When asked about the unavailability of City Council minutes a month or so ago, it was surprising to hear City Manager Cathy Capriola report that the city was more than six months behind in posting meeting minutes, and had hired a private contractor at $125 an hour to catch up. Taking and generating minutes has always been a task ordinarily performed by the City Clerk, even in the pre-computer era; for a while, anyway, it looks like it’s been privatized.
In some respects the minutes troubles may be a reflection of past city management and are now being rectified by a new regime, or it may be the trend of the future. Pressure for privatization is related to calls for smaller government, and controlling its growing cost. That cost keeps rising every year, even with a lean staff, but solving this situation is complex.
Labor agreements, both past and present, insure that our city employees know what they can expect as compensation and benefits. Depending upon the “class” of employee, salaries and benefits vary. In comparing various cities’ municipal budgets and public information, Sonoma’s senior management is very well paid–given the city’s population and number of employees–while compensation for its lower-paid staff compares poorly. Notably, at a recent City Council meeting, a group of lower-paid staff appeared en masse, and during public comment asked the City Council for more money; a significant number of them would qualify for affordable housing.
City employee pensions are often fingered as the primary fiscal problem of the city, yet this is a situation that’s been brewing for many decades. The city did create an alternative, lower-cost pension plan for newer employees some years back, but that has no effect on pensioned employees who have been with the city for, in some cases, over 25 years, and who upon retirement will receive 90 percent of their highest yearly salary every year for the rest of their lives.
If tightening the budget is actually a priority, it may be time to look at offering early retirement programs; private businesses do this all the time. A more frequent changing of the guard and hiring younger staff at lower pay grades may save money as well.
Privatizing government is a lousy solution. While on paper having work performed by contract employees allows the city to avoid paying benefits, it further removes a sense of accountability to the community from local government. As it is, fewer than 50 percent of the city’s employees presently live within the City of Sonoma.
Grappling with the cost of government, including safety personnel and pension liability is not easy. Are growing city revenues keeping up with the costs of governance? Changed budget formats, city contracts and a general absence of clarity in city financial information make it nearly impossible for the public to easily determine the answer to this essential question, and this despite the ease of computing and internet access.
All this inclines us to worry; city government regularly complains it is short of funds, yet the considerable wealth in the community keeps increasing. Tourism has been strong, the Transit Occupancy Tax (on hotel rooms) is growing, but it never seems enough. We wonder, over time will the growing cost of government gobble up every dime we’ve got?
Sun Editorial Board