By Chris Frost
The Oxnard Mayoral race is heating up, and incumbent Mayor Tim Flynn is looking to keep the ball rolling, provide financial security to the city and restore services lost due to budget cuts over the last few years.
Flynn was elected to the Oxnard City Council in 2004 and said at the time, everyone who worked for the city had a long-term connection, which was “one of the biggest shocks of his life."
“For over 100 years, the vast majority of people elected to the city council had long-term connections to the city, one way or the other,” he said. “I served with a group, and we all went to the same schools together."
He said from the city’s inception business had a lot to do with who you knew, who knew you and how things were done.
“I saw what I thought was going on, and it just didn’t sit well with me," Flynn said. "In some instances, there wasn’t anything wrong, and in other instances, there were some really, really wrong things. It was not a policy difference that always exists, but there was a violation of government trust. It got him on the council's bad side from his first month, which was unsettling, and also unsettling for his wife.
"She would watch the city council meetings, and when I would come home, she would be white as a ghost," he said.
Being a maverick and cleaning up the books
Eight years later, Flynn was elected mayor of Oxnard and said he was “born hard,” as it was not easy to be a junior council member and walk in the same steps.
“I was a government teacher, and I couldn’t believe some of the things I experienced and saw and experienced them first-hand,” he said.
The city’s record keeping and books are better in 2018 than they’ve been in decades, and he said there is a truly balanced budget and clean audit for the first time in decades.
“A guy that’s running for mayor actually sued me for that because I put it in a balance statement," Flynn said. "You have to be careful about what you say. There’s freedom of speech, and I believed very strongly then as I do now the city had to fix decades of financial mismanagement and poor record keeping."
He said it was noted in the D.A.’s investigation of the city, which took place six years ago into corruption and malfeasance of government and a host of other things at the highest level.
Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten released a Public Integrity Investigation of Oxnard City Officials on April 18, 2012, and determined the allegations and misconduct are limited to a very small group of individuals serving the city in leadership positions.
One allegation in the report revealed that former City Manager Ed Sotelo used his position to obtain an improper $10,000 loan of city funds and created an improper supplemental retirement benefit for himself and others.
Flynn said the problem didn’t happen overnight.
“You have decades of poor record keeping or records that simply don’t exist, and then you produce a document three months later and everything is peachy and dandy,” he said. “It’s taken years to get the books straightened out.”
Funding city departments
Flynn said one area with a lot of changes is the finance department, as the city has gone through five chief financial officers since he was elected mayor, which had a lot to do with the job's hardship.
“When you’re faced with a situation where there is a lack of record keeping it’s like a Banana Republic," he said. "That creates a tremendous amount of stress. The financial problems are slowly but surely getting cleaned up.”
The police department is arguably fully funded, Flynn said, despite the budget challenges, which speaks loudly about the council's priorities.
“It is very, very difficult to meet the other service needs of the city when we place as much of an emphasis as we do on public safety, specifically in the police department,” he said. "As a percentage of the budget, Oxnard spends more money on public safety; specifically, we have a 3 to 1 spending ratio of police over the fire department funding when most communities spend 2 to 1. Ventura is one example. That tells you a little bit about the fact that Oxnard has a lot of challenges.”
One challenge, he said, is a “serious issue” with homicides.
“Even the police department, at times, feels the strain on their department for their workload,” Flynn said.
Despite the cuts, street paving continues to move forward, he said, which was a top campaign issue in 2012 when there were potholes the size of craters across the city.
“We’ve done an excellent job addressing that, but we still have a way to go,” he said.
The city has several tree-trimming crews, he said, but due to budget cuts, they were laid off, and there is only a skeleton crew which created a backlog.
“I asked because we have such a backlog of trees, to bring a report forward to the council for some funding options on how to address tree trimming,” he said. “It turns out that out of the 57,000 trees we have in the city, 2,700 of those trees were in a backlog and we’re only getting to 900 trees because of a staff shortage. That means the city is on a 50-year tree trimming cycle when it should be on a 2-4-year period. It shows that we have a real strain on providing essential services to the public, and at the same time try to remain fiscally responsible and in a good position."
