Three candidates for the Los Gatos Town Council all agree the town has a financial problem on its hands, with a projected roughly $4 million ongoing budget deficit beginning next year.
While the candidates, who took part in a forum focused on town finances Tuesday night, all noted difficult choices lay ahead, they mostly avoided specifying what choices they would support, such as cutting services and employees or raising taxes on residents.
The Los Gatos Community Alliance, a residents group that has challenged the town administration’s handling of finances for several years, hosted candidates Margaret Smith, a past president of the Los Gatos Chamber of Commerce, former planning commissioner and a longtime former business owner; Councilmember Mary Badame, who was elected in 2020, is a former planning commissioner and owns an insurance business; and Rob Stump, the head of client services for Sunset Group and an advocate for wildfire preparedness in the town.
The other three candidates running for town council did not participate: Mayor Rob Rennie, on the council since 2014; Rob Moore, a special projects manager at San Jose Conservation Corps and a former Chamber of Commerce board member; and Reza Tavana, a planning commissioner and sales director for an industrial products company.
Moore and Rennie told San José Spotlight they chose not to participate because they feel the alliance group is too biased to hold a fair forum. Tavana did not return a request for comment.
Alliance organizers Phil Koen and Jak Van Nada both have donated to Stump and Badame’s campaign, Koen told San José Spotlight, and all the candidates were told that information beforehand in an email about the forum from the alliance. The moderator, Terry Duryea, is not a member of the alliance group and donated to Moore’s campaign, Duryea said.
Moore and Rennie both said the donations and some emails they saw in which Van Nada criticized them and other candidates were major factors in declining to participate.
“Already supporting candidates before entering a debate does not seem like a fair format,” Moore said.
Rennie said the alliance has at times pedaled misinformation about the town’s finances.
“To the point of almost being lies and unethical, and I don’t want to add any legitimacy to a group that I think is unethical,” Rennie said.
Dealing with a deficit
A large part of the reason Los Gatos is facing an increased projected budget deficit is due to recent council-approved increases in wages and benefits for town employees, including a 10.25% salary bump over this year and next for the police department.
All three candidates taking part in the forum said public safety is a top priority.
Stump said salaries and benefits of all town employees account for roughly 75% of its spending each year and that needs to be addressed, but he stopped short of saying employees should be laid off or have their pay cut.
“No one wants to deal with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, right, and that’s the police department. They’re hugely a great percentage of our salary and benefits,” he said. “The community will decide. If those services are critical and important then the community will step up and help to make the difference for those services to remain here.”
The police department accounts for about 40% of Los Gatos’ annual budget, according to town reports.
Badame noted the council has already voted to put a business license tax revamp on the ballot in November that, if approved by voters, would generate up to $1.2 million a year for the general fund. Town officials are also considering a parcel tax measure to help shore up funds.
“If we do a parcel tax, it would be getting the members of the community who are vested to participate in making this community whole,” Badame said, without saying whether or not she’d support it.
Stump said the town staff should review the salary and benefit structure for employees.
“We have a lot of senior staff people in our town that deserve to be paid well, but we need to slow that (spending) growth,” he said.
Badame and Smith noted Los Gatos has seen a lot of staff turnover recently and needs to pay its employees competitively to keep them around.
Smith said she wants to ensure the library’s hours and services are not cut and that parks in town need to be kept up.
Though Los Gatos already has a finance commission to offer advice to the town council, Smith wants to form another financial advisory body.
“My recommendation would be, as a first step, to establish a structural budget task force whose goal is to eliminate the structural budget deficit,” Smith said.
She also suggested the town could make better use of technology to keep service levels where they are while reducing costs.
Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.