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7 questions with John Johnson

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Posted: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 12:00 am

Q: If the city budget worsens, what would you cut? Please be specific.

A: The first things that I would cut would be elective payments. In the current budget, there is nearly $200,000 in elective payments to support things like the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership ($28,500) and grants for the arts ($42,500), as well as others. In my opinion, all of these things would be cut or eliminated before I reduced services to the taxpayers.

Q: As a member of the council, how would you work effectively with other members whose perspectives conflict with your own?

A: I am often asked this question because I have been critical in my Lodi News-Sentinel column of certain decisions made by the City Council. I believe it is important for every council member to feel comfortable expressing his/her views. However, I do not think it is necessary for them to always agree on every issue. I will be a strong advocate for my views; however, I will always listen to the perspectives of my fellow council members. Each elected official is sent to City Hall to vote for what he/she believes is best for Lodi, and that is what I will do.

Q: Many cities are looking into outsourcing or privatizing some operations. What could be outsourced for the city of Lodi?

A: Where it is more cost-effective for the taxpayer either because of specialized knowledge or equipment, I believe using outside companies should be considered. It is important for people to know that Lodi already uses private companies for some things. Lodi has a parks staff that maintains and manages Lodi's parks, but landscaping at the Veterans' Plaza and City Hall is done by an independent contractor, as is the median landscaping on Cherokee Lane and Lower Sacramento Road.

At the end of the day, a decision about how to provide service must be based on the quality of the work provided while protecting taxpayer dollars.

Q: What is your vision for Lodi in 10 years and, as a council member, how will you work to achieve it?

A: In 10 years, Lodi will be a vibrant town with stable finances. Downtown will be better because Sacramento Street will have new businesses and housing that have been attracted by improved rail service at the Lodi station. Our parks will be what they were 15 or 20 years before, because we have spent the money to maintain them. Hutchins Street Square will be a destination for conferences and art events because we have promoted it as such. Lodi will be a place where people live and work because we will have used our electric utility in a sound and responsible way to attract businesses that provide quality jobs. In 10 years, Lodi will be better than it is today because of sound decisions about our growth and our finances.

Q: Outline specifically how you would bring new jobs to Lodi. If part of your plan is to hire an economic development director, specify yardsticks to ensure the position is cost-effective.

A: Hiring an economic development director would be a great first step, but we must also make it easier for businesses to come to Lodi by streamlining the process and by reducing fees. We can no longer watch sales tax dollars flow out of Lodi while we wait for a payment for a sewer or water connection.

An economic development director's job will be to attract new businesses to our community and to streamline Lodi's processes. He or she would be the point person for information, and for working with the various city departments.

I would measure the person's performance by providing them with quantifiable expectations, such as the number of new jobs created and new businesses opened or relocated to Lodi.

I think this is so vital to Lodi that I offered a plan to the Budget and Finance Committee to fund an economic development director position without adding $1 of expenses to Lodi's budget. It passed the committee but was ignored by the City Council. It is easy to say that we need this. It is another thing to have a plan on how to do it. As a council member, I will once again present my plan.

Q: How can city payroll and pension costs be controlled?

A: More than 70 percent of the general fund is spent on personnel costs. Unfortunately, the only part that we can control is what we pay people, because the public pension system, CalPERS, tells us what we will contribute for the pension costs.

We can control what we pay people by increased transparency — showing the employees what we have and where it needs to be spent. We cannot pay more than we have, and we cannot increase pay when revenue declines. Just because you show up and do your job does not mean that you will get a raise. We must be honest with people and show them what we have and what we can afford to spend.

Regarding the pension costs, the system is broken and going broke. Lodi does not control this element, and will not without significant change in California. We are told by CalPERS what to pay and we pay it — no choices. Last year it was more than 33 percent of pay for public safety employees and more than 19 percent of pay for others, and these amounts are going up. We cannot continue to do this. It must change, and I favor a new plan so it will.

Q: The city's electric utility is now recovering from a financial crisis created by burdensome debt. How can near-meltdowns in this operation be avoided in the future?

A: First, we need more oversight. The oversight that the EUD has is the risk committee, and in the past 24 months, the EUD risk committee has met just three times, and in private. That isn't oversight. I propose that the EUD report, in public, to the Budget and Finance Committee on a regular basis regarding their finances.

The EUD is the most valuable asset that we have, and we need to take care of it. How is it that we don't have a commission to review the operations of a business that generates over $70 million in revenue, has over $182 million in debt, and that contributes about $10 million per year to our general fund? After all, we have a Parks and Recreation Commission that looks after everything parks and recreation, and an 11-member Arts Commission, but nothing for the EUD. It must change.

Second, we need reasonable reserves. The current reserve formula is flawed in that it holds too much of our money for fluctuations in the market. We no longer have that problem because we charge customers for the fluctuations each month with the Energy Cost Adjustment.

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