BUDGET CRISIS TOPS CONCERNS FOR LEMON GROVE COUNCIL CANDIDATES

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By Miriam Raftery

Photos, top row--Challengers Kamaal Martin and Teresa Rosiak, bottom row--incumbent Councilmembers Jennifer Mendoza and Jerry Jones.

October 14, 2018 (Lemon Grove) – With Lemon Grove facing a budget deficit and 78% of its general fund spent on public safety, the City Council faces tough choices. Should the city consider the drastic step of disincorporating and reverting back to county control? Or can the city be saved through revitalization by bringing in new businesses, or by raising taxes? Proposals for the latter failed to win passage with the current Council majority, leaving the city faced with dipping into its reserves in the next fiscal year if the finances don’t improve.  

Those are among the issues addressed in our interviews with all four candidates, as well as concerns over crime, marijuana dispensaries, street repairs and more.The candidates are  incumbent Councilmembers Jennifer Mendoza and Jerry Jones, as well as challengers Teresa Rosiak, a medical credentialing specialist and former Chamber of Commerce president, and Kamaal  Martin, an educator with state and county governmental experience.

Hear our interviews aired on KNSJ radio by clicking the audio links below this story, and scroll down to read highlights from each interview.

 

THE CHALLENGERS

KAMAAL MARTIN

Martin believes his diverse background has allow him to “see problems and challenges from a multitude of perspectives. I know how to ask the right questions and where to find answers.” He says he has the skills to be an advocate for the city at the county, state and federal level.  “Every option needs to be on the table as far as how we go forward as a city, how we survive, and how we put our best foot forward,” he says.

 According to his bio, Kamaal Martin has a master’s degree in international studies and a bachelor’s in history. His diverse work experience includes wildland firefighter, taxi driver, special education assistant, community college instructor, salesman, nonprofit staffer, government affairs specialist for the county’s regional airport authority, and in the California Assembly, district director, field representative and land use consultant.

“I have a passion for working with people. I want to do absolutely everything I can to see families in our community thrive…and I hope to be part of reimaging and revitalizing Lemon Grove,” says Martin, who was raised in Hawaii and has lived in Lemon Grove for 10 years.

“Lemon Grove is not only at a crisis but in a crossroads,” he states. “The first order of business is we need to increase revenue in our city. Part of that is helping local businesses,” such as cutting red tape, he notes, “as well as to incentivize people to come to Lemon Grove..

He believes a transactions and use tax would be a “huge positive step” as well as identifying new revenue sources to boost reserves. Noting that the city’s sales tax is lower than most other East County cities, he would back a half cent increase or possibly even a full cent but adds that first, input must be sought from businesses and residents. But he adds, “If we don’t find a really powerful way ot increasing our revenue within the city of Lemon Grove, I don’t know how we’re going to survive.” He uses a sports analogy, noting “If it’s third and 15, you can’t throw for two or three yards…you have to go all the way.”

He wants to promote Lemon Grove as a gateway to East County and look to sister communities in La Mesa, Spring Valley and southeast San Diego to draw more shoppers to the community. He supports “rebranding” Lemon Grove to draw people there with night life including breweries, wineries and boutique establishments.

He “wholeheartedly” would support a tax on the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries while talking to entrepreneurs to find mutually beneficial arrangements that benefit the city financially while also protecting  the city’s character and keeping dispensaries away from schools, parks and faith institutions.

He believes Lemon Grove should leverage its rich agricultural history such as through creating a farmer’s market and more community gardens. 

Since Lemon Grove eliminated its recreational department a few years ago due to budget woes, he says the city’s budget is inadequate to run programs to keep young people engaged. He wants the city to put “young people at the forefront of decisions” and also hopes to eventually provide opportunities for seniors, as well as parks, green spaces and in some areas, sidewalks and street lights.

“I absolutely support affordable housing,” he says, but notes that space is at a premium in little Lemon Grove, a city that is already doing “more than our fair share” to increase housing stock. On the other hand traffic has become a problem in some parts of the city and a recent realignment project is overscheduled and overbudget in part due to issues with the city of San Diego and SANDAG.  “We need to make sure we understand what type of city we’d like to be and use that understand to decide how we grow in the best way possible,” he says.

On crime, he consider Lemon Grove overall a safe, working class community where “everybody knows everybody” and people see their elected officials out and about. “One of my priorities is public health and safety,” he says, but notes that deputies spend a lto of time with people who are homeless or have substance abuse issues.  “I’d bring a health in al policies approach” to decisions on issues such as transportation and infrastructure, he says. For instance, lighting dark, shady corners and providing recreation programs for youths can reduce crime, while helping people become productive, healthy and contributing to the economy can reduce homelessness.

He says Lemon Grove has probably less than 100 people who are homeless. He wants to see them identified and would consider safe parking areas for those living in vehicles, including working families who have no homes.  He calls it “heartbreaking” to see school kids living in cars.

