Taxing Issues

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La Mesa Council candidates address budget gap, public safety and future
growth

By Miriam Raftery

State budget cuts have left La Mesa facing a potential budget shortfall
of several million dollars.  In exclusive interviews with East
County Magazine,
challenger Shannon O’Dunn as well
as incumbents David Allan and Ruth Sterling shared their views on  bridging
the budget gap as well as their visions for the long-term future of La Mesa.

Shannon O'Dunn

Challenger
Shannon O’Dunn hopes to use her leadership experience
in the Grossmont-Cuyamaca College District to provide collegiality, sound
management and new revenues to retain key services and help local merchants
in La Mesa.

“My goal as a councilmember is to preserve La Mesa’s star
quality,” says O’Dunn, who pledges to protect the 19th village
character of La Mesa’s downtown.  A long-time resident of
La Mesa and East County, O’Dunn and her husband, Mike Bernis, raised
their family here. 

O’Dunn describes herself as the “Audrey Hepburn candidate” for
La Mesa City Council.  Her website recalls a scene from the movie Charade,
in which Hepburn tells Cary Grant, “Do you know what’s wrong
with you? Nothing!”  O’Dunn adds, “That’s
how I feel…Do you know what’s wrong with La Mesa? Nothing!”  That
said, she aspires to bring management expertise and fresh ideas to boost
revenues and retain key services in a tight economy.

As Dean of Communications and Fine Arts at Grossmont College, O’Dunn
recalls, “I was able to bring people together and solve problems
in the public arena where resources are scare,” she told ECM.  She
has also served on the Grossmont-Cuyamaca College District’s (GCCD)Bond
Oversight Committee, taught geology at Grossmont College, was director
of the district’s Grants and Contracts instruction, and ran for
the GCCD board in 2006.

Sales tax is the primary source of revenues for La Mesa.  O’Dunn
observed, “Sales tax supports our fire, police, roads and parks.  So
we had better do everything we can do as a City to support a healthy
commercial sector. “  She declined to state whether she supports
the Council’s recent decision to put a measure on the November
ballot asking voters to approve a ¾ cent sales tax increase, a
move the Council approved to fill a projected revenue gap resulted from
state funding cutbacks and declining retail sales during the current
economic downturn.  O’Dunn added she would address this and
other issues when candidate forums are held. 

“I’m proud to be a supporter of the newly formed La Mesa
Chamber of Commerce,” said O’Dunn, who won an award from
the Chamber. “I think we should promote a BID-business investment
district-for downtown, keeping the village atmosphere…What you
need in the village are venues to give us night life—galleries
and one-of-a-kind restaurants,” she said. “We also need a
parking garage on city-owned property adjacent to the village.”

To boost revenues, she would also support conversion of Grossmont Center,
which loses its lease in six years, to a mixed use retail and residential
project if the property owner shared that vision.

O’Dunn warns that the city should not count on state or federal
help in today’s tough economic times. “We need to be ready
to shelter in place,” she warned. “I’m not talking
about fire.  I’m talking about social and economic sheltering.
If we want to maintain the quality of life that we’ve had in La
Mesa, we need to be prepared to provide for it within our own borders.”

Exceptions would be water and transportation, which fall outside La
Mesa’s control.  But O’Dunn added, “We must be
effective watchdogs on the County Water Authority, MTD, etc. 

She praised La Mesa’s “small town” atmosphere and
events such as the Flag Day Parade.  “We need to keep doing
those things, “O’Dunn concluded, “or we aren’t
La Mesa.”

She has been endorsed by Councilmembers David Allan, Ernie Ewin, Mark
Arapostathos, Mayor Art Madrid and Assemblyman Joel Anderson.  Her
community volunteer activities include the La Mesa Lion’s Club,
Foothills Republican Women Federation, and Grossmont Foundation Board.
O’Dunn, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in
geology, also volunteers as a speaker and trainer in the Mission Trails
Regional Park Trail Guide Program.

O’Dunn pledges to see that the City continues to provide “quality
of life for every stage of life.”  She voiced concern over
the need to retain vital services such as parks, public safety, and meals
for seniors.   

“Any city that ignores the very old and the very young is not
a city that cares, and La Mesa is a city that’s always taken care
of its people,” she concluded. “I think we need to find a
way to generate the revenues. To say we will abandon our elderly, families
with young children, and those in need is just wrong.”

David Allan

Incumbent
Councilman David Allan, a firefighting professional, proposed this memorial
honoring La Mesa firefighters who helped in 9-11 rescue efforts.  His
priorities include public safety and protecting the needs of working
people, children and seniors as well as a strong commercial sector. 

