RECREATION, REDEVELOPMENT, TAXES FLASH POINTS IN LEMON GROVE COUNCIL RACE

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Upate: Patch.com has coverage of a Lemon Grove Council candidate debate:  http://patch.com/A-zfM4

Six candidates vie for seats

By Mark Gabrish Conlan

October 14, 2012 (Lemon Grove)--When the Republican Party swept the 2010 elections nationwide, their triumph stretched as far down as the small city of Lemon Grove in east San Diego County. The Lemon Grove City Council switched from a Democratic to a Republican majority, and in looking for items to cut from their budget they zeroed in on the city’s recreation department.

The vote wasn’t totally party-line. Democratic Mayor Mary Sessom joined Republican Councilmembers Mary England and Howard Cook in eliminating the recreation department and its annual budget of up to $260,000 per year, while Republican Councilmember Jerry Jones joined Democrat George Gastil in voting to keep it.

But the debate over community services versus fiscal responsibility, and the lingering bitterness of some Lemon Grove residents and civic activists over the Council targeting recreation to balance the city’s budget, has become the main theme of the 2012 Lemon Grove City Council race.

“I felt eliminating the recreation department was much too drastic,” said Gastil, the only member of the current Council who’s running for re-election this year. “We still have recreation programs, but we lost the department and the director, so we lost that perspective and set of skills. The way I looked at it, we had already cut recreation programs, but not so drastically. Some people said public safety and streets should be the top priority, but I don’t think people realized we were losing an entire department.” Gastil said that the recreation department — particularly its programs aimed at young people — was contributing to public safety by giving them constructive things to do with their spare time instead of getting into trouble.

Council candidate Lou Melendez said he could understand the Council’s rationale for getting rid of the recreation department — “They were trying to eliminate services that did not recover costs,” he said — but he thought they picked the wrong target. “This was not a good idea in terms of the result: denying services to the youth of the community. There were other opportunities for saving money, but the City Council decided to prioritize in favor of the white-collar bureaucracy at City Hall. … The city was able to save about $170,000 by pursuing the recreation program cuts, yet they spent about $450,000 over a four-year period to establish a computerized geographic information system that was never required or needed.” Melendez said he would favor restoring the recreation department “but only if we could privatize some results of the overall program.”

“As a parent of two children, I know how important it is to provide low-cost recreation alternatives for our city’s families,” said Council candidate Mark Gracyk. “I would work hard to make sure our children have as many recreational opportunities as possible.”

Though Council candidate Matt Mendoza prides himself on being an anti-tax conservative, he said he wouldn’t have got rid of the recreation department either. “I not only support restoring the department, it is one of my passions,” he said. “With that being said, I believe a whole new approach needs to be done on managing the recreation center so that it will not be a deficit to the city or the taxpayers.”

“I’ve met with many residents throughout my campaign who have voiced their displeasure in the elimination of the recreation department,” said Racquel Vasquez, the only Democrat besides Gastil running for the Council this year. “In fact, I spoke out against eliminating those services from our city. We benefit greatly from those services. I hope that we will revisit bringing back those services sometime in the future, because it is really great for our city. I would definitely support restoring the department if funds became available.”

East County Magazine recently did a face-to-face interview with Gastil and sent the other five candidates questionnaires. Melendez, Gracyk, Mendoza and Vasquez responded with point-by-point answers. Vasquez had also been interviewed by East County Magazine last November and a five-minute video clip of that is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=SMOdBvDuGBo.

A sixth candidate, Michael Richards, didn’t answer the specific questions but sent a one-paragraph response which read, “You might guess I am a conservative thinker, but [I] also believe in common sense. I do not think it is necessary to spend thousands of dollars to run for a local office. It is better to know the people you want to represent and talk to them face-to-face and, most important, be willing to listen to their concerns.”

Backgrounds

Among the questions East County Magazine asked the candidates was one about their personal and professional backgrounds, and how those fitted them to serve on the City Council.