Martin is independent, not registered in any political party, though he is a former Democrat.  He says the “truest form of democracy was not to be beholden to the corporate interests that have made their way into both parties. I want to work with everybody to help Lemon Grove become better,” he says, adding that he believes many people feel “voiceless and stuck between warring camps. I’d like to focus on solutions…a huge part of being an effective councilmember is listening to your residents.”

He is endorsed by Mayor Racquel Vasquez and former Mayor Mary Sessom. His website his www.Kamaal4LG.com and he can be found on Facebook at Kamall Loves Lemon Grove.

TERESA ROSIAK

Teresa Rosiak has lived in Lemon Grove for over 50 years. She’s a healthcare credentialing specialist for a major healthcare company, is a former president of the Lemon Grove Chamber of Commerce, and has been involved in charitable efforts feeding families in need and the homeless.

“I want to serve,” she says when asked why she is running. She’s been attending council meetings since 1995 and adds, “I do know what concerns the residents have and I have real solutions that I hope to be able to put into place.”

Rosiak is concerned about the budget shortfall and also crime, which has impacted her personally. “My oldest daughter was abducted into human trafficking in Lemon Grove,” she says, her voice choking up at the memory. Abducted at gunpoint at a party, the 21-year-old was forced into human trafficking for a year and a half. Fortunately, Teresa left a message on her daughter’s cell phone advising where she had a hidden key if she could ever come home. Her daughter escaped and came home, but  her abductor followed her and broke in as she was dialing 911.  “He started to beat her up again,” says Rosiak, adding that the kidnapper was arrested while taking her daughter out of the house.

Shockingly, she reveals that while crime overall in Lemon Grove is lower than nearby cities, “Lemon Grove and Spring Valley in the nation have the highest human trafficking statistics.”

If elected, she wants the city council to collaborate with junior high and high school to make a presentation to students on how to avoid becoming a victim of human trafficking and what to do if it occurs because “prevention is everything and education is power.”

She also believes Lemon Grove doesn’t have enough deputies for protection (the city contracts with the Sheriff’s department), but with 78% of the budget spent on fire and law enforcement, more revenues are needed to improve protection.

Rosiak says that 68 cents of every dollar spent by Lemon Grove residents is spent outside the city.  “We need to do a survey,” she says, adding that once the city learns where people are spending their money, “then we need to go out and seek out those businesses, go to the corporate offices and say `We would like you to come to Lemon Grove and service the needs of our residents”  She notes that the city has few clothing stores and not enough sit-down restaurants, for example.  Bringing in more businesses is the approach she favors to increase sales tax revenues.

“I will not vote on any type of tax increases whatsoever,” she says adamently, adding, “There are some residents, they are on the poverty level and they could not afford a tax increase.”

She agrees with Jones that the city should do research to find out what disincorporation would entail. But she adds that first “We need to get down to work to make the city viable.”

Although Rosiak acknowledges that infrastructure is “a major concern with the residents” and that repairs are not being done quickly enough, she is voting for the gas tax repeal initiative on the statewide ballot because many residents can’t afford the tax increase in her view, even though the city stands to lose a million dollars for road repairs if the measure passes. In a city with only $2.9 million left in its budget after paying for police and fire, that’s a significant amount.

"I will not be taking a salary or benefits if elected as I want to serve the Lemon Grove Residents and be apart of the solution and not part of the problem," she adds with regard to the fiscal deficit.

 

On housing, Rosiak says, “We do need more affordable housing…but we have to use smart thinking.” Since the planning commission has been restored, she adds, “I would like to collaborate with the planning commission to have workshops to meet the needs of residents, but also hear the concerns of residents.”

On marijuana, Rosiak says she opposed legalization but “since then I have had to evolve and had to change my way of thinking because if did become legalized.” She believes the city’s process for medical marijuana dispensary applicants needs to be “revamped because it is not a fair process.” She opposes taxes or fees for the dispensaries, noting that they are spending thousands of dollars during the process. “Applicants are not being treated equally as it stands right now.”

“I’m a hard worker and I believe so much in transparency, and I do not believe that’s what the voters in Lemon Grove are getting at this point,” she concludes.

Rosiak is also running for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Board in a run-off race against Brad Monroe. The Reigstrar of Voters confirms that if she wins both races, she can serve in both offices.

Rosiak is endorsed by the Republican Party of San Diego County and by the San Diego County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.  She can be reached by email at Tersea.rosiak2018@gmail.com.

