brings in the factors of community trust and how she is working on the budget?

As I have said before change will only happen if the community continues to hold the Council responsible for the fiscal state of the city finances

Will the Community Fight For Fiscal Responsibility-El Cerrito Budget Update Part 2

This is part two of three of the Fall update on what has been happening with the city budget. Today we cover the Ad-Hoc Committee report which includes the report sent to the State Auditor (click the link below)

City Council Financial Ad-Hoc Committee Update– Presented by Council Person Rudnick and Motoyama at the Meeting on September 21, 2021. There was an Ad-Hoc Committee formed with these two councilpersons working with city staff on preparing the response to the State Auditor Report. Councilperson Rudnick spoke some about their process and meetings and then Councilperson Motoyama stated that they had provided direction on budget updates moving forward. Updates should include actionable information, be provided quarterly to get fuller pictures, and have 5 and 10-year forecasts, and break down the budget department by department.

During the meeting, Mayor Fadelli asked will we get a response back? Karen Pinkos said yes that is anticipated. She stated that they are still working on the Fiscal Sustainability Plan which the council will need to approve. She believes they will be removed from the list.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2021-10-24-at-3.21.15-pm.png

As of the date of this blog post, the State Auditor has made no public online response to the response sent last month. I think it is highly unlikely we would be removed from the list as if you look at the high-risk dashboard above we have addressed only Fund Balance. We now have a few million dollar reserve. There has been no action on any of the pension issues. In fact in that area of the report, it says

“The City Council has directed City staff to establish a Section 115 Trust. Staff is now researching vendors and a recommended funding policy for the City Council’s consideration. Financial policies are also slated to be discussed by the City’s Financial Advisory Board in the coming months.

The action once again is research. They have been cancelling FAB meetings due to staffing issues (covered tomorrow) and are delaying the filling of the open position on FAB.

Frankly, I found a few other responses in that report less than satisfactory. On page 2 they mention there will be a 4 million dollar reserve meeting our 10% goal. This is disingenuous because looking at the true policies we are also required to have an additional emergency reserve and the recommended reserve for a city our size is 17 million. That number was referenced in part one of this article which covered the Fiscal Sustainability Plan.

It is important that the community continue to follow these reports and if the state auditor posts responses to them.

Will the Community Fight For Fiscal Responsibility?-El Cerrito Budget Update Part 1

It has been a long time since I posted. This writer is going to be leaving El Cerrito and it has been hard to motivate myself to continue with the blog. This blog has filled a void by informing residents about the Fiscal Crisis and I feel sad that it may not continue. There is a committed group of residents that have been working behind the scenes for a few years. Please if you care about the city email me at eccfrg@gmail.com and I can get you connected. The group can use people who can do some report backs from the Financial Advisory Board (FAB) and Council Meetings. They can use some people to help get the word out via this blog and social media. If others don’t step up all the work thus far may have been for naught.

I am ending with a three-part update. This can catch people up as to what has been happening or not around fiscal sustainability in El Cerrito. I will post one post each day for the next three days.

Study Session – Fiscal Recovery and Sustainability Plan-Last Meeting on August 31, 2021. 

I will admit I did not attend this meeting. I was so frustrated about the lack of publicity for it and the scheduling at 4 pm on a workday that I thought it a waste of time. Today I reviewed the slide set and saw that the Plan had made some major improvements since the first meeting.

The first thing to be very clear about is that the only reason El Cerrito is doing okay right now is the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Without those funds, our situation would continue to be dire. With those funds, we could be on the path for change IF pension issues are addressed in a meaningful manner.

A few highlights from the report:

This first slide is an accurate statement as to what is needed on the road to sustainability. I am especially pleased that strengthen transparency and community trust is called out. This is something I have been begging for. They also call out monitoring key financial drivers including PERS (pension plan) which is something that has been missing and is a significant piece of the future. The pension issue could bankrupt the city if not addressed.

Below they also state their key assumptions. This is something that we have long asked the Finance Director to do. The two assumptions I am concerned about are the flexible COLA assumption since the represented employees have been reluctant to give back anything. Any COLAS not taken these last few years were deferred and I believe in 2022 they will get COLAS again. It also assumes no recession through FY 32-33 which seems rather improbable. That being said I understand that it would be hard to predict what the next recession will look like. I also hope the Cannabis revenues are not overstated. They are anticipating 300k a year from each of the two of them. One is not open yet.

