By David M. Greenwald
Davis, Calif. – Normally, it would be good news for the city if the vast majority of residents think the city is headed in the right direction. According to the latest satisfaction surveys, around 69% say the right direction and 30% the wrong direction, which corresponds to the last survey of 2019.
We know that national surveys are not heading in the right direction and that support for national institutions is plunging to record lows. But sometimes an overly positive attitude is due to the public not being aware of community issues rather than the city doing a good job.
It reminds me of a 2014 poll when two-thirds of the community thought the city’s finances were good or fair, even though the structural deficit was enough to necessitate a sales tax increase – and even after it was passed, the city still had at least $7 million. and some would say a gap of at least $10 million between what he was spending and what he had to spend on infrastructure.
The city is actually facing very serious challenges and I would say – along with apparently less than a third of everyone else – that we are not only heading down the wrong path, but we are heading into real peril.
The problem is clearly that the city is not adequately communicating to the community the magnitude of the challenges we face. To some extent, I understand, if you’re an elected official, it’s not in your best interest to tell the community that we have problems. It’s usually not a good way to get re-elected.
But this has political implications. While 2014 voters were willing to raise the sales tax, they were unwilling to help improve city revenues otherwise. The Nishi project with the R&D space was rejected. The road tax was rejected. Two Innovation Centers were rejected in 2020 and 2022.
Only small percentages recognize the severity of the budget and the quality and condition of the roads.
But it’s worse than that. Citizens are mainly concerned about nuisances: homelessness, delinquency, parking downtown. Concern about homelessness jumped from 7% to 14%. Crime has gone from 4% in 2019 to 10%. But we still live in one of the safest communities in the country with an extraordinarily low violent crime rate.
Perhaps what concerns me most is the fact that the community seems to think, despite acknowledging some challenges, that all is well.
For example, 30% cite the lack of affordable housing as their main concern. Worse than that, on the satisfaction ratings, housing affordability is only listed at 23% satisfied. With HALF of respondents saying they were very dissatisfied with housing affordability.
These are similar numbers to what we saw in 2019. But what are they doing about it? You would think that if voters were concerned about affordable housing, they would support ways to build more housing, especially affordable housing, and we really haven’t seen that.
But here is the disconnect. They always see the way of the city as positive and not negative.
And yet, the lack of affordable housing has serious repercussions. We have seen a slow decline in the number of families with children who can move into Davis. This puts pressure on schools and will eventually lead to declining enrollment despite our efforts to support both enrollment through inter-district transfers and revenue through a series of package taxes.
Voters do not seem to link the lack of affordable housing and declining enrollment to eventual quality of life. Some have pointed out that I’ve been complaining about it for over a decade, but that’s part of the problem, it’s a slow burn. We are the frog in a pot of slowly warming water.
I had a conversation with someone who was part of the Save Our Schools campaign from 2008 to 2010. At that time, it was an immediate crisis that would force schools to close and programs to be cut. Parents came together and, through the Davis Schools Foundation, raised funds to bridge the gap until a package tax could provide annual revenue to fill it.
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. We have gone from $100 a year in parcel tax in 2007 to almost $1,000 today. People don’t understand that a slow and steady decline in enrollment makes it difficult to maintain quality programs.
The community gives mediocre grades on street maintenance, 62% – that’s a net positive of 24%, but if we were to rate this at school, it would be a D-. City finance management also gets a plus 24 but mediocre, and council performance is also mediocre 60% and a plus 21.
I’m not going to advocate for some of the council’s spending priorities, such as increasing employee compensation and buying a ladder truck.
But a big problem with the city’s finances is the lack of revenue. People complain about downtown parking, but increasingly, where are they going even if they are going downtown? Empty store fronts.
The city has been sitting on its downtown plan since before the pandemic, and while it approves it, it’s unclear where the revenue is coming from to revitalize the downtown core.
In the meantime, voters continue to miss out on the billions coming to college to help spin-off tech startups and provide innovation space for companies that want to grow but lack the space to. Davis. The city was lucky to keep Schilling Robotics, but lost a number of companies that lacked the space to grow and countless companies that moved to the area, but not Davis because there was no no landing space.
It’s a community that’s increasingly overpriced for young families with kids, even those teaching college. We have yet to see the full effect of this slow transition away from the vital community this place was a generation ago when I moved here.
Then again, maybe some of this is starting to show up elsewhere in the poll. The level of trust has plunged over the past three years. While 58% are still confident in the ability of Davis leaders to solve difficult problems, the number of disagreements fell from 28% to 41%, closing the rating from plus 30 to plus 17.
With the election around the corner, that can’t be a soothing thought for the incumbents.