“My background as a small businessman qualifies me to understand the role of local government and how it can work best to promote job growth and economic stability and prosperity at our local level,” said Gracyk. “I am currently chair of the Proposition W Committee, which is tasked with oversight of construction of our city’s new library and middle school. I have real experience working with different groups here in our community to get positive things done. With a long history of volunteerism in our community, I really understand the needs of Lemon Grove’s families.”

Melendez cited his work as an engineer for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for over 21 years, his involvement with the Lemon Grove Citizens’ Oversight Committee and his year of volunteer work in charge of a fundraising campaign to get state employees to donate to United Way. “I have managed staff and infrastructure replacement projects up to $337 million in total costs,” he said. “I am also a certified value engineering specialist, which means that I have studied and applied the principals and practices needed to analyze a product, a process or an organization in order to get more bang for the buck.”

Mendoza pointed to his professional experience with the defense industry, first at General Dynamics (where he was hired right after finishing high school) and now at Boeing Satellite Systems. “My 33 years of aerospace experience in problem-solving and leadership is what sets me apart for you,” he said. “Creating a team to meet goals is my job. Whether departments, companies, government agencies or the military, bringing [people] together to meet a deadline, all within budget, is what I do. These skills I can bring to city government.”

“I am recognized for bringing people together and solving complex problems as a senior public information officer for the city of San Diego’s Public Works Department,” said Vasquez. “I work on vital infrastructure projects that support the region’s economy and quality of life. During my career, I have also worked on water resources, public works, regional growth and long-range planning projects. … As Planning Commissioner for Lemon Grove, I have a proven track record of consistently supporting projects that protect the character of our city, promote a healthy and walkable community, and create local jobs.”

Gastil pointed to his family’s long residence in East County — he was born in La Mesa — and its history of political and social activism. His great-grandfather, George W. Gastil, was a labor leader in the Carpenters’ and Building Trades’ union in the 1920’s. Both his parents have run for Congress, and his son is currently active in Democratic youth organizations. He served on the Lemon Grove school board for 10 years, starting in 1998, until he left it to run for City Council.

The way Gastil described his school board experience made it seem like a dress rehearsal for the heavy financial issues he’s had to face as a Councilmember. “In 2003 we had to make major cuts, and several school board members went without pay,” he said. “We really had to make tough decisions to keep classroom teachers in the classroom and minimize everything else. We decided we didn’t need school buses, except for special education students. We cut administration quite a bit, made the district quite lean in terms of administration, and put more emphasis on the classroom.”

Should Government Pay for Itself?

According to Gastil, the vote to eliminate the Lemon Grove Recreation Department came from a conviction on the part of the current Council majority that every city program should pay for itself. “I like the idea of families paying what they can afford and keeping costs down, but programs don’t always pay for themselves,” Gastil said. He added that he hoped “a new City Council and an improving budget situation” will help turn the city’s finances around.

“As a public administration graduate from San Diego State University, I understand the need to make certain programs cost-neutral or profitable,” said Gracyk. “However, not all departments and programs can be expected to produce revenue. I would support a thorough examination of every department’s budget and expenditures as a first step towards determining their status.”

Mendoza said that “in a perfect world” all city programs would pay for themselves, and “in most programs that can be done,” but “there are a few exceptions: for example, the recreation center that was closed in Lemon Grove. … I plan on a combination of local private business partnerships and youth fundraisers to fund the yearly cost of keeping the recreation center open, plus getting caring Lemon Grove residents involved in volunteering their time to bring down the overall cost.”

Melendez said that many city services are funded by fees, not by taxes. “Lemon Grove has a 17-page ‘Master Fee Schedule’ itemizing costs for providing a specific service such as business licenses, some fire services, building permits, recreational fees, etc.,” he explained. “Where services can be specifically identified and quantified, it is a common practice to fund such services other than from general taxation. … [T]he general taxpayer should not pay for services that benefit a few, for example, the fire department doing weed abatement for an errant homeowner, or the forming of a softball team. The general taxpayer should not subsidize many things.”

