In government-speak, “misunderstanding” is code for “exposed expediency.”
Fresno on Tuesday learned that a little “misunderstanding” involving either fuzzy bureaucratic thinking or willful bureaucratic obfuscation is almost certainly going to cost taxpayers a big chunk of change.
The issue involves the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its contract to provide animal control services to the city.
Let’s begin with some context.
Animal control is City Hall’s responsibility. The city outsources the job to the SPCA. The animal control challenges in Fresno are immense; many Fresnans treat animals in an irresponsible manner. Animal control is expensive and labor-intensive. The SPCA, city officials and animal activists for years have locked horns over money and policy.
The administration of Mayor Lee Brand on May 10 pitched a deal to City Council. The SPCA contract would end on June 30. The two sides had been negotiating a new contract, but without success. With time running out, the Administration said, both sides had agreed to an “as is” extension of the existing contract. The extension would be for one year. Negotiations and animal control services would continue.
“As is” means just what it says – everything stays the same throughout the 12 months. The annual cost ($3.8 million) would be the same. The level of services provided by the SPCA would be the same.
The Administration’s proposal was on the consent calendar. No council member pulled the item for more discussion. The proposal passed on a 6-1 vote, with Council Member Clint Olivier the lone dissenter.
Then came the June 11 budget hearing for the General City Purpose budget. This budget includes the SPCA contract. A staff member gave a brief review of the budget. At its conclusion, City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter spoke.
Here’s where we come to the “misunderstanding.”
“If I may,” Quan-Schecter said to Council President Esmeralda Soria, “I’d like to jump in just to bring the council’s attention to something. It seems that there was a misunderstanding with SPCA.
“We brought to you on May 10 the extension of the SPCA contract that goes until June 30, 2019. SPCA, like they do at the beginning of every year, they give us their budget requests. We receive those. We talked to them about extending their contract ‘as is’ while we look at a comprehensive plan to reduce our animal control costs, whether it be a spay and neuter policy or what have you.
“SPCA agreed to the ‘as is’ extension. Linda Van Kirk (SPCA executive director) is in the audience along with our deputy city manager, Laura Gloria, and (they) agreed to the ‘as is’ extension. We brought it to you on May 10. You approved it. We have a fully executed extension.
“SPCA brought it to our attention a couple of weeks ago that they still need an increase of their contract up to $213,000 for minimum wage increases. So, at this point, I would actually recommend that council make a motion to have staff go back and look through the budget to see where we could find up to $213,000.We will come back on Tuesday, the 19th, with a recommendation for that.
“Otherwise, SPCA, and Linda can speak to this, they are going to have to reduce service levels.
“So, in order to maintain current levels, they need up to $213,000. We will be asking them, if council does support this and we do find the $213,000, we will be asking them monthly to show us what their minimum wage increases are. That’s why I’m saying up to $213,000 – because we need to look at their staffing, their total staffing plans, minimum wage increases and how it goes across the board.
“So, I just wanted to bring that to your attention before we tackle this budget.”
The council did as requested. The matter will return to the council later this month. Only Olivier, long a critic of SPCA policy, smelled a rat. But he focused his wrath during the debate less on the $213,000 and more on SPCA’s continued refusal to give City Hall some representation of the SPCA governing board.
The $213,000 strikes me a perfect example of what has become, unfortunately, a dysfunctional City Hall-SPCA relationship. Transparency is among the victims.
How is it possible for all the budget and policy experts at City Hall and the SPCA to produce a $213,000 “misunderstanding” of the kind that Quan-Schecter described?
Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016 signed a law that will boost California’s minimum wage in annual steps to $15/hour by Jan. 1, 2022 (26 or more employees) or Jan. 1, 2023 (25 or fewer employees – source: GovDocs.com). The SPCA has more than 25 employees.
The current minimum wage for larger entities is $11. The wage will rise to $12 in January.
This is no mystery to anyone charged with managing the balance between budgets and service levels. Take, for example, Fresno City Hall and Brand’s proposed FY 2018-19 budget. The Parks Department budget notes that personnel services is expected to spend $9.38 million in 2018-19, a hike of $363,600 from the previous year.
The Parks budget states: “The increase primarily corresponds to negotiated salary concessions, and step advancements in addition to: $278,000 towards temporary staff, including minimum wage increases expected to take effect January 1, 2019, in order to provide current service level needs across the many programs offered by the Department to the Citizens of Fresno….”
City officials clearly understand the need for more money if the minimum wage law is to be obeyed and service levels are to remain the same.
I read the May 10 two-page staff report (from Quan-Schecter and Gloria) to the City Council. I saw nothing to suggest that this basic budgetary concept was applied to the SPCA contract extension. I saw nothing to suggest that the SPCA at this point had vowed behind the scenes to pay the higher minimum wage and deliver the same level of services, only to later change its mind.
The Quan-Schecter-Gloria report states: “The City and the CCSPCA have been reviewing the terms of the contract since late 2017 but need additional time to continue to negotiate the details as well as draft a comprehensive plan for animal control. As such, staff recommends that the Council approve a one year ‘as is’ extension to allow discussions to continue as well as give Council appropriate time to consider the new proposed contract.”
Fresno taxpayers could draw no conclusion from the actions of the Brand Administration and the City Council on May 10 other than the SPCA for FY 2018-19 would deal with minimum wage hikes and provide the same level of services for the same $3.8 million.
If, because I didn’t call the Administration’s communications staff, I’m missing a key piece of secret or hard-to-find information or impossible-to-fathom spin that explains why the city’s negotiators didn’t understand the connection between minimum wage hikes and service levels or why Fresnans should believe that City Hall was taken totally by surprise when the SPCA a few weeks ago came asking for another $213,000, I suggest that the communications staff keep their outrage to themselves. If the Administration won’t provide easy-to-understand answers in public documents and at two public hearings, if the City Council won’t do its job and root out the answers at two public hearings, then City Hall is saying it wants taxpayers to guess at what’s going on within their municipal government.
I’m guessing this City Hall, like all City Hall’s in Fresno’s past, isn’t above sleight of hand tricks.