The next few slides show how bad shape we would be in without the Rescue Funds. This proves my point of how that money is saving this city. It does have us obtaining a real reserve quickly. Which is great. My concern is that this report and the City as a whole are not addressing the Pension Issue which I suspect could change everything. I hope before the Council approves this document they ask for some data on that issue.

The fo

This document is a reasonable start. Before it is approved I suggest the Council ask for more data on how the pension costs factor into each of these scenarios. It appears to be a huge missing piece. I also hope that the Council uses this document to hold the City Manager accountable. She has been historically anti-transparency. Transparency is the only thing that might build community trust again. I hope the Council holds her to it. I believe based on last year her evaluation is coming up in December or January. I hope the Committee assigned to do it includes one or both of the Council Ad-Hoc Committee members as they seem to best understand how the City Manager is navigating the budget. While the public is not permitted to see this document I hope it is an honest reflection of her work. I also hope it sets some quantifiable goals for her progress.

CALL TO ACTION: El Cerrito’s Proposed Responsible Investment Policy – Fossil Fuels and Tobacco

As the October 2nd pipeline rupture off the Huntington Beach shoreline of reminds us, our reliance on fossil fuels is fraught with environmental and economic risk. An estimated 131,000 gallons of crude spewed into the Pacific Ocean, creating a highly-toxic 13-square mile oil slick that is now washing up onto Southern California beaches and into fragile coastal wetlands rich in biodiversity. Of course, damage is not limited to occasional oil spills. Every moment of every day, the burning of fossil fuels release carbon dioxide into the air, creating a greenhouse gas effect that traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere and accelerates global warming.

On September 28th I presented to the City of El Cerrito’s Financial Advisory Board (“FAB”) a proposed socially-responsible investing (“SRI”) clause to the City’s official Investment Policy that would prohibit the direct investment of City funds in fossil fuel and tobacco companies. After discussion and debate, the FAB voted 3-to-1 to recommend that the City Council adopt as policy the “3.6 Responsible Investing” directive below:

Investment Policy Addition – Fossil Fuels and Tobacco

The City of El Cerrito’s Financial Advisory Board (“FAB”) recommends that the City Council adopt an amended Investment Policy with language (1) encouraging socially responsible investing; (2) prohibiting investments in entities that engage in the direct exploration, drilling, production, refining, or marketing of fossil fuels; and (3) prohibiting investments in entities that engage in the direct production or marketing of tobacco products.

To this end, the Financial Advisory Board recommends that the following language be included in the City of El Cerrito Investment Policy:

3.6 Responsible Investing: The City of El Cerrito recognizes that it has a shared responsibility to protect the lives and livelihoods of its inhabitants from the catastrophic threat of climate change and societal costs of harmful tobacco products. The City believes that its financial investments should support a future where all its inhabitants can live healthy lives without the negative environmental, economic and/or health impacts of global warming and addictive tobacco.

      • Investments are encouraged in entities that are involved in the production of renewable energy and sustainable agriculture and have demonstrated a commitment to environmental sustainability and transparent, accountable corporate governance.
      • No investment is to be made directly in publicly-traded companies or private entities that engage in the direct exploration, drilling, production, refining, or marketing of fossil fuels.
      • No investment is to be made directly in publicly-traded companies or private entities that engage in the direct production or marketing of harmful tobacco and tobacco-related products, including but not limited to cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
      • All investments in the Local Agency Investment Fund (“LAIF”) are exempt from section 3.6.

The Financial Advisory Board is a City Council-appointed group of up to five resident volunteers with financial expertise. I am one of four current members; a fifth position has been vacant for several months. To be clear, a FAB “recommendation” is only that—a recommendation, with the City Council under no obligation to adopt it.

