An Interview with City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson

San Bernardino City Bankruptcy is pleased to bring you the 8th in our series of online interviews with candidates running for Mayor of San Bernardino this November.

San Bernardino City Councilman and Mayoral Candidate Rikke Van Johnson.

San Bernardino City Councilman and Mayoral Candidate Rikke Van Johnson.

Today’s interview is with San Bernardino City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson who represents San Bernardino’s 6th Ward.

This is also the final interview of the series as three of the candidates for mayor (Richard Castro, Carey Davis and Matthew Korner) did not respond to our online interview request by returning answers to our questions.

If you’ve missed any of the previous mayoral candidate interviews, they have been all archived on the Mayor’s Race page.

And now our interview with Mayoral Candidate and City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson.

Councilman, thank you for your time today.

Councilman Johnson thank you for your time today.

You were first elected to the San Bernardino City Council in 2003, then re-elected in 2007 and 2011. During that time what were some of your major concerns about how the City was managing its finances?

My major concern was the utilization of reserve funds to support the general fund. When I first entered into office in 2004 San Bernardino had a reserve fund balance of over $12 million dollars.  The reserve fund balance was reduced to zero dollars by 2010.

What steps did you attempt to take to correct these problems that would eventually lead to the City of San Bernardino declaring bankruptcy?

Utilization of the reserve funds to support demands by director of departments I could not support, but I was just one vote. However, during the economic downturn in our economy the reserve funds became the only place to go for funds to aid the City’s general fund predicament.

Few cities were hurt by the housing crisis to the same extent as San Bernardino, where the median home value declined by 57.6% between 2007 and 2011 from $327,000 to just $147,000. This decline is more than any other large city in the United States.  By the end of 2012, almost 4.4% of homes in San Bernardino were in foreclosure, among the highest rates for all large cities.

Along with the massive loss in home values, unemployment rates have skyrocketed to the third-highest in the country among the largest cities.  The unemployment rate reached 17.6%, nearly double the U.S. rate and almost 10 percentage points higher than the city’s annual rate in 2007.

In 2006 San Bernardino generated $36,753,095 in sales tax revenue.  In 2013 sales tax plummeted to $20,111,523. In August of 2012, declining home values, declining sales tax and rising employee retirement costs forced the city to file for bankruptcy.

At the Budget Meeting on August 23, 2010 we were told by the City Treasurer that we could no longer use gimmicks to balance the budget. The City Manager stated that we were headed towards bankruptcy if we continued down this path without taking measures to prevent that disaster and brought forth recommendations to change our course.

Some policy makers said he was using ‘scare tactics’ by stating that we were heading into bankruptcy. I attempted to work on changing the course we were heading on. The votes were not there to alter the direction that we were on.

Last summer when the City suddenly declared bankruptcy, how did you vote on this action and why?

This action to declare bankruptcy was not sudden. Because we did not take preventive action to avert fiscal decline in August of 2010, the City’s financial condition to declare bankruptcy could not be avoided.

All remedies to forestall the inevitable had been exhausted.  I voted yes because in the summer of 2012 our City did not have adequate funds in place to pay for the day-to-day operations and pay our creditors.

What were your top priorities as a Councilmember prior to bankruptcy?

As Councilman some of my priorities were bringing jobs into our City and into the 6th Ward, like Hewlett-Packard, Dollar Tree Corporation and FedEx – all Fortune 500 Companies.

Another priority was to bring quality senior housing into our community. The Magnolia at Highlands Senior Apartment Complex has multiple amenities making it the best senior complex in the city.  Still another priority was strategically improving the infrastructure in the 6th Ward.

How has the bankruptcy affected your pursuit of those civic goals?

As we enter into the Plan for Adjustment of Debts phase of Chapter 9 municipality bankruptcy that becomes the priority and all of the goals that I have as a Councilmember have to be focused in that direction.

After San Bernardino exits bankruptcy, what policies need to be changed or implemented to ensure that a financial crisis like this does not happen to our City again?

It’s important that as a City we learn to live within our means.  A minimum 10% reserve has to be maintained.  Funds have to be set aside for vehicle and equipment replacement cost, as well as retirement obligations.

Monthly updates from the Finance Department need to be put in place.  We have already started reorganizing our financial department by eliminating specialized positions that stunt flexibility.

The Finance Department reorganization also intends to help create more efficiency for assigning work, provide better opportunities to hire staff and improve the department structure to address the City’s current and future needs and challenges.

In addition to the City’s financial problems, San Bernardino has an extremely high number of jobless residents. What do you believe the City should be doing to help residents find employment and bring jobs to San Bernardino?

We need to work on maintaining, strengthening and growing our existing businesses.  Our City Chamber of Commerce and our Ethnic Chamber of Commerce’s are vital partners that can assist in supporting this effort.

We have to engage them to become part of the process to improve the climate for existing businesses.  Working collectively we can focus on attracting new businesses.  We have the available land, natural resources and the existing and improving transportation infrastructure; we just need to work proactively to make it happen.

As we explore bringing in more fulfillment warehousing, like Amazon.com, to increase sales tax revenue, we can partner in the hiring process with the San Bernardino Employment and Training Agency to steer more local residents into those jobs.

Public safety is also a major concern in San Bernardino.  Unfortunately both the San Bernardino Fire and Police Departments have been hit hard with cuts and loss of staffing.  What types of public safety complaints are you hearing from you constituents?

All departments in our city family have been hit hard due to the economic downturn in our country.  Nonetheless the complaints that I hear most regarding public safety are concerning lack of compassion when the responders arrive.

What do you think the City of San Bernardino should be doing to improve safety for its residents and families?

As we are able to fiscally afford to increase our police department we should look to increase units that work proactively in the department to combat crime throughout the City.

A positive that has resulted from our bankruptcy is the formation of more neighborhood associations.  This creates an opportunity for more eyes and ears on the streets. As we work to collaborate more with the neighborhood associations, they can become a vital an integral component in our war against crime.

These neighborhood associations can take basic actions like reporting suspicious behavior or reporting crimes in progress to the police.

Staying with the issue of public safety, after the election of Pat Morris as Mayor the voters approved a 10 year tax through by passing Measure Z.  Many residents and employees are questioning whether Measure Z funds are being used as demanded by the voters when they also approved Measure YY, directing the Mayor and City Council to use this tax revenue to enhance public safety. Do you believe these funds are being used in accordance with their intent?

Measure Z enacted a .25% district tax for a period of 15 years, beginning April 1, 2007.

The proceeds of Measure Z was to be used only to fund more police officers and support personnel, and to fund anti-gang and anti-crime operations, including drug resistance education and supervised after-school youth activities.

I do not believe that the funds have been utilized in that prescribed manner.

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

It’s important that San Bernardino work on doing the basic things well and build on that foundation to emerge into a healthy and progressive City.  That will take strong, collaborative and decisive leadership.

My Vision for the City of San Bernardino is a safe and prosperous community which offers a wide range of housing, recreation, education, cultural and employment opportunities for all who come to live and work here.

An area that will continue to provide a strong sense of community; and continue to grow and prosper so all San Bernardino residents will have access to a better quality of life.

The City of San Bernardino will once again be that proud City on the Move by doing what a city does best to reflect what a great city has to offer by working together with a vision, a plan and a hope that tomorrow will be a better day than today.

End of Interview