October 1, 2003 - From the October, 2003 issue

West Sacramento's Mayor Cabaldon On How Cities Manage to Survive State's Fiscal Distress

As most cities in California are reeling from the effects of the state budget, West Sacramento is thriving--taking advantage of economic development tools to ensure its financial security and recently adopting an ambitious master plan that would triple the city's park space. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Christopher Cabaldon, Mayor of West Sacramento, in which he discusses his city's financial strategy, regional involvement and smart growth in the Sacramento metropolitan area.


Christopher Cabaldon

Mayor, cities are obviously frustrated with their lot these days – frustrated both with their relationship with state government and with access to the resources they need to fund and provide needed municipal services. West Sacramento, a rather new city, clearly is not in a desperate situation. How is your city managing its challenges better than most?

West Sacramento incorporated post-Prop. 13, so our expectations about the level of state funding and stability were measured by that experience. In the intervening period, we've tried to be entrepreneurial in revenue development. We approach the state budget process as though it's a completely uncontrollable factor. We focus on what we can control-such as economic development, or changing our own local/regional fiscal structure-in order for us to be successful. Our city has really evolved based around the notion of Prop. 13 rather than having to deal with Prop. 13 as some sort of late breaking news.

As a veteran City Councilman and mayor three times, elaborate on those public responsibilities that the city does have some control over-economic development and land use? How is the city managing to creatively meet its obligations?

Economic development is the biggest. Our city is the second largest per capita sales tax generator in the entire six-county region, but there's nowhere to shop-it's all business-to-business industrial sales. So we've evolved our development strategy in a way that is more diverse-we've developed retail based on our community's needs, not for sales tax generation.

We're also trying to become the hub of smart growth development in our region-taking advantage of the fact that we're on the waterfront, that the highways and rail lines all converge here, and that we're right across the river from downtown Sacramento. We had been a forgotten place for 100 years. For about 50 years, we had a sense of ourselves as being the other side of the tracks; the river was the dividing line between the good part and the bad part of the region. As we've turned that around and changed our own sense of ourselves, we've also attracted a lot more investment. That has been a driving force behind our economic renaissance.

How does the city maximize the fiscal discretion essential for truly local decision making?

We've done a lot of what others have done in terms of looking at fees and financing authorities, which certainly have their economic impacts and pay off in terms of maximizing locally controlled revenue. We also negotiated a very good property tax agreement with Yolo County when we incorporated so that our residential development, for the most part, does pay for itself. Given that we are at the core of the region-and with all the regional focus on directing the next million people into the urban core-the marriage of that regional focus on urban infill and a good property tax sharing agreement has meant has given us both a philosophical¡ and a financial incentive to commit ourselves to that same regional strategy.

How important a factor is the alignment of the state's fiscal incentives and disincentives with the city's goals and public responsibilities?

The incentive hasn't been important, it's the disincentives that are the kickers. In part because we've only been a city for sixteen years, we have a very deeply felt sense in the community about what we want in our town-our residents still remember what they were promised during the incorporation campaign. But, the incentives are arrayed in such a way that you just can't make it work.

For example, we're very committed to doing our part in the affordable housing arena. Historically, we have been a working class town. But, we're starting to see a lot more investment in the community. We want to make sure that we can still afford to live here-that we're not just cleaning up our town for resale, but we're really trying to make it a better place for the current residents. This is a huge challenge-property values are appreciating at astronomical rates region wide, and especially in West Sacramento. But, our ability to do affordable housing is severely limited by the resources available to us. So, it's not the case that we would build more affordable housing if we could find more money through state-sponsored incentives, it's that the disincentives in the state fiscal system prevent us from accomplishing everything that we would want.

Much of the discussion statewide about fiscal reform turned last year on Assemblyman Steinberg's AB 680, which meant to demonstrate the power of tax sharing region wide. Address that issue as it affected your city. How did you weigh that bill's merits and demerits?

It was a very educational controversy. We ran into an interesting challenge in our region, and West Sacramento was demonstrated how much more complicated this issue is than anyone had anticipated. We tend to think of the sales tax issue of chasing after auto malls and nice luxury malls and factory outlets and that those tend to be located in wealthier cities-that there was some sort of connection between regional equity issues and the sales tax question. This is not an unreasonable assumption-it is true that luxury factory outlets want to locate near where there are folks with disposable income. But, sales tax is charged on more than cars and Gucci bags. We turned out to be one of the major sales tax cities in the region and yet one of the poorest cities in the region.

So the issue that got raised was, from an equitable perspective, whether it made sense to reduce the revenues that were available to one of the poorest cities in the region and turn around and provide those revenues instead to some of our wealthier communities in the foothills. That was the outcome as you actually implemented tax reform on the ground. Unfortunately, the issue became so polarized and so divisive in our region that we stopped talking instead of grappling with the complexity. There certainly is a tax reform plan that would deal both with the land use issues and with the equity issues; we just didn't get to it. Unfortunately, people were so exhausted by the conversation that there hasn't been any progress made since AB 680 died.