At least for now, the proposed SRI clause is largely symbolic as the City’s “rainy day” fund and emergency reserves have been depleted by overspending and mismanagement, leaving almost nothing to invest. El Cerrito’s finances are a mess—and have been so for many years, long before COVID-19. As you may recall, the California State Auditor conducted a thorough review in 2019 and placed the City in the State’s “Local High Risk Program.” Among the more than 400 cities monitored by the State Auditor’s office, El Cerrito ranked from sixth to eighth from the bottom between 2016-2020, consistently among the worst in the state in terms of overall fiscal health and financial risk (https://www.auditor.ca.gov/local_high_risk/at-a-glance-csa). In a letter to the Governor, the State Auditor wrote:

In general, we determined that the city is at high risk of financial instability because of its continual overspending, poor budgeting practices, and lack of a comprehensive plan to address its financial challenges, all of which threaten the future provision of city services.

To pay its bills on time, the City issues Tax Revenue Anticipation Notes (“TRANs”), short-term loans that serve a bit like a payday loan (with “payday” being the October and April property tax collection dates). Until the borrowed money is spent, it is held in the State of California’s Local Agency Investment Fund (“LAIF”), a low-cost, low-risk, investment account managed by the State’s Treasurer’s Office. Although the Treasurer’s Office is committed to socially responsible investing and does not directly invest the LAIF in either fossil fuels or tobacco, FAB members wanted to be absolutely certain that holding funds in the LAIF would not violate the City’s investment policy. That concern is addressed by the fourth bullet of the “Responsible Investing” clause exempting investments in the LAIF.

The City’s Finance Director Mark Rasiah, who attends but is not a voting member of FAB, strongly opposed the recommendation, falsely asserting it would cost the City between $40,000-$50,000 to implement. FAB Chairperson Dick Patterson was the lone “no” vote, expressing his belief that fossil fuel companies are leaders in the pursuit for renewable energy and that El Cerrito’s investment policy would do nothing to alter the behavior of individuals who are the end users of fossil fuels and ultimately responsible. While Finance Director Rasiah acknowledged his responsibility to present FAB’s recommendation to the City Council for review, he also made it clear that he would likely recommend that the responsible investing clause not be approved.

Initially, I was not terribly concerned about the Finance Director’s opposition. The proposed SRI addition is so well-researched, clearly and simply stated, common among municipalities, and unencumbering that it was hard to imagine City Council members voting against it when they met next on October 5th. What I did not anticipate is that FAB’s recommendation would simply be left off the City Council meeting agenda.

I ask for your help now in getting City Council approval of the above “3.6 Responsible Investing” guidelines. Please email El Cerrito’s city clerk, mayor and councilmembers and ask that the FAB-recommended “3.6 Responsible Investing” guidelines be added to the City Council’s agenda and approved as an addition to the City’s investment policy. Importantly, please include “Public Comments” in the subject line of your email (for example, “Public Comments – Responsible Investing”). Following the City’s “no less than 72 hours in advance” public notification policy, the agenda for the Tuesday, October 19th City Council meeting will be set on Thursday, October 14th. Public comment emails received by 4:00 pm Tuesday, October 19th (three hours before the 7:00 pm City Council meeting) will be included in the meeting packet. 

Mayor Paul Fadelli – pfadelli@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us

Mayor Pro Tem Gabe Quinto – gquinto@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us

Councilmember Lisa Motoyama – lmotoyama@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us

Councilmember Tessa Rudnick – trudnick@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us

Councilmember Janet Abelson – jabelson@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us

City Clerk Holly Charléty – cityclerk@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us

Lastly, please join the upcoming Tuesday, October 19th City Council meeting via Zoom and provide public comments in support of the proposed responsible investing guidelines. The Zoom link for City Council meetings changes with each meeting and can be difficult to find, but eventually it will be posted at the top of the meeting agenda and buried among the links at http://www.el-cerrito.org/114/City-Council-Meetings and http://www.el-cerrito.org/482/Council-Meeting-Videos-Materials.

Thank you.

William Ktsanes
(Guest Contributor)

City Council Congratulates themselves for doing nothing

There was a council meeting last night. The finance reports were buried until the end as per usual. The good news is we ended the year with 1.3 million on the books. Some will say we had a surplus of over 2 million but over one million of that had to be written off due to losing a lawsuit. The actual fund balance number is the one that counts and that is 1.3 million. The Council congratulated themselves and the staff.

The transfer tax received was OVER estimates by 1.7 million. The entire surplus was created by an unsustainably strong housing market. If that had not happened we would have been in the red once again. But yes let’s congratulate the staff on that.

