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Whither Pleasanton?

Really confused as to why my request to Pleasanton has gone ignored… maybe I am in the spam folder of the parish council chair and the Pastor!

As I hinted at in last week’s post, some calls around the Diocese have moved the goings on at the Catholic Community of Pleasanton to the top of my study list as I try to put together a full picture of Diocesis Quercopolitana’s health. And right my friends were for suggesting I look at the fair city as an economic indicator of the overall diocese: it appears they are running the second largest capital campaign in the Oakland Diocese and doing so right at the time the Oakland Bishop is raising funds for his own campaign.  And Pleasanton is not just raising any money, it is seeking $10,000,000.00 (I included the zeroes to make the point!) from it’s Parishioners.

You read that right: $10M.

I cannot figure out if this is a second capital campaign in the past three years, or an expansion of one that was already started (this is only generally done when a campaign is going so well there is comfort in raising more). $10M is a staggeringly large sum, even for one of America’s wealthiest cities. To raise this amount, coming out of a recession and  as the Pastor’s own boss runs his own campaign is not just bold, it is brave.

As mentioned previously, I have heard rumors that Pleasanton put together an A-list team of Silicon Valley Executives that met for over a year and a half crafting a strategic plan. That plan, now apparently available, underpins this campaign so I emailed the Pastor and Parish Council Chair asking for a copy. So far silence.

While I try to figure out out to get a copy of the plan (feel free to email me a copy if you have one!) I have been organizing my thoughts around the data from Pleasanton’s two Town Hall meetings from last spring and fall. There are some interesting data points there which I will put in a forthcoming posting.  Things I would like to see from Pleasanton are a clean set of financial statements (just like the Diocese provides) and a copy of the strategic plan, if one exists. If I cannot even get the courtesy of a email reply, this may be a lot to ask though.


Although I have made a point of not being distracted, a little bit of added time to think (and a few more calls), has made me reconsider  my willingness to “chase a different rabbit” as my friend in Oakland suggested earlier this week.

Our Diocese is running an extremely significant capital campaign at the moment. You can read about it here. The Diocese has not yet shared results from the first wave of pledges, but we need to bear in mind that our Diocese is not the wealthiest of places in which to try and raise $65M. There are a limited number of big fish that can be caught in the 560,000+ person area and, bluntly, given how those fish backed away from the bait of  building a Cathedral in Oakland early on it seems an unlikely proposition they’ll bite now. The only way Oakland will balance its books (as it were) is with the hefty financial support of major donors. Mathematically it seems impossible to do on $100 pledges from elderly parishioners up here in Antioch.

Which is perhaps why my friend suggested the Diocese was “up against” something. Some parishes have their own building campaigns going on at the same time the Bishop is asking for money. Local Parishes and the Chancery are drawing water from the same well and that well is not deep or near to full. It was suggested I look at a couple of parishes to see how they are doing as a bit of a proxy for how the Diocese is doing as a whole.

One parish specifically is undertaking a huge capital campaign (perhaps the largest outside of our Bishop’s own although I cannot confirm this yet). This, after they have undertaken a long-term look at their own planning and needs for the future. The story I have heard is that they have assembled a top-tier group of silicon valley executives to create a parish-wide, long-term strategic plan. I cannot say how excited I am to here this. If true it could represent an excellent template for the Diocese as a whole.  Note that if one were to look for a Diocesan-wide strategic plan it would be an exercise in futility–I certainly cannot find one. We must however give Bishop Barber time as it is only two years since his installation–and he inherited a difficult situation of epic proportions .

This is precisely why the Parish plan I have heard of is so exciting. With a head start based on work from some of the best and brightest strategic minds in the Valley, the Diocese could add the serious depth it sorely needs as it attempts to “reclaim Christ’s mission”.

I have emailed the Pastor and the Chair of the Parish Council of the Church in question to see if they will share a copy of this strategic encyclical with me. There is some spotty financial information on that Parish web site which I will take some time to review too.  So perhaps I will let myself be distracted from the Diocese to a Parish so I can see how an influential local church handles the strategic.

Paranoia and Verification

Perhaps I should go back and make something clear.

