By Paul Kruze
July 7, 2017 (El Cajon) -- In a unanimous 4-0 vote (with Councilmember Bob McClellan absent), the El Cajon City Council has approved a major measure to address homelessness in El Cajon as part of an initiative developed by the East County Homeless Task Force (ECHTF.org). The measure includes an expenditure of $168,000 by the city.
Council has considered the work by the East County Homeless Task Force the past couple of sessions. A presentation given by El Cajon Assistant Manager Graham Mitchell summed up challenges faced by the homeless in the region and the recent proposal made by the East County Homeless Task Force to the city. Mitchell pointed out that there has been a 7 percent increase in the number of homeless individuals in El Cajon over last year, which translates into a 32 percent increase in a five year period.
In El Cajon, one in three persons of homeless individuals are “chronically homeless;” 73 percent are male. Of those, seven percent are military veterans, 39 percent have serious mental illness and one in four are either on parole or on probation after being incarcerated.
“The regional statistics on homelessness very much reflect the homeless situation in El Cajon,” he said. The overall plan includes funding an anti-panhandling campaign, access to homeless services, and community and regional cooperation. Included in the budget would be nearly $4,000 allocated to a homeless services app compatible with smartphone and “flip” phones, animal shelter kenneling and monies directed to a homeless outreach team (staffed by law enforcement) and $70,000 towards an individual designed as a “housing navigator.” A “housing navigator” is an individual who has an extensive background working with individuals that are chronically. homeless and/or homeless veterans, and has knowledge of working with public housing authorities and housing subsidies. Money would also be directed to develop and convert local motels into temporary housing facilities.
Mitchell said the total commitment the city would be making would be in the amount of $168,000. Before the vote, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells asked that communication be made with the County of San Diego on the amount of subsidy that the city could receive for its efforts to deal with its homeless population. “We hear a lot about this ‘vast amount of money’ the county has. I know how that is. Sometimes it is not as much people think.”
Councilmember Ben Kalasho questioned Mitchell about the inherent costs of a person hired as a “housing navigator.” He concluded the questioning by saying, “There are things I like about this [plan], there are things that concern me. I think when you’re dealing with this issue you’re on a knife’s edge and you have to be very careful. The more services we provide… to the homeless, the more homeless you’re going to get in the city,” he said. “Especially with the conversion, I wouldn’t want that. I’m just sharing my opinion.”
Councilman Steve Goble expressed his support for the funding. “This is a no brainer to me,” Goble said. “After listening to many of the stakeholders – as I’ve previously mentioned – the people of El Cajon are telling us that, ‘We can’t wait for somebody to take action.’ Is it supposed to be the County? Is it supposed to be the federal government? Is it supposed to be a private agency? Somebody just do something. We have before us a great opportunity today to do something and to do something smart,” he said. “Funding this through Crisis House, we are not creating a larger city bureaucracy. We are working with people who are much more expert than we are. We have to leverage that,” he added.
Earlier in the Council session, embattled Councilman Kalasho again waded into controversy over remarks he had allegedly made during the previous week when Councilman Goble asked Kalasho to represent the city at the June 23rd meeting of the East County Economic Development Council (Goble, the city’s representative on the ECEDC, was not able to attend due to business obligations.) Kalasho is accused of making offhand comments that the city of El Cajon is in financial peril, which according to Goble and El Cajon City Manager, Doug Williford, is not the case. (East County Magazine has approached the East County Economic Development Council about a reported existence of an audio recording of Kalasho speaking at the meeting.)
“It is not unusual on City Council to have different opinions how things should be done. That’s okay that we have different opinions. Differences can result in a sharper outcome at the end,” Goble said at the beginning of this three-minute statement. “I’m told through three sources that Mr. Kalasho’s viewpoint was, with respect to the city budget at that meeting, [he] stated, ‘Unless we do something dire to change our current circumstances, the city is going to be bankrupt in a few years,” Goble continued. “That comment concerns me. So I have a different opinion on that. There is no doubt that we will be paying out $23 million dollars over the next five years – more than we’re paying today – for CalPERS (California Public Employees' Retirement System). The reason we are paying more is because El Cajon is like many of the 482 cities in California. All of these cities are facing the same CalPERS challenge because the CalPERS board lowered its rate of return. That means the cities have to make up the difference. That’s more out of pocket. It is a challenge – there is no doubt about that. And we will face difficult decisions. However, the city of El Cajon has $6.5 million set aside specifically towards this $23 million. We also have a reserve that’s unspoken for of $8.4 million dollars. Together, today we have $14.9 million dollars to meet that $23 million big bite we have to take in the next five years.”