The state auditor updated their dashboard. El Cerrito remains the #6 worst city in the state financially but our overall points declined from 36.32 to 35.76 out of 100. 

If you dig deeper into the El Cerrito numbers you will see nothing positive and the pension issues are horrific. We are the worst city in the state for future pension costs.

If you look at the required contributions (above) for 27/28 versus the budget you will see that 20% of the budget would be utilized for that.

If you compare the prior year to this year you will see

2020 Actuarially Determined Pension Contributions $7,194,477

2019 Actuarially Determined Pension Contributions $6,351,717

2020 Accrued Pension Liabilities $214,921,896

2019 Accrued Pension Liabilities $203,153,960

El Cerrito does not acknowledge the fiscal trouble we are still in. Instead the public got to listen to another diatribe from Council Person Quinto who said that those not supportive of the route the city is taking are liars, mean-spirited and partisan. (at 3:56 in the meeting video). He focused on staff costs and insists they are not to high and the public needs to look at Betty Yee’s website for proof. Regardless of whether the city staff is overpaid or not the city is still in terrible financial shape and Council Person Quinto and the Finance Director instead of addressing this use every opportunity to portray those disagreeing as horrible people. It is tone policing at its finest. Say something critical about the Council or Staff and be told you are making personal attacks.

I ask Council Person Quinto if we are liars why do the State Auditor’s reports bear us out?

I ask the other Council Members why they continue to allow Quinto’s attacks to go without comment? He gets to say whatever he wants as his free speech right but is attacking the public the route to take? Silence implies agreement.

Council Person Motoyama joined in the praise but also said there needed to be sustainable changes and we needed to see the 5-10 year projections. Remember the last attempt at that? I do. It showed us with no adequate reserve quickly. Make no mistake without the federal bailout we would be in grave danger right now.

Next week will be another performative meeting where Management Partners makes the suggestions they are told to make by city management. It is a follow-up to the town hall a few months back. It is August 31st at 4 pm. Seems to me not a great time to be accessible to the working public.

Just a reminder 2022 is coming fast. Two seats will be up for election then. That includes Council Person Quinto’s seat. That man who calls the public liars. This is our opportunity to change the membership of the council to gain a third vote for fiscal responsibility. If you are thinking of running I encourage you to do so!

Will El Cerrito ever address the state auditor recommendations?

After passing a budget with no real cuts (except to seniors) in June the City Council will only meet once a month in July, August, and September (as per usual) because there is not hurry when you are on the verge of bankruptcy.

While Albany City Staff are preparing recommendations on how to spend the federal money (ARPA) our city staff continues to prepare budget documents that tell us nothing. Today’s post is going to focus on issues that state auditor brought up. I did a public records request to the state auditors office for the documents supporting their recommendations. Because after the report was released we heard the City Manager and Finance Director say that the auditors were wrong on many things. I wanted to see the source documentation. It is exhausting to continually be gaslighted about these things when the facts support our conclusions.

In no particular order here are issues the State Auditor brought up and the City denied.

  1. Cost of the TRAN Loans

This one actually made me laugh. Because I have heard the Finance Director deny the costs multiple times. When I got the state audit paperwork they based it on the City’s own accounting system reports. So one could speculate either the Finance Director is being deliberately deceptive or he doesn’t know what is going on. I am attaching the document here. Some parts were redacted by the State.

2. The City is not following The Government Finance Officer Association (GFAO) guidelines

The State Auditor stated that the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) provides a framework for “Recommended Budget Practices” . This framework states that “A good budget process is characterized by several essential features including:
· Incorporates a long-term perspective,
· Focuses budget decisions on results and outcomes,
· Involves and promotes effective communication with stakeholders”

They added “The GFOA also recommends that budget documents should contain a financial overview (consisting of financial statements and accompanying narrative, charts, and graphics) which includes comparisons of prior period actual results, current period budget and/or estimated actual results and budget period projected figures. The rationale for this recommendation is that stakeholders need to have the financial plan of the government clearly identified in order to make the best budgetary decisions. (p.65)
Even further, the GFOA explicitly recommends that a government should prepare a summary of both the proposed and final budget as most stakeholders do not want to take the time to read and understand the details of a budget. A concise summary of key issues, choices, and financial trends is therefore needed to inform and direct the reader to the appropriate location for additional information. (p.68)”

Take a look at the budget documents. This is not at all the process or product we are seeing. There is no real 5-year plan. Stakeholders are not only not involved but criticized for speaking up. There are no comparisons to prior years.