In that very articulate answer, you omitted mention of education. How does planning for public education, both in terms of instruction and in terms of facilities, square with what you're trying to accomplish in the city, county and region?

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I left it out in large part because in most regions of the state, we're not integrating education into these kinds of grand visions for what our regions ought to look like. When we do these regional visioning projects, we're very pleased with ourselves for thinking about jobs and housing and transportation all at the same time. Yet, we have almost all missed the boat in terms of our regional work on education. In terms of all of those issues, there's no point in locating jobs and housing near one another if you're not consciously looking at what the work force looks like and matching the skills of the residents of that housing with the skills required by the co-located jobs. When you create a jobs-housing balance that's not connected to an effective education system in a very strategic way, all you're doing is having people passing each other on the freeways going from one job center with its housing to another job center with its housing.

The challenge for school boards is that they have very limited authority to make the decisions that really count in educational achievement and for student success. And, they have almost unfettered authority in the areas that don't matter. School boards typically have no trouble making the easy decisions-those that are unregulated by the state or do not impact those represented by unions or other interest groups. But, the easy choices are not the ones that are going to make a difference. After years and years of failed reforms, there is s a lot of cynicism and fatalism-particularly in urban schools-about whether you can ever really make a difference. Convincing folks to take some chances and be bold and start with the notion that all of the kids can succeed is a lot tougher than it would seem.

You've been deeply involved in transportation issues in your region. Elaborate on how you've integrated, or tried to integrate, a smart transportation agenda into city and regional economic development plans to improve the quality of life in West Sacramento?

Nobody in our region was thinking about transportation at all even six or seven years ago. We had the classic regional transportation plan, incoherent and pieced together because it was a requirement for receiving federal funds. It became very clear to us that that wasn't sustainable over the long run for a lot of reasons, probably the most important of which was the federal government threatened to revoke our funds for not meeting air quality standards. That instruction from the federal government forced us to get out of our comfort zone and start to look at our region in a different way.

Now, we're mounting a major land use initiative to be the central basis of our next region-wide transportation plan. We realize that 95% of your transportation system is going to be driven by where people are living. That's driven, in large part, by the existing transportation infrastructure and how local communities have planned around that infrastructure. We need to break that cycle and figure out how we're going to grow, and then build a transportation system that's going to support that from a regional perspective.

Implicit in the passionate words you employ is the belief that cities and regions ought to be the architects of their futures. Yet, there is also significant popular cynicism re public life and representative government in California. How do you reconcile two seemingly inconsistent themes and enlist the public's imagination once again in public policy?

Maybe it's because I come from a relatively new city where cynicism has not yet set in. The folks in our community who are excited about the city and stay engaged are paying attention to local politics. However, they're just as cynical as the rest of the country is about federal and state politics. So, we're not different-the genetics are the same. There is still a sense of possibility because we've approached it that way and we've acted like it matters.

Elected officials don't want to look foolish too often and so they reflect back the cynicism and the fatalism that a lot of their constituents have. So you get caught up in a very difficult cycle. Molding the behavior that you want to see in your constituents by elected officials is a big part of that equation. People want to believe in their own community. You have to articulate a vision and an aspiration that they can be a part of.

And how do you get that message out? How do you amplify the message in West Sacramento?

The media has to be a partner and believe in that future. Much of the news media substitutes cynicism for real analysis and real journalism too often because, again, it's safe and it reflects back what many of their readers are thinking. But, they've got to take some chances. In my own community, a lot of the renaissance occurred only when the Sacramento Bee made an affirmative decision to start covering the suburban parts of the Sacramento region in an authentic way. Today, they are reporting on the smaller towns as real places, and communicating the dreams and the aspirations of those towns, even though they may seem trivial to their bigger city readership. It's reflected back the hopefulness and the sense of possibility at the street level. And, people need to see that in order to gauge whether their efforts and their engagements are making an impact.

Lastly, you've served on the board of the California Center for Regional Leadership, which supports regional collaboratives. Why did you give CCRL your time?

We can't all wait for state or federal mandates to force us to think regionally. It's absolutely clear that we need a mechanism in California to help regions to self-actualize. Somebody's got to be pushing this agenda. In order to be economically competitive, to have strong and sustainable neighborhoods, to have effective transportation and land use plans, regions have to be stronger. It can't simply be that we're doing this because it's a requirement of some federal or metropolitan planning act, but that we're working as a region because there are problems in our society that exist at the regional scale. And, if we don't do something about these regional issues, then the state or the federal government will solve them for us. That's going to be a blunt axe and will not contribute to a real solution. So, we've got to take responsibility and the Center for Regional Leadership has been at the fore of this effort. Regionalism and neighborhoods are the future. Obviously, cities are going to be a big part of that too, but cities can't be effective in a vacuum. We need regions that are effective and empowered to tackle regional challenges before communities are overrun by these problems.

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