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City leaders should not dismiss Grand Jury’s findings

Posted: Monday, Jan 14th, 2013

A few years ago the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury issued an unflattering report on the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, to which the district responded with objections and denial. The result of that was another Grand Jury report on the school district the following year, to which the district responded with a much higher level of civility and appreciation for the Grand Jury’s effort. Affairs have been peaceful between the two since then.

It’s too bad the city of Watsonville failed to learn from that example. In 2011, City Manager Carlos Palacios and then-Mayor Daniel Dodge reacted to a critical Grand Jury report with virtually carbon copy responses, denying and even belittling the report’s findings. Another investigation came the following year. And more recently an audit of city finances commissioned by the Grand Jury received a similar tag-team smack down by Palacios and current Mayor Lowell Hurst.

Hurst bemoaned the $88,000 cost of the audit in county funds, saying it was money that could have been better spent on health and human services. If he’s so frugal with taxpayer money then I assume he’s equally upset with the thousands of dollars provided annually as a perk to the city manager and some of his aides in vehicle allowances, or the huge amount consumed by Assemblyman Luis Alejo in his efforts as mayor to rename the Plaza after Dolores Huerta and provide him the ability to vote for his own replacement on the City Council. If so, he’s never mentioned it. 

Regarding the report’s finding that financial information isn’t properly summarized by staff for easy review by the City Council, Hurst trivialized it with the sarcastic description of “earth-shattering.” That could be expected, however, considering how he rebuked fellow council member Nancy Bilicich in the past for making the same complaint of not receiving financial reports far enough ahead of time and in a sufficiently readable format for proper study before meetings.

Palacios objected to the report’s choice of cities for comparison to Watsonville’s performance. The list included Santa Cruz, Salinas, Gilroy and some Central Valley cities, so what towns would he prefer for a more favorable comparison ... perhaps communities in Somalia, Haiti or other unhappy corner of the world? His objection contrasts sharply with past efforts to justify pay scales or utility rate hikes by comparing ours to those in larger and more affluent communities. 

Palacios went on to defend the city’s deficit spending by brandishing the threat of cutting police, as though that’s the first budget item he would slash. That ignores the California State Constitution, Section 35 (a) (2):  “The protection of the public safety is the first responsibility of local government and local officials have an obligation to give priority to the provision of adequate public safety services.” So leave the police and fire departments alone until all other budget items have been considered for reduction. You know ... like those vehicle allowances.

Considering our current financial plight, it’s not surprising the city will be hiking utility rates in stages for the next few years, though it’s claimed that’s being done only because of aging pipes. In a 1998 column I complained of utility bills rising over 100 percent in the previous seven years; and unlike taxes requiring voter approval, the utility rate increases only needed a majority vote of the city council.

Cynic that I am, I also pondered if some of the utility funds might be spilling from their Enterprise Fund budget into General Fund expenditures. A city web page budget summary shows water, sewage and garbage fees of about $22 million for fiscal year 2011-2012 are projected to increase by another million dollars next year, so perhaps the path to fiscal solvency leads through our plumbing and trash barrels. 

I’ve noticed some of our better city employees have been lost to us recently to retirement or by taking a job in another community, and I hope that’s not due to them seeing the writing on the Civic Plaza wall and jumping ship. I also noticed a coordinated effort by other council members to appoint Hurst mayor, and worry they might have also seen the writing, and don’t want to damage their future ambitions by being at the wheel of the ship when it hits the rocks. 

Just to be safe side, perhaps the city should transfer a life jacket from the Pinto Lake boathouse to the mayor’s office.


Steve Bankhead is a resident of Watsonville and a frequent contributor to the Register-Pajaronian. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Register-Pajaronian.

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