Guest opinion: Ex-mayor questions Atherton's debt projections | December 19, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - December 19, 2012

Guest opinion: Ex-mayor questions Atherton's debt projections

by Malcolm Dudley

Atherton is at a crossroads. We can continue down the road we have been traveling in recent years where we have treated our employees very badly, or we can go down a new road to financial stability and strength, while showing respect and appreciation for our dedicated and loyal employees.

A year ago we fired a majority of our non-police staff on the premise that we faced a budget deficit of $856,000. We were told that revenues had declined reflecting lower real estate values. Having served on the council for 24 years, where we balanced budgets every year, and at the same time recognized the value, dedication and loyalty of our outstanding employees, I felt something fundamentally had gone wrong. In order to understand the issues I made a thorough analysis of our financial statements and found that contrary to what we had been told, our secured property tax revenues had not declined, they had actually been increasing at an annual rate of 3.18 percent.

Next I analyzed our operating expenses and found that they had been increasing at the very modest annual rate of 1.28 percent. With operating revenues increasing at three times the rate of increase for operating expenses, it was clear that something else was at play. What I found was that we were understating building department revenues by some $400,000, resulting in overstating our budget deficit by that amount. The interim city manager did not disclose this discrepancy to the council until two days after my op-ed appeared in the Almanac's July 20, 2011 edition.

Our employees were fired based upon faulty information. Some of these employees had worked loyally for the town for more than 20 years. This is not how any employer should treat their employees. This lack of respect for employees impacts the morale of every other employee.

Now one year later the town has passed a resolution reducing the salary and benefits for the remaining non-police employees. Again this action is based upon faulty data and assumptions. It was reported to the Almanac that we faced an unfunded retirement deficit of $14 million. At the council meeting it was suggested that we might face deficits of $20 million or $30 million, thus creating a need for the town to severely reduce employee salaries and benefits.

One council member implied that the real target is our police department, as that represents some 50 percent of our budget. The council is obviously considering substantially reducing police salaries and benefits, which would surely drive some of our most qualified and dedicated police officers to seek employment with other agencies.

In my research, including reviewing the work of Nicolay Consulting, CalPERS and Moodys, I have learned that the most realistic unfunded liability for Atherton is $7,599,453, which is made up of retiree coverage and active projected needs .The active projected needs number ($2.5 million) was based on 2010 census data where it included building and public works staff. They are no longer with us so that number will be significantly reduced (likely by as much as two-thirds). Nicolay Consulting will be doing a "Refresh" in January for a more accurate — and substantially lower number.

Without the parcel tax revenue, the town has a projected deficit in 2012-13 of $600,540. The parcel tax is a key component of the town's revenue stream. Rather than cutting salaries and benefits to eliminate this deficit it would be far better for the town to adopt a small increase in our parcel tax. We need to focus on paying our employees a fair and competitive salary and benefit package so that we can maintain quality service.

Malcolm Dudley is a former mayor of Atherton


Posted by Hidden Agenda, a resident of Atherton: other
on Dec 19, 2012 at 5:14 am

So, the Town Council laid-off the Public Works, Building, and Parks employees under the premise that they were in the hole by $856,000. But, the number was actually $456,000. The Council discovered the error before they pulled the trigger, but let everyone go anyway.

The Mayor speaks often of a Moody's study he says places Atherton's "unfunded liability" in the area of $30 million. But, the number is actually somewhere well south of $2.5 million.

Without the parcel tax, the Town spends $600,000 more than it takes in. But, the parcel tax brings in $1.8 million, so the Town really operates about $1.2 million in the black.

In addition, the San Mateo County Assessor says Atherton can expect a 9% increase in their tax rolls. The Town assumed only 5% in their budget forecast, resulting in a $318,000 windfall.

It would appear the driver for the extreme actions against the unrepresented employees is something other than dire fiscal conditions. The Mayor wants to eliminate the parcel tax, but has not provided an explanation for how he plans to replace the $1.8 million. Given the property tax windfall, he has only a $300,000 gap he needs to close to achieve his goal.

The Mayor's goal is easily obtainable through compensation reductions, additional outsourcing, and service cuts.

Posted by trust, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 19, 2012 at 5:58 am

It appears that Mayor Widmer, Jim Dobbie and Kathy McKeithen have had this hidden agenda for some time but it now is seeing the light of day.
In all probability it was hatched during Interim Manager John Danielson's tenure and as WMD say they have been studying it for some time after the dismissal of the maintenance people. They have hooked Lewis and Carlson into this scheme using incorrect and obfuscating correct numbers which does not reflect well on any of the Councils credibility.
It is time for the new town manager and new finance manager to completely review the state of Atherton's finances and accurately represent them to residents on a continual basis. These numbers should be the only basis for Council Members decisions in the future and they should not make up their own numbers. This goes as well for the finance committee as seen in the last video of the meeting are clearly befuddled about the numbers as well.
This whole episode of the last minute vote on the unrepresented employees compensation is wrapped in the same WMD stench of the library in the park council vote.

Posted by Right, a resident of Atherton: other
on Dec 19, 2012 at 8:10 am

Unlike every other city in California (and the United States), Atherton actually has a surplus instead of a deficit. Any financial statement to the contrary is a WMD conspiracy. WMD probably got all the newspapers, such as the New York Times, to falsely report on the dire situations of all the other cities, just to make it look like Atherton might have a problem too.

I wonder if Malcolm Dudley really knows what he's talking about, since while he was on the council, there was never an audit that actually had a passing opinion. The finances are completely unknown.