Quaker Campus Editor-In-Chief Madison White sat down with Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri as part of an ongoing series on local government. The following transcription is part two of the interview. The first part was published in last week’s paper and can be found online at thequakercampus.org. This interview has been edited for space and clarity. The information provided by Mayor Vinatieri in part one has sparked much conversation, and in the weeks to come, the QC will be publishing follow ups with in depth reporting on hot-button issues in the City of Whittier.
Madison White (MW): Let’s talk a little bit about Uptown. You guys just approved the outdoor seating, right?
Joe Vinietrei (JV): The streetscape, yes. The features [of the project] are to make the sidewalks more accessible, more inviting, more attractive. Uptown is a gem. It’s exciting for me that there’s synergy, because we have the business improvement district that the people decided to tax themselves [otherwise known as an assessment] which tells me that they believe in their property and they believe that taxing themselves is making a reinvestment.
MW: So at the last city council meeting, there were quite a few concerned citizens there to talk about oil drilling.
JV: There’s two things going on: first of all, [the oil drilling lawsuit has*] been appealed to the [California state] Supreme Court.There’s not a lot that can be said until that process is finished. Once that process is finished, there’s a lot of questions that need to be reviewed.
I think the second thing that’s really important is that we put information out there about what the Oil Plan might be — if it might be. I heard a few times, “No fracking!” Have you read the [previous] Oil Plan? There’s no fracking. We specifically said, “No fracking.” That tells me that people are impassioned, and I understand that, but they need to do their homework without just spouting off.
*For more information about the legal case surrounding oil drilling, visit thequakercampus.org to read previous coverage on the Matrix Oil lawsuit.
MW: As things stand now — I understand it is a hypothetical and there’s a lot up in the air — would you, as one voting member, be interested in having a conversation with Matrix Oil about reopening their lease/creating a new lease with them?
JV: I think after we see where this thing goes, there needs to be a discussion about the process. Here’s part of the side people aren’t looking at — you’ve heard me use the word “balance” — it’s all about balance. Whittier, this year, was in the hole over a million and a half dollars because of CalPERS (The California Public Employees’ Retirement System) and the underfunding and the poor job done by them. They surcharged us and all the other cities in California that are involved in Calpers. As of June 30, we had a balanced budget.
Because of the way it works in California, we’re what you’d call a low property tax city. In other words, seven cents on every property tax dollar stays here. Most cities get back 12 – 15 cents on the dollar and we’re at seven, and that means we have to rely on other sources. Well, the two major sources are, of course, sales tax [and utility user tax]. [Sales tax is] one cent on every dollar of purchase in Whittier. That’s declined because of Amazon. The other thing we have is the utility user tax, which is up there with sales tax. That’s the little taax you pay on your electricity bill, telephone bill, etc. That’s a huge thing for us.
[In] 2002, CalPERS actually got overfunded. In other words, their investments were so good that they told all the cities, “Hey, instead of putting in $800,000 or a million dollars this year, you can do $250,000.” Well, the people on the city council wisely said, “No, we’re not gonna do that. We’ll send them the $250,000, but we’re gonna keep the $800,000 and put it into our own general fund reserve and call it PERS reserve.” We have one more year of PERS reserves and it [the CalPERS tax] goes [up to] $3.2 million or $3.3 — I’m not quite sure [on] Jan. 1, 2019 So we have a PERS reserve that’s about $3.5 million, we’ll take that money and we’ll send that to Sacramento, but then come July, 1, 2020, it goes up again, I think another $3.3 million. We don’t have that money. So, what do we do, not pay them? And continue living the way we are here? Or do we start making cuts?
So, you’re cutting and cutting, not what do you cut? In Whittier 48 percent of our budget is the police department. Number 1 is public safety. So, are you gonna cut police officers? Well, what else do you cut? What’s left? Parks and Recreation; libraries; all the good stuff that makes us special. We’re in a fiscal crisis and the people of Whittier, we’ve been talking about it, but it’s now right in front of us. If you like the services, what do you do? Raise sales tax? Do the people vote to increase sales tax? They very well may, but at the same time you have this potential issue for oil. Do you ask the people to increase the sales tax when you possibly have the ability to bring in 3 – 4 times as much money? That presupposes all kinds of things.
MW: What I’m hearing about the city’s finances is that the current system is not sustainable. However, Governor Brown just signed in SB 100 the other day for California to be 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
JV: I don’t know, that’s a good question and somebody raised it the other day. I understand the policy arguments, but I’ve got city employees who are good people and are providing great services and I’ve got people in the city who have come to be used to the services, matter of fact some of the people moved here for them. So, you tell me.