8 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY february 29-march 6, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com news When Monterey City Manager Hans Uslar addressed his city council, staff and the public in his Feb. 15 State of the City speech, he began on a note of levity, saying that he’d recently read a headline asserting that artificial intelligence is coming for white collar jobs, and he pointed to his white collar. He told those assembled that he asked ChatGPT to write his speech, and began reading what it had generated: “Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed residents and business owners and distinguished guests, welcome to the annual State of the City address for the beautiful City of Monterey. As your city manager it’s both an honor and a privilege to stand before you today to reflect on the progress we’ve made, acknowledge the challenges we face, and outline the promising future that lies ahead for our beloved community.” Uslar then dispensed with the levity and got onto his main points, which are sobering, not humorous. “We don’t have a revenue problem in the city of Monterey,” Uslar said. “We have a spending problem. We are spending too much on too many assets.” In prefacing that remark, Uslar noted that many key city facilities—a lot of them built in the 1950s—were either in need of replacement or complete overhaul. Among them: the library, built in 1950, with an estimated price tag of $20-50 million; the existing police and fire headquarters next to City Hall with a top-line estimate of $150 million; the tunnel and wall at the marina, an estimated $25 million; and a host of other city facilities—one thing Uslar noted is that Monterey has five community centers. A city of comparable size typically would have one. He also brought the Neighborhood Community Improvement Program (NCIP) into the discussion, which garners its revenue—an estimated $6 million annually—from transient occupancy taxes generated by hotel stays, but questioned the wisdom of investing in an eight-court, city-funded pickleball facility in Ryan Ranch— which residents and non-residents alike would have to drive to—while there are sewage backups in the police station, peeling paint in the fire stations and leaking roofs in the community centers. “You do not build a brand-new porch when the roof is leaking,” Uslar said. The Neighborhood Community Improvement Program launched in 1985, giving neighborhood representatives an opportunity to decide how to reinvest money generated by tourism into projects proposed and ranked high by residents. While Uslar lauded the community benefits of NCIP projects, he added with every project there come maintenance costs, and stacked atop each other year over year, it’s a mountain of money over time. Meanwhile, the city only dedicates 2 percent of its general fund revenue to capital improvement projects. And there are increasing concerns and hopes regarding undergrounding utilities in the city, as climate change-induced storm patterns, coupled with the aging Monterey pine trees all over much of the city, have led to frequent power outages in recent years, and also raised concerns over wildfires sparked by downed lines. In certain neighborhoods, that’s already impacted their ability to get homeowner’s insurance. Those are some key things, Uslar said, that the city needs to prioritize going forward, and that while they may not be as “exciting” as new development, they are critical. A Feb. 22 NCIP meeting held at City Hall addressed some of those questions, and highlighted that there are 69 new project applications in the last year spanning the city’s 12 neighborhoods. Just five of them seek to address utilities, and only some of those include undergrounding. How things will ultimately play out will be up to the current and future city councils, but Uslar planted his stake in the ground and told some hard truths. He says the $2 million the city’s general fund budget puts annually toward capital improvement projects is nearly the same as when he started working at the city more than 20 years ago. The city’s overall annual revenue is around $100 million, the majority of which goes to pay its full-time staff of about 400, and about 200 part-time employees. So what to do? Uslar’s ask was that others empowered with the purse—councilmembers, NCIP board members—keep all that in mind, and the coming year will help fill in the blanks. (The city has also launched a public poll on its website, under the “Have Your Say Monterey” umbrella, that allows residents and others to click in on priorities.) Mayor Tyller Williamson looks at some of the challenges as potential opportunities, using the library as an example. He thinks both that the city should invest in a “library of the future,” and isn’t sure it’s worth revamping a building constructed decades ago—he’s for starting anew, putting the library somewhere else, and perhaps turning the location into future affordable housing. “That’s me being idealistic, I don’t know how much meat is on the bones there,” he concedes, adding, “I think it would be smart to have something like that.” Williamson also paid close attention to what Uslar characterized as “nice to have” over “need to have” facilities, and he thinks the $150 million price tag for the new police/fire headquarters includes a lot of “nice to have” things, and hopes that number can come down. Rafaela King, who the city hired in September 2021 as finance director, says that in her first week, she was led on tours of the city’s police and fire headquarters and was shown all the deficiencies in each respective facility. And King seems to share Uslar’s vision that there are urgent needs to be addressed now, so as not “to push it down to next generation.” Part of both Uslar and King’s message is the need to bring awareness to the city’s fiscal issues, and as King says, “This is something we need to start addressing. We can’t do it in one year, we can’t do it in five years.” But the power of the purse is largely outside the purview of Uslar or other city staff—it will come down to the public, the council and NCIP board members. Should undergrounding be an urgent priority? If so, should it jump other NCIP projects in the queue? And what about all the buildings that need replacing or an overhaul? Monterey has had decades of seeing new, nice-to-have things. The lifespan of its infrastructure now demands a closer look at the need-tohave things. The cost estimates to overhaul or rebuild the Monterey Public Library and the city’s fire and police headquarters across the street are up to nearly $200 million. Bills Due The City of Monterey has lavish revenue, and expenditures. The latter is coming home to roost. By David Schmalz “We don’t have a revenue problem in the city of Monterey. We have a spending problem.” Daniel Dreifuss