“While it would be ideal for city-funded infrastructure improvements, maintenance projects and park and recreation programs to be self-sufficient, most are not cost-neutral,” said Vasquez. “We are entering into a new era of government where it will take a combination of creative funding sources, including the use of taxes, grants, bonds and the creation of new programs to generate additional revenue.”

New Taxes — Now, Someday, or Never?

It’s not surprising that, with the state of California’s chronic budget shortfalls trickling down to cities — even small ones like Lemon Grove — economic issues are dominating this year’s City Council race. The Lemon Grove City Council voted against putting a proposal to charge a local sales tax on the ballot in 2010, and Gastil argued that by doing so they made their budget problems worse — especially compared to La Mesa and El Cajon, whose voters passed similar tax measures.

“The City Council can’t raise taxes,” Gastil said. “All we can do is put the measure on the ballot. I voted to put a tax increase on the ballot because a lot of people were concerned about losing city projects. I wanted people to have a choice. What I said at the time was I thought people should have a choice, especially considering the cuts [the Council has made to balance its budget without additional taxes]. We eliminated the recreation department, everyone agrees the streets need repair, and I thought it was fair to give people the option. We didn’t manage to get it on the ballot, but we’ve done remarkably well without it.”

“I would understand both the fiscal revenue needs of the city and the need for our local businesses to remain competitive,” said Gracyk. “As a representative of the people, I would work to ensure that the city’s residents have a voice in a decision of this importance.”

Both Melendez and Mendoza strongly opposed a tax increase. Melendez pointed out that the supporters of the tax increase did not get enough signatures to put it on the ballot without Council action, which to him was proof that the voters really didn’t want the tax.

“During recessions, government opportunists insist on raising taxes to maintain the level of spending they have become accustomed to,” Melendez explained. “Sales taxes in Lemon Grove have increased 11 times since 1967, when they were 4 percent. The same opportunists become accustomed to the increased sales tax revenue and they begin to grow the bureaucracy, so that next time the city is faced with hard times they ask for more in order to continue to pay for it.” Melendez said that after the tax proposal failed he joined a Citizens’ Oversight Committee that “found a number of instances of wasteful spending” in Lemon Grove’s budget.

“I would not support any measure that would increase taxes,” said Mendoza. “I believe that we are already taking more than enough taxes from the public. We just need to be more fiscally responsible on how we manage it and no longer waste taxpayers’ hard-earned money on frivolous expenditures. We need to prioritize the money we already have for improved city infrastructure, safety, and our youth and senior citizens.”

Vasquez recalled that she attended the City Council meeting that voted down the tax increase initiative and told the Council they should have put it on the ballot. “I support and believe in the democratic process, the right for every voter’s voice to be heard,” she said. “As Councilmember, I will help to prioritize the city’s budget to ensure it continues to find programs and services that are important to residents. Should we encounter significant budgetary shortfalls despite substantial cuts to the budget, and all other options are exhausted, I would ask the city’s voters to consider voting for a tax increase.”

Doing Business in Lemon Grove

Regarding Lemon Grove’s overall economic outlook, and what the City Council could do to improve it, Gastil noted that a lot of Lemon Grove residents do much of their shopping in La Mesa — even though there they have to pay the sales tax La Mesa charges and Lemon Grove doesn’t. “The biggest challenge is we don’t have a lot of things people want to buy,” Gastil said. “Everyone would like to see a shopping center — which isn’t going to happen — and also more arts, entertainment and restaurants. We lost Por Favor [a local Mexican restaurant chain which closed their Lemon Grove outlet but stayed open in La Mesa and El Cajon], which was quite a blow. … We need to get some people together to think about what could support a greater variety of businesses. It’s going to take a long-term plan.”

Melendez cited Lemon Grove’s auto dealerships — the city’s largest source of income — and pointed out that there are 80 vacancies in the downtown business district. “Are the buildings empty because the recessionary economy could not support the business that was there, or did the city somehow drive them out?” he said. “The downtown business district is looking run-down and dirty. There are plenty of areas for vagrants to sleep and dirty the doorway arches and breezeways between buildings, especially at night when our law enforcement dwindles down to almost nothing because of the arrangement the city has with the County sheriff. Many shoppers have told me that they are afraid of coming to the business district after sunset. I get complaints from business owners that the city is more concerned with the rules and regulations aimed at controlling business activities than helping to create an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration. They think that the city is not helping or partnering with them to foment business growth and opportunities.”

