“Your work is data-driven. You really do your homework. And it’s really upsetting.”
That quip was just part of the conversation as Ventura County CEO Mike Powers opened the conversation when he made a much-awaited appearance before the Ventura County Taxpayers Association on Jan. 26. We’ll grant that Powers has a well-developed sense of humor and the “really upsetting” part of his talk was tongue-in-cheek.
But in all seriousness, the Ventura County Taxpayers Association plays an extremely constructive role in steering one of California’s largest counties toward the safe harbor of fiscal sanity and away from the deep waters of debt and credit rating downgrades.
By pushing to end vacation buybacks and topping off benefits for county management personnel, the Taxpayers Association has done a huge service to Ventura County residents. These actions have put the region’s largest county at the forefront of pension-related cost control efforts, providing its taxpayers the kind of relief that still eludes residents of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Most importantly, the Taxpayers Association has shown a gift for quantitative analysis that brings a broad group of citizens and business owners to the table, and often brings in results that are positive from a taxpayer point of view.
So far, neither Santa Barbara nor San Luis Obispo counties have been able to develop a group that truly operates on a county-wide basis and seen as an effective counterweight to free-spending public employee groups or budgets that are priced to perfection in the good times, forcing dramatic cutbacks when the economy goes south.
That’s particularly true in Santa Barbara County, where the politics of growth and development, North County versus South County and oil drilling versus green energy keep intruding into debates over sound fiscal policies. The kind of cuts that Santa Barbara County has been forced to make were never in anybody’s contingency plan — and nobody is really sure how they will pan out in the longer term. When it comes to pensions, for example, it will take several years of strong stock market performance to dig the county out of its hole, or the alternative will be more revenue diverted to pensions and less available for services.
To be sure, we have our own quibbles with the Ventura County Taxpayers’ point of view. The VCTA is way too obsessed with 20 or so aging retirees who got grandfathered into sweet cost-of-living adjustments decades ago. We’d argue that it is not obsessed enough with making sure that today’s public safety workers, who get COLA-heavy deals and other benefits, will not dig another deep hole for taxpayers.
But the VCTA is proof that if you hammer away at the data long enough and present constructive policy proposals instead of vitriol, you can actually get something done.