Here is a document with more of what the state auditor specifically saw.

In addition, you can look at the prior Finance Director’s report for mid-year 2016 below. While not stellar it does break things down. She left a few months later and Mark Rasiah took the job. 2016/2017 after he took over is when the city started its big downslide. Though in fairness to Mr. Rasiah decisions made back as far as 2008 have affected things.

3. The City’s salaries are high in comparison to other cities.

The State Auditor used Richmond, Alameda, Pinole, Hayward, and Albany. They used these cities in our area and as cities that El Cerrito has also used to create comparisons from (though EC likes to throw in cities like Walnut Creek also).

Below is their analysis and a few of their supplemental documents (there were many-they spent some serious time on this issue). The highest discrepancies were with fire battalion chiefs and some police positions.

“The auditor identified 15 key positions in management and public safety which command high salaries and are commonly found in California cities.

Based on the auditor’s analysis of salary data, the auditor identified that El Cerrito’s firefighters have base salaries that are about 6% higher than the average of our comparison cities, respectively Additionally, the city’s fire engineers have a top salary that is about 2.5% higher than the average of our comparison cities. Based on the auditor’s analysis of salary data, the auditor identified that El Cerrito’s battalion chiefs salaries are approximately 1 to 11 percent higher than the average of similar positions at other agencies. Based on the auditor’s analysis of salary data, the auditor identified that the higher amounts that El Cerrito’s firefighters earn total to about $55,000 annually. We determined that most of El Cerrito’s base salaries are comparable to those of the comparison cities.

The auditor analyzed El Cerrito’s 2020-21 personnel budget and identified eight individuals whose salaries currently exceed the city’s control point before factoring in furlough days that two of those employees have. The auditor estimated that the total annual cost of these salaries is approximately $123,000.”

Here are a few of the supplemental documents that were used to support this conclusion.

Control Points shows which city staff are getting paid above the steps designated.

Comparison Data looks at our salaries compared with the cities named above.

So what do we do? We keep on keeping on. We must keep the pressure on. The City Council has not been able to shift the direction of the City Manager and Finance Director. While the newer Council Members ask many tough questions and even voted against the budget it is not enough. In 2022 there will be an election with two seats up. One incumbent Gabe Quinto is expected to run and one Janet Abelson is not. We need to get both of those seats filled with council members that believe in transparency and addressing the budget. However, if/until we can get our change on the City Council we need to keep the pressure on. I firmly believe that if the public did not uprise about the budget we would be in even worse condition.

Things we want to see

  1. An ordinance to FORCE the city to have a reasonable reserve and spend it only in specific circumstances. This is something that has received huge resistance from the City Manager. However, the City Council and City Manager cannot be trusted to do this themselves. If they don’t want to do it we will be organizing a citizen-driven petition to do so. With about 2,500 signatures we can force the City Council to either accept the ordinance we will then write or they will have to call a special election. Obviously, we would prefer that City Council would direct the Financial Advisory Board to do this. But if they won’t we will go the petition/special election route. This is too important. It must be done.
  2. A Five-Year Budget.
  3. A review of everything we spend and the costs. Everything needs to be looked at even our favorites. The Swim Center, Public Safety, City Recycling (we provide our own trucks rather than outsource like other cities). What can we afford and what can we not afford? What are the trade-offs? What does the public think is most important? This discussion needs to start very soon. Put one topic on the agenda every month and do a deeper dive.
  4. Address our pension costs. The City’s own reports show this is quickly getting out of control. We may need to look at different formats for pensions moving forwards (we can’t change past contracts). We also need to follow through on funding the 115 plan to start putting aside money for pension costs. We made some preliminary moves on this but it needs to be funded.
  5. We need to spend the ARPA funds and do it correctly. Look above at what the Albany Staff recommends. We have outdated fire equipment. We are not prepared for an emergency. There are ways to spend that money responsibly rather than just using it to delay making other cuts.