The Concord City Council did something unfathomable last week. It asked City Manager Valerie Barone for an unvarnished look at the city's outstanding debt, unfunded obligations and neglected infrastructure repairs.
In the movies, this is where the patient says, "OK, Doc, give it to me straight."
The one-hour report titled "Update on Long-Term Post-Employment Liabilities and Infrastructure Backlog" featured most of the city's lieutenants -- Budget Officer Jovan Grogan, Director of Finance Karan Reid, Director of Public Works Justin Ezell and City Engineer Robert Ovadia.
The good news, thanks to supplementary income from the Measure Q half-cent sales tax hike passed in 2010, is that Concord is in position to balance its general fund budget for the next 10 years, during which expenditures will grow from about $75 million to $90 million.
The bad news takes a little longer to deliver. The budget does not include full funding for the city's retirement program or retiree medical benefits. Nor does it account for postponed repairs on roadways, sidewalks, street signs, parks and city facilities. All that would add $10 million to the annual outlay.
"You've showed us the good, the bad and the ugly," said Vice Mayor Ron Leone. "Now comes the challenges, and what we're going to do about them is important."
Concord shifted into belt-tightening mode several years ago, laying off more than 140 employees, cutting programs, outsourcing services and negotiating increased employee contributions to health and retirement benefits.
In the most extreme gesture -- a literal squeezing of water from the budget -- the council voted to pull the plugs on two city-owned fountains. Locating further savings may require a microscope.
What about new revenue? Councilman Edi Birsan suggested that voters might be willing to extend Measure Q, now set to expire in 2016. Of course, one of the measure's selling points was that it would sunset in five years.
Barone urged the council to step back and take a measured look at its problem, likening the challenge to a homeowner faced with grocery, mortgage and utility bills while saving to pay for a roof that will need replacement.
"All cities have this issue to one degree or another," she said, "and many have it much worse that we do. Because this council and the councils before you made a number of hard decisions, that's put the city on the right path."
Laura Hoffmeister, the longest-tenured member of the council, couldn't help but note the coincidence in the city's current shortfall.
"In 2006," she said, "we had $78 million in revenue. Now we're down to $68 million; that's $10 million ... Guess what we're missing to meet our unfunded liability needs in personnel matters and infrastructure? That's all the downturn in the economy."
The search for answers will go on. The city has already worked to increase its sales tax revenues by promoting the automobile dealerships in town, marketed Concord as a destination in hopes of increasing hotel traffic and cut a more lucrative deal for the operation of the Concord Pavilion. Next up: an ordinance that requires all one-time revenues or surpluses be used to reduce its debt.
There are no easy answers, but in some ways Concord has taken the most difficult step. It has publicly confronted its fiscal demons.
More cities should do the same.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.