Fuzzy math should not obscure real progress by SLO City

December 14, 2011

John Ashbaugh

OPINION By JOHN B. ASHBAUGH, San Luis Obispo City Councilman

Here’s a riddle for you: When is a “0” not a zero?

Answer: When it’s being deployed by a political activist with an axe to grind.

I refer, of course, to “SLO Salary Cuts: $0” by Kevin P. Rice, elsewhere on CCN.  In it, Kevin disputes the reality of the compensation reductions that will result from a new two-year agreement with our City Manager, City Attorney, and 71 other employees who are unrepresented by a union. Kevin’s conclusion is based entirely on “fuzzy math,” replete with errors of judgment, flawed reasoning, and outright distortions.

I could refute each of Kevin’s points in sequence, but instead I want to “take the high road.” I invite you to read for yourself the Council staff report for our December 6 meeting, where you can find for yourself two fundamental facts:

•    This agreement results in substantial savings for the City – $807,000 per year, exceeding by almost $50,000 the target set by the Council when we adopted our 2011-13 Financial Plan.

•    The City of San Luis Obispo has made significant progress with this contract in implementing a smooth “glide path” to fiscal sustainability. We hope to obtain similar agreements from our five employee unions, and this first agreement with our managers gives us reason for cautious optimism.

The staff report contains all you need to know to realize that Kevin’s argument is completely bogus. But you may need to “read between the lines” to realize fully the critical leadership role played by our City Manager, and by all our Department heads, in recommending this new agreement to our Council.

The fact is that ALL employees covered by this agreement will “feel the pinch” of a 7.2 percent reduction in their compensation (and yes, in the case of our City Manager, that reduction is fully 12 percent). They deserve our thanks and our praise: This reduction in our managers’ compensation exceeds that of any other city in this county, and most other cities in California.

There are, of course, those who argue that “It’s not enough.” There are those, like Mr. Rice, who would have you believe that these cuts are fictional, or exaggerated; it’s all too easy to obfuscate this issue by delineating fine rhetorical distinctions between “salaries” and “total compensation.” Let me assure you: These cuts are absolutely real, and (to repeat) they go well beyond the target that our Council had set when we adopted the Financial Plan in June.

I’m optimistic about our fiscal and economic future in San Luis Obispo, but I’m also a realist when it comes to employee compensation: We require professional services in managing a $100 million municipal corporation with over 300 employees, and we must pay competitive salaries to obtain those services. Our Council unanimously chose to hire BOTH our City Manager AND our City Attorney in my first year in office. I continue to believe that our City is very fortunate to have the services of these two individuals.

In these times of rampant conspiracy theorists and paranoid fear-mongers, it is too easy to convince your readers that “corruption” is rampant in City Hall, that Council members like myself are “on the take,” or at best that we are willfully ignorant of fiscal realities facing our community.

Here’s my “take” on this: There really are no dark conspiracies at City Hall; we listen to everyone who has a complaint or a suggestion, and we make a serious attempt to respond. We do our level best to comply with California’s “open meeting” law (the Ralph M. Brown Act). We couldn’t take bribes even if we tried; we have a very vigilant City Attorney and City Clerk, and people like Karen Velie who actually read our Financial Disclosure forms required by the California Fair Political Practices Act.

Finally, all five of us diligently read voluminous staff reports on our city’s fiscal condition, and we listen carefully to citizen and staff input. We disagree on many issues, and often interpret data differently, but we do so not out of ignorance. We differ on matters of perspective, ideology, and experience.

We also have an excellent staff, in my opinion. I do my best to provide them with the respect they deserve, and I value their services. For their part, our employees also value their jobs, and they give 100 percent, and often more, because they also care deeply about the community they serve.

If you want accurate information about any issues confronting our City, please do not hesitate to contact me. My cell phone is 550-7713; my email is jashbaug@slocity.org. Sure, I’m just another political activist with my own axe to grind, but I’m also an elected official with a record that I’m ready to talk about any time, in any forum, with any constituent. Call me.

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John, thanks for the link to the staff report. After reading it, I conclude you are guilty of all the obfuscations and distortions you accuse Mr. Rice of having presented.

Quite simply, nobody’s pay got cut.

I’ve never heard of public employees who pay nothing towards their retirement; it’s high time they did so, but THAT is not a pay cut — it’s called paying their fair share.

Since the math to get to $800,000 isn’t presented in the report, one has to wonder if the big number includes the foregone cost of living increase (really, now, who gets those these days other than executives anyway? High time these folks just be grateful for the income they have, like all the rest of the 99% lucky enough to have a job are.) The report’s math is really fuzzy, if you ask me. If you intended it to be otherwise, why isn’t it presented clearly? Don’t blame Mr. Rice if he made a mistake or two deciphering your institutional kremlinology verbosity.

I also noted that our esteemed city attorney did not surrender her car allowance. Why does she need one? Isn’t her income sufficient to support her car costs? Do you offer car allowances to the city’s secretaries? They probably need one more than the attorney, and they probably contribute more service to the taxpayers than she as well.


He lost me with the paleolithic “fuzzy math” meme in the title.

Mr. Ashbaugh,

I don’t know math, I just want to know what TRIBE you’re from…Are you related to Ms. Ashbaugh of the Defender Tribe? Or are you a member of the Rancher Tribe, the Realtor/Broker Tribe, the Bureau-Tribe, or the Enviro-Tribe?

Either way, I liked your opinion peice, but the bloggers gave me more facts. In the meantime, keep those paycuts coming!


“Savings as measured against what? How much was spent last year, how much you wanted to spend this year or how much you budgeted?

Most people will want to know if this ‘reduction’ is going to stay your hand from reaching into our pockets for even more money? My guess is no. I have noticed both water and sewer rates going up unabated… now trash rates are moving upward as well. Any economist will tell you that rate hikes are not inelastic ( keep raising rates and eventually overall total revenue drops… often dramatically).

It is interesting to see that the real savior for San Luis Obispo City has been the new retail district on the west side of town (Costco, new Frontiers, Target, Dicks, AT&T, Home Depot, Olive Garden, etc.).. you know… that area that you all had been fighting for decades.

You’re insane if you think that has been the real savior for San Luis Obispo. Maybe on a short term basis it has helped but if you want to see what sucking all the profit out of a community does and eliminating its middle class does, take a look at Santa Maria. It turns *everyone* into working class people.

While I am no fan of big government, I cannot be the only one who sees this as a semantical argument? I think the City and it’s lapdog media did a disservice at best by claiming a reduction in total compensation (whether by extension of existing reductions/give-ups or not) is a “pay cut” – most of us hicks in the sticks are not as fancy as you big city edumacated types and when we see “pay cut” we think of pay – as in wages or salary. Neither of which were actually cut or reduced. Some bennies had to go (or stay gone) and that’s about it.

In the end, sure, it might save the City some money, but it’s not really addressing the problem: we’re paying our people too much. If times were boomin’, you’d narry hear a word from us hicks. But in these lean times, there’s plenty of us with a lot of time on our hands (out of work) to stop and actually see how crappy the city has been run for a while now; and no purdy sidewalk is going to change that.

Hey Councilman Ashbaugh:

How about we keep all of this math that appears so “fuzzy” to you simple?

Simply explain THIS Councilman Ashbaugh: After having taken a pay cut that caused you and Jan Marx to laud her “leadership,” why is Katie Litchtig’s base salary still more than that of Governor Brown, Vice President Biden, and among the 12 highest of all city managers in California?

Lithtig does nothing but delegate or hire outside consultants to do the work. She is costing your city a lot of money to cover her own inadequacies.