Wednesday Jul 23 2008
Journalists must do their homework
By: Gloria Beverage
Journalists are trained to be objective observers. Our task is to attend meetings or events, then report on what happened – giving equal time and space to both sides of an issue. We are the proverbial flies on the wall. In relating what happens, we also become teachers. We must be able to explain complicated issues and provide background information when needed. Sometimes that means asking a staff member or expert to “translate” or simplify an issue so we, in turn, can clarify it for our readers. Over the past few weeks, Record correspondent Tom Durkin and I have struggled with understanding and, in turn, explaining the proposed sewer rate increase. At times we’ve been as confused as the property owners, but I believe we have managed to present enough information to help property owners make informed decisions. Still, there have been several suggestions made by the rate hike opponents that needed to be addressed. Some have suggested the city either file for bankruptcy or disincorporate. As we’ve reported, city governments do not have the option of walking away from debts by filing bankruptcy. If it did, two things would happen. First, the city would incur more debt because it would have to pay an attorney to represent it in court. Second, and most important, the city would still be responsible for its debts and mandated services. As far as trying to disincorporate, there is a lengthy process to follow. The bottom line is the city’s residents could only hope to be “adopted” by Placer County. In recent weeks, the county has been forced to make cuts in staff and service. If the county doesn’t have the money to maintain its own services, how could they fund additional services needed by city residents? Like some of the more vocal critics, Durkin and I decided we needed to do some more homework. We needed to understand the city’s financial situation so we could explain it. Last week he and I met with City Finance Director Dau Luc, a certified public accountant, and City Treasurer Grace Hardy as well as City Clerk Karen Pierce. While our purpose was to get a “briefing” on the city’s budget, we also heard the anger and hurt in their voices. The staff feels they’ve “busted our rear ends to do the best job we can” and yet they have been the target of some very personal, vitriolic attacks. They’re rising above it, though, and are working hard to find ways to keep the city afloat. Luc noted the rejection of the proposed rate hike could mean as much as a $30,000 per month operations-and-maintenance deficit. Nor is there a back-up plan to cover the unfunded state and federal mandates required to upgrade the sewage system currently estimated at $16 million by build-out. Think of it this way. Your new computer is practically out of date by the time you get it home. That’s what’s happening to municipalities trying to upgrade their sewage systems. There is also one aspect of the budget that Luc wants the public to understand. The city operates under five different funds with the three most important being the general, enterprise (city mandated services like roads, garbage and sewer) and special revenue funds. Using the example of a general contractor, the city – by law – may not “co-mingle” customers’ funds. In other words, the contractor can’t use one customer’s money to finance another customer’s construction project. That means the city can’t use grant money designated for street repairs to pay for another project. There is no question the city is in major financial trouble. On Tuesday night, council members will take another look at a budget that is nearly $400,000 out of balance. Rather than attack the messenger, let’s work together to solve the problem.