THE INCUMBENTS

COUNCILWOMAN JENNIFER MENDOZA

Councilwoman Jennifer Mendoza also serves as a Lemon Grove planning commissioner and a law librarian. She has worked as a paralegal, graduated from Helix High and attended Grossmont College before getting a bachelor’s in social welfare and a paralegal certificate from California State University in Chico.  She is active in the Parent Teachers Association (PTA), Lemon Grove Thrive, Soroptomists, Lemon Grove Relay for Live, Lemon Grove healthy Eating and Active Living, and she’s the coordinator of St. John’s pantry.

Asked to name her most important accomplishments on the Council, she cites bringing back the planning commission which council had previously eliminated to save money. The current council “felt that it was important to have that community input,” she says noting that many decisions made by the planning commission never made it to the council.

She also introduced an ordinance enacted to eliminate alcohol in the city’s parks after noticing problems with vagrancy tied to alcohol. “It’s been very successful,” she says.

“I was very proud that we were one of the first cities to pass a resolution that we were a welcome city [to immigrants and refugees],”: she recalls, noting that Lemon Grove is one of the most diverse communities in our region. When an outside coalition pressure council to repeal the resolution, “we comtacted our citizens and our interfaith community and they came in full force and drowned out the outside opposition,” she recalls. The bipartisan city council voted unanimously to remain a welcoming city. “ a lot of our decisions are unanimous,” Mendoza adds. (The vote was 4-0 with Jones out of town.)  “I like to see our council working as a team and I hope that we can continue to do so.”

Regarding the budget, Mendoza notes, “One of the biggest issues facing any city right now is the unfunded pension liability. That has put Lemon Grove, a city with limited resources, in a more precarious situation.”  A key challenge is how the city can maintain services while planning for its unfunded pension liability, she says.

Although the budget foresees a shortfall, Mendoza says council has not yet dipped into reserves. “We will revisit the budget in the winter and see where we can make some cuts” as well as explore new revenue options.

One new revenue stream could be from electronic billboards, which Mendoza says could bringing in $250,000 to $500,000. “Another is we need to increase sales tax revenues, whether by increasing sales taxes or increasing the number of businesses that come into the city, or find a way to tax our two medical marijuana dispensaries that will be opening up soon.”

Mendoza believes Lemon Grove would be an ideal location for a hotel, which could generate significant revenues if enough properties could be brought together for a lot large enough.  Long term she envisions Lemon Grove as similar to Mission Valley due to its proximity to San Diego. “We could do something very similar along the 94 corridor,” she states. “We could also use more nice restaurants, wineries, breweries,” as well as shopping such as a Trader Joe’s market, she adds.

While she’s been on the Council progress has been made on a downtown streetscape plan to beautify parts of the Broadway corridor and Lemon Grove Avenue, also cleanup up a downtown breezeway and adding murals. She wants to keep that momentum going in the belief that “a cleaner, more beautiful downtown Lemon Grove will entice more businesses to come in.”

She supports taxing medical marijuana dispensaries. Asked about legalizing recreational dispensaries, as La Mesa is considering, she said that decision should be up to voters, not the city council.

On crime, she acknowledges that in a “perfect world, we would hire another deputy sheriff but without more revenue, that’s not going to happen.” While Lemon Grove deputies say the city can be very “active” at times, “Crime is not on the rise” despite a recent shooting, Mendoza says.

Lemon Grove is the only city in San Diego County that has met the state’s requirements for affordable housing, Mendoza notes. “We built Citronica I and II.”  She was on the Planning Commission when those projects went through and though some were unhappy with the decision, she says the location next to the freeway and trolley station were the best place for the project. “We’ll be getting more numbers from the state to provide more low income and affordable housing,” she adds. “I’m on board to do whatever we can.”

She concludes, “I like to think that at the city council level, most of us just want to do what’s best for our community. When you vote, you need to vote for someone who is doing what you think is best also.” In a rare show of respect in politics, she praises her opponents, stating, “All four candidates have the city’s best interests at heart.”

You can find more about her on Facebook at Reelect Jennifer Mendoza, where she also lists places she’ll be for voters who want to meet and talk with her.

Her key endorsements are the San Diego County Democratic Party, former Councilman George Gastil, Mayor Racquel Vasquez, Assemblymember Shirley Weber, Congresswoman Susan Davis, the Sierra Club and the Lemon Grove Firefighters Association. 

COUNCILMAN JERRY JONES

Elected back in 2002, Jerry Jones is now Mayor Pro Tem of Lemon Grove. He previously served on the Lemon Grove School Board.  While on the Council, he has served as chairman of SANDAG’s regional planning committee and currently chairs the Metro Wastewater Commission.  A retired auto mechanic, he says, “I know how to fix things.”

He believes his biggest accomplishment on the city council has been in wastewater management, including his involvement in negotiations over the regional Purewater program that “affects us all, and we’re all going to pay for it.”

Jones sees the budget deficit as the biggest issue facing the city. “We’re taking in less money than we’re spending,” he says. Yet Jones voted against putting any of several proposed tax measures on the ballot for voters to weigh in.  The proposals ranged from a use tax to a tax on marijuana dispensaries.  Jones wanted the marijuana tax considered separately, but the council majority disagreed.