Ruth read my last post and thought I made it sound like the conspiracies in the DaVinci Code. She’s right, it could be read that way. As a rule accountants have to treat financial facts and the patterns as verifiable. Accountants worry and test. Like President Reagan said about the Soviet nuclear treaty, “We will trust but verify.” When doing audit work accountants are always just a little bit suspicious. Like I said, numbers tell several stories all at once. In some sense they are like parables with a surface story and a meaning behind the story. In the right frame of mind, it is possible to see the meaning behind the story being offered. For an auditor, that frame of mind usually means you’re a little bit paranoid. Healthy suspicion is the good friend of the auditor.

That’s why my post yesterday probably reads more like conspiracy than it should. It also means that it is worth listening to my friend and go and head over to a few other parish websites to see what’s going on elsewhere. He was actually a little more specific about who to look at and why than I let on initially, which itself is curious.

Another Call

Now we’re getting to something.

Yet another friend called back and he suggested I was chasing the wrong rabbit. He really wanted me to look at some of the things going on in the parishes so that I might get a sense of what the Diocese was “up against”. Up against? Why did he say it that way? The first thing is (and I don’t care if he’s reading this!) that good financial work means not getting distracted. Any time you are looking at an institution’s numbers and they tell you “don’t look here, look over there” you have to go back and really look “here”, that is, the first place you started.

Sometimes finance types try to be like magicians–they wave one hand to keep your eyes occupied while the other is deftly hiding something. So with due respect to my brother in Christ, I’m going to keep looking in the place I started. Which is funny because I haven’t really found anything special despite this call.

A First Call Back

Happy to get a call back this afternoon from an old friend I’d left a message with. Not sure he’s going to be that much help and he admitted as much. He’s enough of a friend to make fun of me for being curious about this kind of thing. I think he said that this was just the kind of eccentric thing guys like me waste our time on. He’s probably right! Nonetheless he promised to do a little digging for me and would call me if something of interest came up. He didn’t know when the next financial statement from the Diocese was forthcoming either.

A Little Light Reading

Over coffee this morning Ruthie tells me she is none too happy with this project I am making for myself. “When does retirement mean retiring?” she asks…

Indeed a very good question.

But this is really more of a hobby. I can put it down or pick it up. Ruth worries that I cannot stop when I start and that hobby can lead to obsession. She knows me too well. She and I have worked hard enough to enjoy the morning paper and the evening stroll; we do not need my curiousity to disturb the peace. All true. There are hours in between breakfast and our walk after dinner that ask for a filling though and I can only work in a garden for so long! The internet is a gift to these kinds of investigations precisely because I can sit here at the kitchen table and research a whole Diocese worth of financial information. Most parishes have their own websites. Accounting firms publish their reports online. Dicocesan newspapers archive their articles in searchable databases. Even the Vatican library is open to my typed in queries! Friends at the chancery offices are a short phone call away and if I get very curious a drive down to Oakland is not out of the question. I need not give up much to let my instinct take me where it will in this matter. This can stay a hobby I think and I can keep Ruth’s worry a minor thing (she will worry after me no matter what I do anyway).

I had called a few friends downtown yesterday and none have answered yet. While I am awaiting replies, my internet searches have yielded a few good reports to read. For anyone curious, here is what I found:
The Moss Adams report on the Oakland Diocese’s finances in 2011 & 2012
and the Diocesan CFO’s (William Utic) report on finances from the May 19, 2014 Catholic Voice

There is a lot more, but this is good for some reading on the back deck this afternoon after lunch. For now I am off to pull weeds in the front flower bed. Financial statements in the morning and weed pulling after lunch: such is the life of a retiree in suburbia!

A New Hobby from an Old Job

Jumping right back in… retirement became boring more quickly than I had expected! The firm sold at the beginning of the year and we had committed to transition the clients through this tax season. I’ve been working with some of them for over twenty years and I had thought I’d be glad to have all the time off. The sad fact is, I don’t miss it, but here it is coming near the end of May and I am already prowling around looking for something else to do. Thirty five years is plenty of time to have enjoyed all the ups and downs of having my own firm, so I can honestly say I do not miss the day-to-day. And I get to see the pretty office manager every day anyway!What more is there to ask?

Still, I need something to do. And more than that, I need something to do with numbers more than the Sudoku in the morning paper. The thought occurred to me during Mass last weekend when I should have been paying attention. Sorry Father! I have been in the business of advising businesses and people on their finances. When people took my advice they did pretty well. When they didn’t take my advice… at least I was paid handsomely to be ignored. So I sat there in my scratched oak pew last Sunday and thought that maybe it would be worth poking my nose into church finances. Not my own Parish, mind you, no, it’s too small to be interesting and two rotations on our “finance council” were sufficiently painful to make me not want to ever do that again. But the finances of the Oakland Diocese? Now that’s another kettle of fish entirely.

