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City Manager’s Smart Take on Santa Cruz

tom_honig_sSomething is missing in our public debate. Something big. It's the difference between politics and governance. From Washington to Sacramento to Santa Cruz, people are debating the issues, but it's unfortunate that the issues they care about really don't get at the reality of how government runs day to day.

Opinion, as discussed and argued about on television, can be exciting. Olbermann can get in his licks. O'Reilly can be outraged. CNN can invite people in from both sides of the political divide to holler at each other. And we're not much better here in Santa Cruz. Just take a look at the recent State Senate election where neither Democrat John Laird nor Republican Sam Blakeslee bothered with commercials discussing their own records. They just trashed each other.

Is that the status of government these days? Not really. Because a lot is happening behind the scenes, well away from the kind of nonsense that’s in the TV commercials. At least on a local level, some basic issues about governance are being discussed – in a smart way.

For example, the best primer on local government, and some of the people who run it, is available on the City of Santa Cruz website. City Manager Dick Wilson has penned a detailed and informative (and long) analysis of the most important issues facing the city. Wilson, by the way, steps down as city manager at the end of July, ending a remarkable period of 29 years as the top executive in the city of Santa Cruz.

His message here, as he leaves his post, ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to learn about challenges facing the city and the state. It’s a rare opportunity for insight from someone without a partisan agenda, and with some obvious affection for the community he has served.

The picture that emerges is different from anything you've read—or anything that you're liable to hear during a political campaign. What Wilson describes is a city government that has changed significantly over the past 10 years. And he calls for more change—the kind of change that goes far deeper than the usual "more/less taxes" or "more/less budget cuts” kind of discussion.

The biggest issue facing Santa Cruz, according to Wilson, is one that faces virtually every government: the cost of public employees. No surprise there—but the solution is far distant from the "union vs. anti-union" shouting match that's already taking place. Essentially, he calls for incremental change that combines smart staffing decisions—and cooperation from the employee unions.

But that’s hardly the only issue. Wilson’s report goes department by department. Here are some of the highlights:

POLICE The department is down 17 percent, and call volumes are at an all-time high. “The theme here will be the same as everywhere: how can we do what we need to do with fewer people and less money?”

FIRE DEPARTMENT More financial challenges. A proposal to charge fees to non-residents for emergency response services. “Equipment is aging and needs replacing.”

PARKS AND RECREATION “The department simply cannot afford to do that which I suspect almost everyone thinks it ought to do. …(O)ver the next few years, there will be a need for focused community discussion about paying for … services.

PUBLIC WORKS “We would resurface every street not attended to in the past few years if we could afford it. … Unfortunately we have no money to spend.”

WATER “We have lived on the precipice of extreme water shortage for so long that we hardly give it a thought. … In a severe drought, we are in deep trouble.”

LIBRARY “Economic reality and the library system are not fitting together.”

OK, you get the theme here. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Wilson’s report is merely doom and gloom. Nor is he making a case for higher and higher taxes.

Instead, this report highlights some actions that are reasonable to take for future city councils and future city managers. True, his report has no easy answers.

Finally, Wilson has some choice words about the sad state of affairs facing the state government.

“The enormity of the state’s budget problem is reflected in the absurdity of the public discussion about it, which pretends the issue is a simple one of being for or against taxation. …(T)here are no substantive, reality-based proposals for the state budget: the problem is too big for rational discussion.”

I’ve just scratched the surface of Wilson’s report. Anyone interested in how government actually works around here – and how it’s going to have to change – should look at his report on the city’s website. It’s available at www.cityofsantacruz.com/index.aspx?page=1513.


Contact Tom Honig at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Comments (1)Add Comment
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written by Tom Graves, July 01, 2010
I like your piece, but I think you glossed over a key part of the story. Dick Wilson's FY2011 Budget Message is based upon 29 years of experience at the top of the "Governance" part of Santa Cruz. His has been a remarkable career.

While Santa Cruz has had social progressives setting the agenda for years now (thank goodness), it's Wilson's conservative fiscal vision that has kept the City on track, and has set the tone for the City's Department Heads. His modesty aside, he is a formidable manager, and a truly decent man.


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