“My number one accomplishment is that we now have paramedics on
every fire engine in our City,” said Allan, a career firefighting
professional and member of the La Mesa City Council for the past eight
years. “La Mesa was the last city in our area to get this.  When
I came on the Council, it was basic first aid.  The program, funded
in part through American Medical Response, “is a big benefit to
public safety,” he said in an interview with ECM. 

Allan has served for 17 years with the San Miguel Fire Protection District.  A
U.S. Army veteran with the 8th Division, 101st airborne, he also served
with the U.S. Federal Fire Service and was president/director of legislative
affairs for the San Miguel Firefighters. 

An active community volunteer, Allan chairs a Public Safety committee
for California’s League of Cities, serves on the National League
of Public Safety, the Prisoner Re-entry Committee for California, and
the YMCA board of directors.  Allan has also coached Little League
teams while his children were growing up.

He believes in putting public safety first and supported hiring of an
East County Gang Task Force officer as well as strengthening law enforcement
and Neighborhood Watch programs to reduce crime.

Allan cites a long list of additional accomplishments.  “I
got workshops here for seniors on changes in Medicare and Medicaid,” he
said, adding that he also helped restore a meals program for seniors. 

He has supported youth services, including job fair in La Mesa which
had 300 youths participate.  “We will build on that,” said
Allan, who also worked with Title 9 to bring a softball field at Helix
High School.  Next up, he hopes to bring an outdoor ice rink to
La Mesa for the City’s Christmas in the Village celebration.

He was instrumental in having MIA/POW flags flown on city buildings.  “It’s
important to me not to forget our veterans,” said Allan, who also
proposed a 9-11 memorial that honors La Mesa firefighters who participated
in rescue efforts at the World Trade Center.

In February, Allan his colleagues on the Council by revealing that he
has changed his party registration from Republican to Democratic.   Asked
why, he replied, “I represent everybody. I don’t agree with
everything on either side.  But we forgot about the working person...I’m
going to do what’s right.”  Allen is now the lone Democrat
on the Council and the only Democrat in this nonpartisan race.

Allan strongly opposes outsourcing of city jobs to private contractors,
as well as privatization at higher government levels.  “I
think it’s appalling for the Governor to lay off 200,000 part-timers
and cut state workers at the DMV to federal minimum wage,” he said,
expressing empathy for single parents and other struggling to make ends
meet. 
He supports boosting revenues to avoid slashing city services. 

Allan describes himself as “leader of the charge” to found
the new La Mesa Chamber of Commerce in hopes of increasing revenues from
retail businesses.  He also voted to put a measure on November’s
ballot allowing voters to decide whether to approve a sales tax increase.

How much difference can a small hike in sales taxes make? Allan notes
that Proposition 172, a statewide proposition approved in 1992, generated
$60 million from the City of La Mesa for the state, of which La Mesa
received back $25 million.  “That includes $6 million last
year, of which we received about $258,000,” he added.

He also expects the new mixed used retail and residential project being
built beside the trolley station on Fletcher Parkway to generate $700,000
a year.   The Council is also considering other innovative
ideas, such as an environmental store proposed by Mayor Art Madrid. 

Allen has been a sharp critic of County supervisors for failing to provide
adequate wildfire protection in his view.  “They have no countywide
fire department, but they continue to build in the back country,” he
said, adding that as a result, La Mesa must send fire engines to fight
wildfires outside city limits and pay to call up off-duty firefighters
to staff city firehouses in case a local emergency occurs while La Mesa
engines are dispatched elsewhere.

He calls the County’s proposal for a $52-per-parcel fire assessment
fee to create a Fire Authority a “scam” because it would
provide 13 new fire engines for the City of San Diego but only six for
the County. In addition, the plan would not take effect until July 2009.

 “We could still have a fire this year,” the firefighting
professional warned.  “The County would put $15.1 million
into this program. The City of La Mesa’s fire budget is close to
$8 million – for nine square miles.  The County’s priorities
aren’t right,” he concluded.  “I definitely think
they need to clean up their act. I’m tired of subsidizing the County
for fire protection.”

He supports working with other jurisdictions in East County to develop
regional solutions to challenges facing our communities, listening to
City professionals and analyzing alternatives to develop solutions that “make
sense in setting a course of action for the future.”

Ruth Sterling

Incumbent
Councilwoman Ruth Sterling founded La Mesa’s Flag Day
Parade and Walkway to the Stars (shown here) honoring community volunteers.
She opposes a sales tax increase to fund city services and believes the
city needs to  tighten its belt instead.