The Oakland Diocese has to be one of the most indebted Dioceses in the United States. We floated bonds. We built a cathedral. We settled lawsuits. We ran through about four Bishops in less than 10 years –it looks like they couldn’t get out fast enough! That has the feel of a complex financial story any good money person can enjoy digging around in. I only made it through two years of seminary, but the little Latin I do remember taught me: “sequi pecuniam”, which I think translates into “follow the money”. Don’t quote me on that, like I said, I came back home after only part way through.

My experience is that if you follow the money (at least where people are involved) it will lead somewhere interesting. The question is: how much can one learn about a Diocese from the outside? And, related, what are we not supposed to learn? What it is true of every financial statement I have ever read is that there are the things the statements are obligated to say and the things the statements would rather people not ask too many questions about. It is the second part of that truth that makes being an accountant so much fun: getting to the real story hidden in the numbers. So sitting in Mass I decided my new hobby would be to use my free time and 40 years of financial thinking to learn about the finances of Dioecesis Quercopolitana.

I skyped with the boy and he set me up with a new email and blog and I’m going to try to keep a running account of what I learn right here. Ruth isn’t too happy with my idea, but I like it. For now there is no need to make any of this formal. I intend to document my findings and keep the exercise materially academic.

Climate vs Capitalism

Members of the Corporate Watch workers’ coop invite you to discuss ways forward for the grassroots, anti-capitalist climate movement in the UK.

The aim of the project is to bring people together to discuss capitalism and climate change and hopefully consider ‘where next’ for the movement in the UK.

The discussions will take place in a series of workshops which will be held first in London then Bristol, Brighton, Manchester and at the Earth First Summer Gathering.

There will be a follow-up meeting after the initial workshops have taken place where we hope to move discussions towards forms of organising and action. We will also use this blog to continue discussions online between the workshops.

We want to be clear that we are coming from a certain political perspective: anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian, and that certain things will not be up for discussion: whether climate change is happening, and whether or not we can or should be doing anything to stop it. We feel that in order to have a useful discussion, these things should be taken as given for all those attending. Please feel free to invite others who share this perspective.

The first workshop will be in London, 7pm – 9:30pm Wednesday 13th May at LARC – London Action Resource Centre – (Sorry for using Facebook!!)

The workshop will begin with a very brief introduction to the UK anti-capitalist climate movement, followed by an equally brief overview of existing organisations and actions planned.

The rest of the workshop will be facilitated discussions around climate change and anti-capitalism, including time in small groups. We will suggest questions for people to discuss, but we welcome suggestions of other questions to consider.

These are some of the questions we may discuss:

What forms of action and organising in the climate movement can help bring down capitalism?

What would a truly anti-capitalist climate movement look like?

How can the climate movement link with other struggles against capitalism and oppression?

How can we avoid falling into the traps of green jobs, green growth, or green capitalism?

How can we stop a radical climate movement being co-opted by those that seeking to reform rather than replace existing political and economic systems?

How can we break the strangle hold of capitalist realism on our political imaginations? [Capitalist realism is the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism]

Let us know if you want to attend or have any questions or comments:


Even Naomi Klein, who subtitled her book ‘capitalism vs the climate’, seems to shy away from the reality of an anti-capitalist climate movement. Indeed many in the climate movement, as Klein seems to, identify neoliberalism rather than capitalism as the problem: If we can just reign in the excesses of unregulated capitalism, using the power of the state, we can avoid catastrophic climate change. However this ignores the fundamental opposition of economic growth and ecological sustainability; It fails to recognise neoliberalism as the latest and inevitable manifestation of capital seeking new sources of profit; It also ignores huge social cost of capitalism and the diverse struggles against it and other forms of oppression that have been around for centuries.

However, these workshops will not be an academic talking shop, we want it to be a practical discussion looking at the alternatives to A-B marches, weak symbolic actions, divestment within capitalism, and going to yet another UN meeting in Paris in December. We want to assess and build on the experiences of the radical UK climate movement over the last 20 or so years, such as the anti-roads movement, Rising Tide, Reclaim the Streets, Earth First! Copenhagen 2009 and the Camp for Climate Action. The workshop will be a starting point for these discussions which we hope to continue in the future.