Goble continued, “El Cajon is open for business. El Cajon is a safe community. El Cajon is a growing community. El Cajon has been responsible with the people’s money.”
Kalasho responded, “Well Steve, I wish you had spoke to me privately before you said that … I never said a `couple of years.’ Check your sources. I do have a different opinion than you, respectfully,” he added. “My opinion is that although it is not in a couple of years, my understanding of reading the budget is that if we don’t find new revenue streams. In 10 or 15 years we could face serious problems. I stand by those comments. It’s not ‘a couple of years’ – I never said that. For a point of clarity, you know what they say about opinion -- everyone has got some. It doesn’t mean yours is right.”
(Read complete statements from Councilmen Goble and Kalasho here)
Fact check: ECM compared El Cajon’s total reserves to reserves in Lemon Grove, La Mesa, and Santee.
According to El Cajon director of finance Clay Schoen, El Cajon presently has over $35.5 million in its total reserve, which is 50 percent of the city’s $71.3 in projected expenses. (Projected revenues are $69.8 million, which do not include the likely revenues from taxes off two new hotels being constructed, a new luxury car dealer or the potential revenues/costs of reopening of the East County Performing Arts Center.) The city did shift $1.5 million from reserves this year to help offset the rising pension costs, but still have half of projected expenses in reserve.
El Cajon has substantially healthier reserves than Santee ($8.1 million in reserve, which is 20% of its $40.6 million in expected expenditures) and Lemon Grove ($4.6 million in reserves, or 35 percent of its $13.1 million general fund budgeted). La Mesa has a slightly higher reserve ratio of 57 percent of its $47.5 million budget set aside, though a lower dollar total.
El Cajon’s rate of reserves may also be higher than most cities in California. Back in 2000, California City Finance conducted a survey of California cities which found that of 51 cities which responded, only six had 50 percent or more of their operating expenditures in reserves, and only 9 had 25 percent. 10 had percent, 11 had 15 percent, and 15 had just 10 percent. Of note, California cities generally maintain higher reserves than cities in other states due to Proposition 13 restricting cities from raising property taxes, a key revenue source elsewhere.
At the end of the Council session, East County Magazine approached Kalasho and once again attempted to set up an interview with him to discuss the latest controversy and learn what he based his comments on regarding the city’s financial situation, as well as ask about ageist comments that he posted on social media regarding fellow Councilman Bob McClellan. (That issued raised ire of several constituents in the previous session). Kalasho declined, stating, “No…no…we’re good,” then walked to the other side of the dais. East County Magazine called out to Kalasho, “Why are you avoiding talking to East County Magazine about your allegations and other questions?” Kalasho once again refused to answer questions, stating, “No, no, we’re good.” Kalasho also did not respond to a phone request for an interview to clarify his views.
Kalasho has so far had a tough summer, since the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in June issued an order cancelling his trademark for the “San Diego-East County Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce” name. The office held that the trademark was in conflict with the “Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce” in Detroit which has been using the name since 2001. Kalasho founded and served as President of his organization before stepping down earlier this year to avoid conflicts of interest after his election to the El Cajon City Council. Kalasho’s wife, Jessica, currently serves as President.
A week earlier, Zhala Tawfiq, a previous winner of Kalasho’s “Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant USA Inc.” filed suit against the pageant and Kalasho personally. Tawfiq claims the pageant is fraudulent, the promised prize money was not fully paid and that after she objected to giving up passwords to her social media accounts, photos of her face photoshopped onto someone else’s nude body were posted on an Instagram page named “Zhala_Tawfiq_Fanpage” with a post reading, “Leaked images of Miss Middle East Beauty Queen.” Kalasho soon thereafter removed Tawfiq as pageant winner, and the title was given to the runner-up contestant. Kalasho has denied wrongdoing in a prior interview with ECM and vowed to fight the case, not settle.