Flynn spoke to a neighborhood council about the city’s finances, Sept. 19, and said his “hunch” as a 25-year high school teacher and an economics teacher is the city scores a C+.
“That’s probably coming from a grade of D-, if not an F+, he said.
The city has three challenges, water, trash, and wastewater, he said, and it recently raised rates because the system was on the verge of collapse.
“By raising the rates and subsequently raising a recall election, remember we raised the rates by $24 a month over a five-year period and that led to a major revolution,” he said.
Flynn said the resourceful person was able to distort and manipulate the truth to the people.
“A lot of people bought it hook, line and sinker,” he said. “The wastewater system might (the candidate said) not be the best, but it’s not that bad.”
The candidate didn’t think the city needed to raise the rates.
“Then he changed his mind and said I agree with the first-rate increase, I just don’t agree with the second-rate increase (and he was) all over the map," he said. "The candidate successfully portrayed a picture that the city council was undoing the decades of financial mismanagement was themselves the purveyors of malfeasance and mismanagement. Hopefully, this will all come out in the campaign and debates about the distortion and manipulation of the truth.”
Moving forward, he said there is still a challenge making the utility solvent and in a good position, and wastewater is quickly moving because of the rate increase.
"We still have water to deal with, which is arguably a larger issue before the city council,” he said.
In addition to funding services, he said Oxnard and many cities across California have significant unfunded liabilities for pensions, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS.
“What’s happening now is the state is making cities cough up the difference just for that year,” he said. “Where the unfunded liabilities are, last year Ventura kicked in $11 million, which was almost 10 percent of their general fund budget that went to CalPERS for a one-time payment for the unfunded liability.”
He said Oxnard “coughed up” $5 million.
“We’re going to have to cough up $50 million over the next five years,” he said. “Making the pension system sustainable in the city is the biggest fiscal challenge we have. It’s happening not only in Oxnard, but it’s also happening in the State of California.”
In the future, he said the real goal of the public pension reform act in 2014 is to have the employees pay half of the cost.
“That is the only way that pensions are going to be sustainable unless the public decides the alternative, a 401k, and not having a guaranteed pension is the way,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t happen. I believe that pensions are important and one of the benefits of being a public employee is that you do have a pension, but if they’re not sustainable they won’t last. There are city governments in the state that had to declare bankruptcy because of the situation.”
As mayor, Flynn said he led an effort to go from zero contributions to 8 percent.
“Public safety has gone from zero to 5 percent, approximately,” he said.
Moving forward, Flynn said his immediate focus is restoring services that were cut in the last several years while keeping a balanced budget.
“That’s a tightrope act,” he said. “My focus over the next two years is going to be predominantly economic development. We have a new city manager, Alex Nguyen. He has some exciting ideas, and I have some exciting ideas. He and I just spoke about it yesterday, and we want to make sure we are on the same page.”
One part of the plan is revitalizing downtown with mixed residential and commercial on the top and bottom.
“That’s going to be an economic stimulus for the local economy and a long-term goal of bringing higher paying jobs to the city,” he said. “Now that I just retired from teaching I am going to have a lot more time to be intently focused on how a mayor brings higher paying jobs to his community. I have a specific focus on the new economy, clean energy jobs, hi-tech, biotech, and medical research."
Nguyen told Flynn they need to fill an education gap.
“That means that not enough of the populous has a college education that would match these jobs,” he said. “I am not going to call it the great leap forward, but it's too much of a leap forward to say you’re going from where we are right now to the highest paying jobs.”
Initially, he said Oxnard can attract manufacturing jobs.
“Instead of getting $11 per hour, employees at a minimum will get 15, 17 $20 per hour,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction to bring those higher paying jobs.”