Love where you live!
LA MESA -- That 300 airplanes landed safely at Lindburgh Field is not news.
That one plane crashes, is huge news.
With that in mind, herewith the real news from the La Mesa City Council's five-hour strategic planning meeting:
The combined effects of the recession, reduced home values, state government cuts, pension losses and stagnant sales tax have left La Mesa running a deficit.
For the next few years, the city will draw on reserves -- the city's piggy bank -- to make up for a shortfall in revenues that will leave the city spending more than it brings in. If projections go as hoped, the city will move back into the black in 2016 and will begin replenishing its reserves.
The City Council and a few local residents heard this news as the council and city staff began its annual strategic planning exercise Thursday that was an alternating mix of agony and ecstacy.
While what they hope to be temporary fiscal challenges fueled the nerve jangling "glass is half empty'' portion of the lengthy meeting, there was plenty of talk of an optimistic future and even some "dreaming," as Councilwoman Ruth Sterling put it, about a new City Hall, a new library and developing a capital improvement reserve fund to begin preparing for the inevitable decline in city facilities.
Fundraisers for the new Boys & Girls Club facility being planned for the La Mesa Middle School campus raised the spirits of the meeting with a description of an $8.9 million project that all agreed could "change the face of West La Mesa.''
But for the prudent finance sorts -- and that is how the council likes to see itself -- the real foundation of this meeting was floating on the shifting sands of economic predictions.
The city's finance experts described the source and depth of the current financial shortfall in the city's general revenues and then showed how the improving economy, recovering sales tax revenues and new property tax projections will begin to turn things around in 2016-17 or perhaps earlier if the economic projections prove to be as conservative as they believe they are.
City Manager Dave Witt then began sharing some warnings about what he sees as clear and troubling changes in the fundamentals that have driven city finances for decades now.
Specifically, Witt pointed out that city revenues largely come from property taxes that don't rise quickly and sales taxes that are cyclical and are continuing to show weakness as economic activity shifts from "brick and mortar stores" to the Internet. For example: taxing the sale of a compact disc full of music is easy; getting sales tax from the download of a song on the Internet is next to impossible.
That shift, from products sold in stores to services delivered on the Internet, threatens to challenge the city's method of paying for street maintenance, police and fire protection.
Still, this was a big picture meeting for long-range planning, not a gathering that was given to paralysis by analysis. Each of the council members gave their wish list for issues they wanted city staff to probe deeper.
Council member Kristine Alessio encouraged broadening development discussions beyond La Mesa Village and to include the El Cajon/ University Avenue corridors in West La Mesa.
Councilman Ernie Ewin raised marketing of the city and also what he called "elephant in the room" issues like the city's unfunded pension liabilities (perhaps $30-million) that could overtake all other city issues when fully understood.
Councilwoman Ruth Sterling expressed concerns about rising water and sewer rates and wished for, perhaps quixotically, a system that could measure actual sewer outflows from each house instead of basing them on water consumption.
Mark Arapostathis, the council member, also cited a need for special attention to West La Mesa and heavily encouraged city involvement in the Boys & Girls Club, praising Jerry Fazio (pictured right), executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of East County after Fazio sketched out the plan for the club's plans at the La Mesa Middle School campus.
Amid all the discussion of economic woes, Mayor Art Madrid chose to keep pitching long-term ambitions, encouraging consideration of completion of a civic center plan that he would like to see as part of the legacy of his tenure.
With Madrid's encouragement, Witt (right) displayed rough schematics of a new City Hall and a new municipal parking structure built on the vacant land located just east of the current city offices, which Madrid described as "a rat hole" not worthy of the hard-working city workers who toil there in small offices, temporary trailers and inadequate cubicles.
While the thought of taking on a multi-million dollar, multi-year project like a new City Hall was clearly daunting in the face of current financial challenges, Madrid encouraged the longer view, which he said allowed the community to build the new fire and police facilities.
Sterling bluntly said the project should be pursued before it gets more expensive, but others wanted to hear more about scale, scope and eventual costs. Witt heard enough encouragement to prepare a project overview for the council's consideration, but any decision on that proposal is clearly still far off.
City Manager Witt said formal appraisals of much of that city land has not been done nor have feasibility studies to consider whether other, more revenue generating developments should be considered for that land.
Amid all the financial worries, there was constant applause for the city staff and that judgment was more than backed up by the results of an independent survey of La Mesa residents which chronicled overwhelming approval for the quality of life and the quality of government services in the Jewel of the Hills.
Keeping that up in these challenging times may not be so easy, but Witt, ever the optimist, chronicled a lot of advantages La Mesa has, including a diversified housing stock, centrally located in a growing county. These older, single-family homes remain in high demand and are ripe for rebuilding, expansion and the increased values that will help sustain the city's revenue base.
Here's hoping Witt is right.