 “We as a council had not done our homework,” he says. He objected to asking voters to “give us your money and trust us” on how it would be spent. He wanted to see a survey of the public and also believes even a half cent sales tax increase woudn’t generate enough to solve the city’s budget crisis.

Jones notes that spending 78% of the city’s budget on law enforcement and fire is higher than he’s seen in any other city. 

“I’ve never been known as one that sugar coats thing,” he says, adding that hard decisions must be made in the next couple years.  “You’ve got three choices.”

One is disincorporation, or dissolving the city and going back under county control.  “That’s not a free procedure. There’s a cost to that,” he notes, even if voters and the county agreed. In a power point presentation he made to the council, he said one of 11 points “has to be a discussion about disincorporation.” He wants to know the costs and then “move forward” and look at other possible solutions.

While he may support letting voters decide on taxing medical marijuana dispensaries, he does not think Lemon Grove voters would support legalizing and taxing recreational dispensaries.

On crime, he says Lemon Grove actually ranks the second safest among East County cities, after Santee, according to FBI crime statistics.  Adding another deputy isn’t feasible on a $14 million city budget with all but $2.9 million already being spent on public safety. But he says other solutions such as proactive policing in trouble spots and bicycle patrols can be looked at. “If we remain as a city, then we look at things people are willing to pay for,” Jones adds.

Street and potholes repairs are often a top concern cited by voters. If Proposition 6 passes to repeal a gas tax increase, Lemon Grove stands to los $1 million, Jones says.  “On one hand I’m not happy about the gas tax, but on the other hand, I’ve got streets to pave,” he says pragmatically. “It’s up to the voters to make that decision, not me.”

Jones opposed bringing back the planning commission.  Eliminating it several years ago during a prior budget crunch saved money on staff time.  He believes a citizens advisory commission created at the same time provided even more flexibility for members to look at not only implementation matters, but policies on issues such as where a homeless shelter might be located to comply with a new state mandate.

The city also eliminated its recreation department a few years ago due to budget shortfalls, but Jones opposed that action.  “I believe in spending money at the front end, not the back, and keeping kids off the streets.” He fought for and successful saved the city’s summer camp program, he says, moving it to another department to urn.

On homelessness, he says there needs to be a regional solution since small cities can’t do this on their own.  He acknowledges homelessness is growing in Lemon Grove, with many homeless in cars. 

On affordable housing, he says it’s all about balance. “Community character is important,” he says, but adds, “I’ve been an affordable housing advocate for many years.” He chaired a committee on the topic for SANDAG and says the sMart Growth Incentive Plan was “done on my watch.”  With construction of Citronica I, which has affordable housing, and Citronica II for retirees, he says, “That building along with others actually made us one of the 13 cities on track in California to meet our goals and the only city in San Diego County. We did our share.”  That said, he acknowledges that a park built alongside the project has not been satisfactory to some residents. “We need to deal with those issues before we build more,” Jones says. “We need to be able to tell citizens we can deal with the impacts.”

Jones sparked some controversy during his tenure when an activist sued the city alleging Jones sought to infringe his free speech rights and that the city manager’s complaint to his employer, a city contractor, caused retaliation at his job.  The activist had posted on Facebook claiming Jones’ opposition to AB 805 was racist (the author, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, is Hispanic). The bill shifted control of SANDAG to San Diego and Chula Vista, taking power away from small cites such as Lemon Grove.  The city paid a settlement and Jones issued an apology.

“I made a decision that was best for the citizens of Lemon Grove,” he says, noting that the city’s insurance covered the cost of settling, that was less than taking the matter to court.  But he says the activists comments were “inappropriate…he has a right to free speech, but he also has a duty to his employer and clients, that being the city, to represent them in a way that doesn’t do any harm.” Jones reported the incident to the city manager, who in turn contacted the activist’s employer.  Jones denies any racial motivation behind his stance on AB 805.  “I’ve lived in Lemon Grove for over 40 years and been in public office for over 20 years. People that know me, they know that’s not me.” 

Asked why he’s running for reelection, Jones concludes, “At a time when I really should be thinking about retiring, it’s pretty obvious that the city needs experience…I helped bring the city through the hard times of ’08 and ’09," he adds, noting that he and his colleagues did sot without raising taxes.  He says the city needs his business experience and council experience “as we work through this budget crisis that we have coming before us.”

He is endorsed by the San Diego Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Greg Cox, former Mayor Mary Sessom, and former Councilmembers Howard Cook and Jerry Selby.   His website is www.JJones2018.com.  

 

Audio: 

Kamaal Martin interview
Teresa Rosiak interview
Jennifer Mendoza interview
Jerry Jones interview