“I would like to see nice restaurants come into Lemon Grove,” said Mendoza. “This would bring neighboring residents into Lemon Grove and increase the city’s revenue. Also, it would keep our own residents eating in Lemon Grove, instead of going to other cities that have the nice restaurants. However, to attract these nice restaurants, we need to clean up Lemon Grove and its infrastructure, and then reach out to these restaurants and other businesses that we would like to see expand into Lemon Grove and make Lemon Grove a business-friendly city so that these businesses can be profitable here, which will also create local jobs for our residents.”

Gracyk agreed. “Our community could benefit from more restaurant and dining locations,” he said. “We could spur local business growth with a ‘Buy Local — Buy Lemon Grove’ campaign.”

Vasquez’s vision for Lemon Grove’s economic future is bigger than attracting nice restaurants. “I would like to see an infusion of larger businesses to help revitalize the industrial and commercial areas of Lemon Grove, such as a Courtyard Marriott and medical offices or hospitals like Kaiser Permanente or Scripps,” she said. “Lemon Grove would be an ideal location for a hospital, because of its central location and access to both the 125 and 94 freeways. Bringing in a large-scale hotel chain can provide increased revenue through hotel occupancy taxes. This supports the local economy without taxing local residents.” She’d also like to see a program by which local businesses would offer discounts to residents on certain days.

Redevelopment

Gastil thinks that Lemon Grove’s ongoing redevelopment projects are doing just what some of his opponents are calling for: cleaning up Lemon Grove’s business district so more businesses will want to locate there and more potential customers will want to come. “We’re building a promenade at the trolley station on Lemon Grove Avenue and Broadway,” he said. It trades on the past and future, and I think it’ll get a lot of attention. We’ll have a lot more affordable housing. It could be the beginning of a lot more changes because we’re hoping to do more redevelopment.”

That might raise some eyebrows in light of the bill California Governor Jerry Brown pushed through the state legislature to end the so-called “tax-increment financing” of redevelopment, by which redevelopment agencies were able to seize the increased property taxes their projects brought in instead of turning them over to cities’ general funds. “I’m looking forward to the state funding more redevelopment,” Gastil said. “We got lucky and got our projects approved before the state cut it off. I think Lemon Grove has pursued positive redevelopment to rebuild areas that needed it and encourage affordable housing near transit.”

Gracyk said he wants to see the current project finished, but “given the vague and uncertain future for redevelopment projects, funding and organizations, I would not support beginning any new projects at this time.”

Melendez said he supports “the theory behind redevelopment … to make blighted areas more attractive to outside investment, to build more affordable housing, and to combine unutilized and underutilized properties to foment development.” But he disliked the tax-increment financing mechanism by which “tax revenue was skimmed off the top by the cities to repay redevelopment debt. I believe that this was one of the reasons that schools suffered financially statewide.” Melendez wants Lemon Grove to “expand the field of partners and bring in a number of new groups to find resources and methods” to finance redevelopment. “I would propose that the investment could be handled through some other instrument besides a bond, and perhaps any debt we carry or might decide to carry could be leveraged to secure other funding, whether private or public grants.”

“I believe each redevelopment project needs to be re-looked at, to make sure it is what is best for Lemon Grove and all its residents, including the taxpayers, and viable to the goal of bringing quality businesses here and making Lemon Grove the city that no one wants to leave,” said Mendoza. “Each project also needs to be examined to make sure it will not increase taxes on our residents, or be a hardship on the city. There needs to be a good business plan in place for every project.”