In 16 years of serving on the La Mesa City Council, Ruth Sterling has
never been late or absent.  “Tell your readers that Ruth Sterling
prides herself on being a responsible representative of the people,” she
told ECM’s editor. 

A licensed vocational nurse who raised four children here, Sterling
has been a La Mesa resident since 1963.  She is proud of her accomplishments,
which include founding La Mesa’s flag day parade, designing a City
of La Mesa flag, and initiating the Walkway of Stars—a walkway
on La Mesa Boulevard with wall murals painted by local artists and stars
embedded in the walkway for people who contribute over 10,000 volunteer
hours.
She also founded La Mesa’s Adopt-a-Block program.

She supported putting a $25 million bond measure on the ballot to fund
La Mesa’s new fire station, library, Post Office and police station.  “The
people of La Mesa paid for those beautiful buildings. We had a vision
and the La Mesa people were very generous,” she said, noting that
residents passed the bond measure by a 75% margin.  She also supported
redevelopment along Fletcher Parkway and approved the Briercrest housing
project for seniors.

At times, Sterling has been a maverick on the Council.  She voted
against hiring a third party to investigate the Mayor and police actions
after La Mesa Police found the Mayor passed out beside a car driven by
a female City worker.  (Police escorted the Mayor home; the woman
was later charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.)  “You
have an Attorney General and a District Attorney. They could look into
this without costing us money,” Sterling said. 

After learning that the Mayor and other Council members had approved
a letter accusing a citizen of defamation for suggesting that the City
was too cozy with developers, Sterling became a whistleblower and leaked
the document to a reporter.  Tanner spoke out at a Council meeting
during testimony over blasting at a construction project in his neighborhood.  A
letter from the City Attorney asked Tanner to apologize or face possible
legal action.

“I said `You violated that man’s First Amendment rights,’” recalled
Sterling, who voted against the controversial hilltop development project
in La Mesa’s Eastridge area.  “People are dying and
go to war to protect our First Amendment.”  The Council later
issued a public apology to Tanner. 

Sterling voted against hiring a consultant for $200,000 to determine
whether voters would approve a sales tax increase and  cast the
lone vote against putting the measure on the November ballot.  “I
voted no all the way on that. It was like kicking the people in the teeth,
because they’ve been so generous,” she said.  She also
opposed spending money on a new logo and branding for the City.

Sterling said Grossmont Center is “very worried about a sales
tax increase” and predicts a tax hike would cause a “boomerang
effect” with some consumers shopping in neighboring cities instead.  She
described the City’s largest sources of sales tax (Grossmont Center,
Wal-Mart, and three car dealerships) as “treasures.”

Sterling estimates that the new retail/residential complex at the Fletcher
Parkway trolley station will bring in $850,000 to $1 million.  Two
additional condominium projects approved on El Cajon Boulevard will bring
in additional funds, she noted. “We don’t know what the state
will bring in.”

If those revenues are not enough to balance the budget, then she believes
La Mesa “will have to do what families are having to do: tighten
our belts.”  

Asked what cuts she would support, Sterling suggested she would support
some outsourcing of City jobs. “We could contract out some services,
such as tree trimming,” she said. “We need to think outside
the box and put a hiring freeze on. As people retire we won’t fill
jobs.”

Sterling expressed concern over crime, including 13 armed robberies
in 18 months.  She supports revitalizing neighborhood Watch and
putting more beat officers on the streets.  She also believes in
proactive measures to reduce crime, such as a new La Mesa Police Department
program to put vehicle identification numbers on truck and SUV catalytic
converters, which have become popular theft targets.

Strolling through downtown La Mesa, Sterling observed, “We need
to clean up downtown.”  But steam-cleaning streets may be
a luxury the city can’t afford right now, she noted. 

To boost revenues, she wants to prevent office or professional buildings
downtown and instead support new retail downtown and mixed use projects.  For
new development, she observed, “We need to ask how much tax that
will generate.  That needs to be our mantra.”

She believes the City needs to support efforts to reduce use of fossil
fuels. “We will eventually run out, so get used to it,” Sterling
said. “Anything we can conserve on, we will.”

Sterling, the only woman on the Council, believes her experience and
at times, dissenting voice, are needed.  She concluded, “I
bring common sense to the Council.” 

La Mesa City Council Candidate Forum Video

Candidates for the La Mesa City Council answered questions from the public
in a September forum hosted by the East County League of Women Voters and the
American Association of University Women. View the complete video, provided
courtesy of Citizens Oversight Projects:

www.copswiki.org/twiki/bin/view/Common/M646