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By Chris Frost
Thousand Oaks-- Goal setting and establishing priorities was the theme at the March 30, Thousand Oaks City Council meeting, as the group forged ahead with a plan of "Moving TOward The Future with New Processes and Fresh Paths."
The city provided the public with operational overviews that are not exhaustive and will select its top 10 priorities for the fiscal year 2021-22
City Manager Andrew Powers led off the discussion and said the workshop is essential and an opportunity for the city to broaden its lens and focus on longer-term planning.
"It's a chance to talk in a little bit more free form," he said. "It's an important annual meeting for the council, staff, and the community, despite being disrupted by the pandemic last year, which hit right about now."
Powers said the last 12 months were quite a year.
"I was reflecting on how difficult it was to encapsulate this year," he said. "It was taxing, grueling, unsettling, needed adaptation-after-adaptation, twists, and turns," he said. "Yet, from a city perspective, it was still extremely productive. I am immensely proud of our city team. This has been a truly transformative year for our organization. We are emerging from this pandemic as a stronger, nimbler, even more, productive workplace. Our team consistently embraced the challenges and adapted to circumstances to continue to deliver top-tier services."
Moving forward, the city's theme is to respond, rebuild, and recover.
"In working with the National League of Cities, they've encouraged cities to embrace this theme as they look towards the future and develop policies and supportive investments," Powers said.
Finance Director Jaime Boscarino said the past year had challenges; the city is moving forward as a stronger organization.
"It goes without saying that Thousand Oaks has long been a leader in fiscal sustainability," she said. "The leadership of the city council and management throughout the year, with a focus on long-term proactive and strategic approaches to financial management, have set this city up for success.
The State Auditor publishes California cities' fiscal health each year, and she said the City of Thousand Oaks ranked 416th out of 453 cities.
"This is where you don't want to be ranked number one," she said. "Not only was Thousand Oaks ranked in the top echelon out of cities with a population over 100,000; we had the third-highest overall rating."
One highlight the council took to maintain fiscal responsibility for strategic and financial management was establishing the pension rate stabilization fund and the fresh start program in 2018.
"The city council established the fund with an initial $22.5 million contribution," she said. "In two short years, that investment has grown to $28.8 million. The one-year return in funds is 19 percent, in comparison to 1.5 percent in the city's portfolio."
The Fresh Start Program takes the city's unfunded pension liability, and at that time, was being amortized over 30 years.
"It's similar to our mortgage and eventually refinanced that liability over a 15-year period," Boscarino said. "The estimated savings to taxpayers from this council action is $30 million. That's equivalent to our public safety contract for the entire year, or repaving 100 miles of streets."
The strategic action brought forth by the staff and city council positioned the city to utilize the pension fund to pay off the unfunded liability for an additional 7-8 years.
"This will lead to annual savings of approximately $8 million a year," she said. "Or, what we might see if we were to pass the sales tax. In addition to actions taken in 2018, and prior to that in the fiscal year 2014-15, we have been using budgetary savings in salaries and benefits to make additional payments to pension and open liabilities. This has helped raise our funded status for the open plan from 49 percent to 75 percent."
Staffing is a key component of the City of Thousand Oaks operation, and the city has maintained its 381 existing city-wide positions since the fiscal year 2013-2014.
"We have resisted adding positions over the past eight years, despite strong financial results," she said. "The ongoing operating cost that entails can instead be creatively reoriented and aligned as needs arise. With the ever-increasing role technology plays in the operation of city services, significant investments are made to optimize the use of technology to provide quality service to the public more efficiently and at a lower cost of service."
Implementing the land management system, she said, is one example of staff effort.
"We're focused on our digital transformation from eliminating paper forms to electronic versions that significantly reduces our time to process changes," Boscarino said. "We also started utilizing Microsoft Teams and other collaborative tools to work with one another. We have also focused entirely on environmental sustainability, which reduced ongoing operational costs and carbon footprint at the same time."
The city's focus on long-term financial sustainability and financial management has enabled it to operate within its means and set aside funding for future reserves, economic downturns, and products to invest in the community.
"The leadership from the city council and staff has placed the city in a fiscally sound position," she said. "Past actions, combined with the city's immediate actions a year ago, temporarily deferred certain capital projects, and the soft hiring freeze enabled the city to continue providing services to the public during Covid-19."
Additionally, she said the city staff met with the sales tax people regularly about what the impact would be the city's largest revenue source.
"The retail landscape was already changing from lesser reliance on brick and mortar sales to online sales, and the pandemic quickly accelerated this," Boscarino said. Our share of the county pool, which is where we receive our online sales tax, increased by 40 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, in comparison to the year prior. In addition, auto sales are booming, increasing almost 9 percent in the fourth quarter. The pool for online sales has actually moved into the number two sales tax generator in the city, behind autos."
Some projects were temporarily postponed, but the city investment in the city and maintaining city facilities continued through the past year.
"The Thousand Oaks Boulevard Streetscape Project was completed, and the roofing project at the Pacific Arts Plaza, the Teen Center, and the Adult Community Center," she said. "We also completed the 2020 pavement overlay and resurfacing program."
The city has a history of community investment, and she said it emphasizes what it can do with sound fiscal management and a long-term, forward-thinking approach to fiscal sustainability.
"The past actions of city council enabled us to put funding aside for future community investment in infrastructure maintenance and enable the city to partner with other agencies to accomplish future projects," Boscarino said. "From investment in the arts, parks, recreation, and infrastructure, our focus is to continue our momentum and investment in the upcoming budget cycle in order to ensure that Thousand Oaks remains a desirable place to live and recreate."
This story will continue on April 14.