Vasquez, like Gastil, is enthusiastic about future redevelopment in Lemon Grove. “One thing I’d like to see is a walkable downtown, a place where people not only visit nine to five, but also visit in the evening to spend their money, specifically dining and supporting those businesses that provide other services and goods,” she said in her November interview. “What I’d like to see is the rehabilitation of existing buildings, and maybe even the construction of new buildings in downtown Lemon Grove. It’s key to having a thriving business [community] here. With those types of changes, new businesses may want to open doors, and residents not only here in the city of Lemon Grove may shop, but also residents from outlying cities.”

She was a bit more circumspect when she filled out the questionnaire 11 months later. “Government is challenged with doing more with less, and we need an innovative, cost-effective vision for Lemon Grove,” she said. “Funding for future redevelopment projects will take plenty of creativity and require close work with local, state, and federal agencies to help ensure that our city projects can compete against other projects statewide for limited funding. A mix of public and private funding will also help, as well as using an out-of-the-box type approach, including the sale of naming rights.”

Medical Marijuana

Other issues in the Lemon Grove City Council race range from increasing the ethnic diversity of city government to opening medical marijuana dispensaries. Gastil pointed out that no people of color have ever served on the Council, even though Lemon Grove is no longer a white-majority city. With three people of color on the ballot — Mendoza, Melendez and Vasquez — out of six candidates vying for two seats, this could be the year that changes. And the candidates of color who are running, particular Mendoza and Vasquez, represent strikingly different ideologies and platforms.

Lemon Grove ended up facing the medical marijuana issue when local activists targeted some of the smaller cities in the county for initiatives to allow the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries under certain conditions. The initiatives qualified as Proposition T in Lemon Grove, Proposition H in Del Mar, and Proposition W in Solana Beach. The Lemon Grove City Council, faced with the choice of enacting Proposition T without an election or putting it on the ballot, put it before voters but also offered their own competing dispensaries measure, Proposition Q — though several of the Councilmembers, including Mayor Sessom, openly stated at the Council meeting that if they had their druthers, neither of them would pass.

That’s the position of Council candidate Mendoza as well. “I strongly oppose Proposition T,” he said. “It would affect real-estate values, family safety, and it is against federal law, and it would send the wrong message to our young people with the acceptance of drug use.”

“I agreed with the Council’s decision to place the measure(s) on the ballot and let the people decide,” said Gracyk. “As an elected representative, I would do my best to carry out the will of the voters.”

Both Gastil and Melendez said they would oppose Proposition T but support the Council’s alternative, Proposition Q. Vasquez said she would “support the will of the people” if T passes, but she declined to endorse it and said she was specifically supporting Q, “which provides for city oversight and public input over the dispensaries.”

Parties and Philosophies

Though, like all local offices in California, the Lemon Grove City Council is officially non-partisan, there is still a distinct difference between the candidates’ philosophies that reflects the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. “The Democratic Party’s basic philosophy is to raise taxes to pay for everything, with no limits on how much money they will continue to take from citizens,” said Mendoza. “The Republican Party’s basic philosophy is not to raise taxes, not to create a hardship on its citizens by taking their hard-earned money, but to have more fiscal responsibility and stop wasteful spending.”

“I don’t want to sound too partisan, but Racquel [Vasquez] and I are both Democrats,” Gastil said. “That’s not our main motivation [for running]. There are other things that are more important, but Racquel and I are proud Democrats. In a place like Lemon Grove it’s important to understand wisdom comes in many forms. [Republican Councilmember] Jerry Jones has voted the way I do often, and he’s endorsed me. It’s really important for people to work together. … Even though I’m a Democrat and someone else is a Republican, on the City Council we all vote the same way at least 90 percent of the time. Voting is something you do when you want to get something done. There’s a way to attempt to get the perspectives of people from both parties to fit together.”

“Republicans tend to be more conservative while Democrats tend to be more liberal,” said Vasquez. “It’s important to note that the Lemon Grove City Council election is non-partisan. And despite party affiliations, local government should be open to working with members on both sides of the table. If elected, I will pull my sleeves up and work with my fellow City Councilmembers — regardless if they are Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, or whatever party affiliation they may have — to help drive Lemon Grove forward into the future.”