To members of the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District governing board I say: Well played.
Whether we like it or not, the cost of doing business tends to rise over time. The trick for local governments is to keep those rising costs in check to the greatest extent possible.
In the case of the sewer district, rate increases are likely justified to bank the millions of dollars it will cost to repair and replace big-ticket items as they age and ultimately fail. Better to pay as much of those costs as possible with available cash, rather than incur greater debt, which in turn would drive up rates. I say this as a Fairfield resident and ratepayer.
Where the sewer board failed the community isn’t with the rate increase that kicked in July 1, but with the board’s unwillingness to take the action its own members suggested within the past year to rein in costs in other areas.
First, some background.
This is a board whose members opted twice in 2012 to forgo rate hikes pitched by staff. Some called for a review of district operations to ensure, among other potential outcomes, that public-sector sewer district employees were not overpaid or the beneficiaries of better benefits than their public-sector counterparts in Fairfield and Suisun City.
Conference travel by sewer district board members became a thorny issue for the board. From 2010 through 2012, nine sewer district board members attended at least some of the conferences in Palm Desert, Napa, San Diego, Sacramento, Newport Beach, Monterey and Washington, D.C., for a total cost of nearly $100,000. Seven board members went to the 2011 Palm Desert conference. Five went to the 2012 Palm Desert conference. Six went to the 2011 San Diego conference.
A move to limit board conference travel to posh California destinations failed to gain traction, in spite of public criticism and a critical assessment by the Solano County grand jury. The board’s final concession, taken Monday and in response to the grand jury? The board agreed to develop a policy to require written conference reports.
That should have been happening already.
Board members and district staff throughout the months-long discussion of conference travel have cited the importance of these regular excursions. They have said board members must remain current on such things as technological and legal developments in the realm of sewer district operations in California. These conferences provide that knowledge, they have said.
So why wasn’t that critical knowledge being shared?
I suspect there’s truth to the argument in favor of conference travel. I also suspect that a requirement that board members pay strict attention and take notes that are sufficient enough to base written reports on may sound too much like work during these working vacations. I use the term “working vacations” because on the one hand our elected city council members are there on our behalf, serving as our representatives to the local sewer district board; while on the other they are drinking in the lifestyle of high-end resort living that many of us could not afford on such a regular basis.
Who wants to take and review notes or pen a report when the poolside lounge or golf course beckons? The trip’s bought and paid for anyway – by ratepayers, I hasten to add – so why not drink it all in?
We need not worry about our elected leaders missing out on this valuable education, even as the grand jury was preparing its critical report and the public was starting to feel the pinch of various tax increases passed in November at both the local and state levels. That’s because our interests were well-represented in January at the California Association of Sanitation Agencies’ three-day conference the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, near Palm Spring in Southern California.
Fairfield Mayor Harry Price, Suisun City Mayor Pete Sanchez and Suisun City Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Hudson broke away from their daily responsibilities to suffer the harsh environs of Indian Wells in winter.
The Renaissance Esmeralda’s website describes a stay there as “a journey, an adventure, a place of magic where a lifetime of memories can be made in a single day.” Wow! That sounds like a nice destination for those who want a break from the East Bay’s winter weather. To Mayors Price and Sanchez, and to Mayor Pro-Tem Hudson, who I’m sure each enjoyed that little vacation, – I mean endured that business trip – I say, you’re welcome – I mean, thank you for your sacrifice.
Sanchez and Hudson were joined in April by Suisun City Councilwoman Lori Wilson for CASA’s three-day spring conference at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa, which according to its website promises “unparalleled beauty and relaxing luxury.” Spring break, anyone?
To their credit, each reported on the conferences during subsequent board meetings.
This board of Suisun City and Fairfield council members is savvy in the ways of the world. How does a board maintain the perks of the job during tough economic times while mitigating pushback from public employees who want more money and better perks? Simple: Give those public employees a raise.
In this case, it was a 2.2 percent raise and only minor tinkering to other benefits. Board members also will keep their supplemental health insurance coverage, paid for as well by ratepayers. All that in spite of the grand show made by board members just last year to get their economic house in order before imposing greater costs on area residents.
Well played. The game of politics and the fleecing of the public is alive and well in Fairfield and Suisun City.
Reach Managing Editor Glen Faison at 427-6925 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GlenFaison.