This is the last blog in a six part series about Glendale’s debt. In previous blogs we explored the different kinds of debt, how those debts are paid and the purposes for which each debt was created. Some debt such as Enterprise Fund debt, Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) debt, Transportation debt and a portion of the General Obligation (G.O.) debt are reasonable debt. A portion of the G.O debt could be characterized as imprudent and unnecessary debt. The Municipal Property Corporation debt, in hindsight, is unnecessary debt created to fulfill the commonly held vision of former Mayor Scruggs and former City Manager Beasley.
The purpose of this exercise is to manage Glendale’s debt by paying it down or eliminating portions of it. Very simply the city’s expenses are greater than its revenues. The result has been to strip the city bare and reduce services to its residents (such as reduced library days and hours) because the debt is absorbing revenues that could be used for other purposes. When a mistake is made it is better to accept accountability, rectify it and move on. A city is required to do the same.
A simple example might be that you decide you want a new car. You don’t need a new car. The old one is fine but you have decided you must have a new car. You buy a Tesla (extravagantly expensive) just because you want it. However, to make the payments you cut back on food, utility expenses and other necessities. You end up eating beans and rice every day, live without air conditioning and stop using doctors but, by God, you have the car of your dreams. You may be comfortable with your decision but the rest of your family may not be so happy especially if they are not allowed to weigh in on its purchase. One day your child is ill and the family learns that you stopped making medical insurance payments. If it is a decision that affects only you, fine, but it’s not right to obfuscate when that decision affects others without their buy-in. In Glendale’s case it is the residents of the city many of whom are not fine with past decisions that incurred tremendous debt and have resulted in a diminishment of their services.
By September of 2003, former City Manager Dr. Martin Vanacour had resigned (that’s a whole ‘nuther story) and Ed Beasley had been appointed by City Council. Make no mistake, Fiscal Year 2003 was Vanacour’s budget and Beasley never attributed its success to Dr. Vanacour’s management.
I hope Dr. Vanacour will not take offense if I refer to him as Marty. I respected and admired Marty a great deal. He was and still is, highly respected by his peers. Marty was an excellent city manager and was also fiscally conservative. I genuinely liked Marty. He was approachable and respected confidences. Sometimes he reminded me of a Buddha or sphinx as he would sit stoically, listening to my latest series of questions, comments or rants.
There were a few, alas an important few, who wanted new management. They wanted someone who would lead Glendale into becoming the “new” Glendale acknowledged by all as THE Sports and Entertainment city. That someone chosen to be the new City Manager was Ed Beasley. Between 2003 and 2009, on former Mayor Scruggs’ and former City Manager Beasley’s watch all of the current MPC debt was incurred.
The MPC debt is killing Glendale financially. This debt is paid out of Glendale’s General Fund because MPC debt is paid from sales taxes. Sales tax monies are received and accounted for within the General Fund. It should be the prime imperative for the city council to reduce or remove MPC debt by any means possible as quickly as possible. The elimination of MPC debt frees up General Fund money for other purposes such as restoration of library hours or other basic services Glendale provides to its residents.
What does Glendale do now? It must use a combination of strategies that will bring Glendale’s expenses in line with its revenues eliminating the need to extend the temporary sales tax increase beyond its 2017 sunset date.
STRATEGY #1: Implementation of the sale of Glendale’s assets. I am pleased to see that Glendale staff has finally drawn up such a list and presented it to council at the workshop on May 20, 2014. Staff acknowledged that they omitted the two city owned golf courses: Desert Mirage and Glen Lakes and that they belong on the list. Here is a link to Glendale’s current assets: http://www.glendaleaz.com/Clerk/agendasandminutes/Workshops/Agendas/052014-W02.pdf.
Executive Director of Finance, Tom Duensing, said recently, “Selling city property is just ‘one-time money’.” I beg to differ. Not in all cases. If a city facility’s O&M is being subsidized by General Fund revenues or if it still has construction debt then the city gains in two ways. It brings in much needed one-time cash that can be used to pay down or off the construction debt but it also eliminates an on-going General Fund expense.
A case in point is the Civic Center. The Civic Center was built as Pay-As-You-Go with cash from the General Fund. It has no construction debt. Did you know that since it opened the city has subsidized its operation and maintenance in some form or fashion? There was even a period of years when all city departments were required to hold all of their events at the Civic Center. It was a way to subsidize the Civic Center without being readily transparent since department event expenses are a line item in a department’s budget and there is no explanation regarding those payments.
No matter what is suggested as an asset to be sold someone’s ox will be gored. There are so many stakeholders each supports a different city asset. It will be a painful experience for everyone. However, there’s either a will to finally fix this problem or not.
What should be sold? My list will be different from yours. I welcome all comments to this blog that argue for or against the sale of a particular asset. My list would include, but not be limited to, in the downtown area, the Civic Center, the downtown parking garage, the Bank of America building, the Sine building, the Thunderbird Lounge property, the Civic Center Annex, the St. Vincent De Paul property and the city court property. In north Glendale, I would sell the Foothills Recreation & Aquatic Center. In west Glendale the city should sell Jobing.com Arena, the Media Center and Parking garage, and the Convention Center. If a legal way can be found to sell Camelback Ranch, that would be on the list as well.
STRATEGY #2: No employee raises until the General Fund has enough of a surplus to accommodate it. The current City Manager Brenda Fischer has complained that there is a 17% turnover rate of employees in Glendale but she never compared that figure to other Valley cities. In this economy people are thankful to have a job and we should know what vacancies currently exist, how many people apply and how long does it take to fill a vacancy? In other words, more information than the public has received to date. In police and fire there are always tons of people who apply.
STRATEGY #3: While we are on the subject of vacancies, it should be standard practice to eliminate all unfilled vacancies each budget cycle. This is an accounting trick that has been used for years. It has always been a fist-fight to get staff to remove unfilled vacancies once and for all.
STRATEGY #4: All departments would be required to live within their annual budget appropriation, with no exceptions. No more fire department requests for additional money to cover overtime. Council should require (not request yet another study that goes nowhere) the fire department to move immediately to implement 3 man staffing on trucks and to implement the use of small, 2 man vehicles to answer medical calls.
STRATEGY #5: No carry-over requests from year to year with one exception. A project currently under construction but not completed within the year should be allowed carry-over to complete the project. If it is a project not yet begun it should have to compete for the appropriation the next fiscal year.
STRATEGY #6: Each department’s “Professional & Contractual Expense” must only be used for specific essential expenses. Only a specialty’s required licensing and organization membership should be permitted. The city’s payment for publications should be eliminated. The city’s policy on car allowances and cell phone use should be reviewed and the usage monitored carefully monthly.
STRATEGY #7: Council’s will to live within its means must be implemented as well. A majority of council possesses the prevalent attitude that it can approve new expenses and somehow the staff will find a way to cover them.
This is a time in Glendale’s history that calls for austerity. Austerity begins with the policy makers. If they cannot demonstrate their willingness to practice what they preach it sends the wrong signal to the entire organization. Signals emanate from Glendale regularly and are usually just as clearly understood as the white smoke that signals the choosing of a new Roman Catholic Pope. One clear signal that we all have seen is that Glendale will not stop spending. It makes one think of the people who declares bankruptcy but not before maxing out every credit card they possess. They “get their stuff” and use it before the court steps in to stop them. Sadly the creditors end up getting mere pennies on the dollar when that inevitable day comes careening down the tracks. I hear warning sirens in the distance…
© Joyce Clark,
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