Thursday, August 29, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Brett Landon sees $30 million coming from nowhere after his Measure 0 guts the Salinas city budget.
Brett Landon shuffled in to the Salinas City Hall Rotunda nearly an hour late on Aug. 20, wearing his signature denim shorts and button-down checkered shirt. Landon, who was making a promised appearance to present his proposals for cutting the Salinas city budget, missed the police chief''s presentation. He tried to slink in quietly. But instead he noisily dropped a mountain of paperwork all over the floor.
The council and city staff had been eagerly awaiting this meeting. At it, Landon and Mark Dierolf, the main proponents of a ballot measure to cut Salinas'' utility tax, had promised to show how local government could keep all its employees and even add additional city-funded programs and services while saving taxpayers $8 million.
Dierolf wasn''t at the meeting. He''s been notably absent from City Hall since getting the tax repeal, called Measure O, on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Landon was one of only two or three Measure O proponents at the meeting.
Landon''s a card-carrying member of the conservative watchdog group City Watch, as well as a perennial city council candidate. He''s also Dierolf''s number cruncher. Landon says he''s very familiar with Salinas'' financial needs. His revenue projections suggest otherwise.
Prior to this long-awaited meeting, Landon and Dierolf had repeatedly stated that their post-tax-repeal budgets would merely "trim the fat" from city government and would not cut rank-and-file employees or any city services.
"I promised you a month ago: four different plans," he said as he presented his report to the council. "No cuts in service, no program losses and also additional revenue."
The report begins with three pages of anti-city government rants.
"This tax has fueled inefficient and wasteful spending practices that will never end unless the city is given an incentive, like this tax relief initiative," it reads. "The truth is, their threats to ''cut'' services are not serious, only political ... Whenever someone proposes a reduction of a tax in the growth of a government bureaucracy, bureaucrats squeal and threaten to cut, slash, and burn vital city services instead of listening."
And the numbers don''t add up. Landon''s report says the city has $94,660,500 to work with. The city''s General Fund budget is actually around $64 million.
Sales taxes, one of Salinas'' top sources of revenue, have grown by just over 7 percent growth over the past 10 years; one of Landon''s charts projects 10 percent growth over the next four years. Landon''s budgets also show extremely optimistic projections for property tax and motor vehicles fees-the city''s other major sources of income.
Landon insists his numbers are correct, and the city''s numbers are off target.
"We use history to come up with our numbers," he says. "We have no idea what the city uses."
Landon''s plans include a 30-month salary freeze for all city employees, reduce overtime pay, and cut raises and benefits for top-paid officials. They also eliminate the positions of assistant city manager and city permit services director, along with six other high-level jobs.
"One of the four plans includes a wage freeze," Landon says. "Yes, that''s an option."
He''s maintains it''s better than the city''s planned cuts.
"It''s a better option that if we had to terminate a whole bunch of employees. The city''s plan is dangerous."
However, some of Landon''s proposals are illegal, or at best won''t pass muster in the courts. He recommends transferring money from other city funds to the general fund, running the city budget at a deficit, and entering into "good faith" labor negotiations with an employee wage freeze already in effect.
"It''s a financial time bomb," says Salinas City Manager Dave Mora.
Landon admits that some of his budget alternatives require union consent.
"That''s why we have four different plans. We think they''re reasonable cuts given the situation."
Because city staff did not receive Landon''s plans prior to the Aug. 20 meeting, Landon''s report to the council was postponed. He''s slated to give an in-depth report on his four budget alternatives at the Aug. 27 council meeting, after the Weekly''s deadline.
S.O.S. (Save Our Services) group members-who have pledged to raise $100,000 to fight the utility tax repeal-dismissed the report out of hand.
"The math is flawed," says Dennis Donohue, general manager for European Vegetable Specialties Farms and S.O.S. member. "It basically has some very aggressive revenue assumptions. And they propose things like employee givebacks, things that would have to be negotiated.
"Landon''s run for mayor twice and city council a couple of times. This guy''s lost four times for a reason, not the least of which is his math is no good. His lack of understanding of city services is deplorable. I think it''s the height of arrogance to lose four times and still want to be king of the forest."
Landon says the city continues to lowball its tax income, although actual revenue growths for the last 10 years shows Landon''s numbers are, indeed, overblown.
And as to his repeated defeats at the ballot box: "There''s no sour grapes here," he says. "I have very thick skin. These sorts of things just bounce off of me. I could have run for office this time if I was such a disgruntled person. Last time I had over 10,000 votes-that''s not a nothing person running."
Landon''s alternate budgets don''t live up to their promises, says Councilmem-ber Jyl Lutes.
"It makes no sense," Lutes says. "I''m looking though it saying ''Where''s the meat here?'' It''s like voodoo economics. You just don''t cut $8 million out of the budget and then say I''m going to add $1 million in services. The whole overtime issue really points to the fact that the city is already operating on a lean budget."
In fact, Mora says, 95 percent of the overtime pay goes to public safety.
"The use of overtime in police and fire puts people in the field," Mora says. "If you look at this reduction, it''s going to take the equivalent of five police officers off of the streets." Landon also suggests axing three school resource officers. That means eight less policemen and women on the street, Mora says. "This is a reduction in police safety in Salinas."
Adds Donohue: "This is a full-scale, frontal assault on pubic safety. That''s not even disguised. And there isn''t a police person or a fire person who can''t get another job tomorrow. Those services are in demand.
"What these guys [Landon and Dierolf] fail to understand is there is a marketplace. When it comes to police and fire, these things are real. When we ask these officers to put their lives on the line, you''ve got to have a lot of gall to ask them to do it on the cheap."
Don Nucci, who owns Mann Packing, a Salinas growing and shipping company, is one of the S.O.S. members who shows up for all the public meetings and walks door to door as part of the "No on O" campaign.
He also one of those big-business owners who pays the maximum utility tax allowed-$2,000 per electric meter. Nucci has three meters, totaling $6,000. He says he''d pay more to keep the existing level of services.
"[Landon''s] initial statement, that the city would reap $20 million in savings and actually provide more services-that doesn''t wash," Nucci says. "They assume the city is doing everything wrong, and that''s just not the case. The city government is lean, and they''re already stretched to provide the services they do-we''ve got one of the lower per capita [budgets] in the county. And for the life of me, I can''t see how taking $8 million out of our revenue can help."