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Big Problems, Little Fights
LA MESA -- One way to watch a long City Council meeting is to relate the events you are seeing to classic themes in literature or famous movies. Les Miserables. Tale of Two Cities. I Claudius. The Guns of Navarone.
Tuesday's Council meeting, for example, might have been titled The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. What started as a virtual celebration of the many good people who volunteer to help the city run (that's the good) quickly traipsed through a pretty dour look at the city's finances (that's the bad) and ended with the ugly, another quixotic tussle between the city's long serving mayor, Art Madrid, and his equally long-time antagonist Councilman Ernie Ewin.
First the good.
The council conducted informal interviews with local residents who were volunteering to serve on the many commissions and boards the city counts on to manage activities and services in the Jewel of the Hills.
One by one, amazingly overqualified people -- a rocket scientist, two architects, a city planning expert and an heroic senior advocate, to name a few -- stood and gave a pitch for their appointment to committees that will donate hundreds of hours of effort toward public service. One local woman (see photo above) showed off a piñata she is making from recycling receipts earned while picking up trash around the city.
One new La Mesa resident, James Stone, identified himself as the executive director of Walk San Diego, an organization that promotes walkable cities, and said, in offering his volunteer services to the Environmental or Community Service board, that he had moved to La Mesa because he loves its walkable streets. He also volunteered that he recently walked from his home in La Mesa to his office -- 11 miles west of La Mesa.
"It took about three hours,'' he said. Now that's a commute.
The Council will announce appointments to the open commission and board seats in July.
And then the council turned its attention to the bad.
City staff gave an overview of the two-year budget projections which put some numbers to the on-going impact The Great Recession is having on local municipal budgets across California. Hampered by reductions in state aid and saddled with increased assumption of state mandates, while suffering property tax and sales tax reductions, the city is facing a fiscal malaise if not crisis.
At current projections, the next two years will have the city spending reserve funds to cover projected general fund revenue deficits of just over $400,000 each year. That, in fact, is down from an even higher deficit projected just four months ago but improved revenue projections have narrowed the gap.
City Manager Dave Witt said his staff is holding the line on personnel and other expenses, but acknowledged that the city has only stayed afloat because of the sale of several properties and the $7-million being generated each year by the Prop L sales tax voters approved some years back.
Long term financial health for the city will require the state mend its fiscal problems and La Mesa manage to grow its property tax base and promote business development to help maintain sales tax revenues.
With the big fiscal issues placed squarely on the table, the council turned its attention to small ball, the ugly part of the meeting.
Having spent more than an hour discussing a $38.4 million budget and significant financial challenges, Ewin then directed the staff to bring back recommendations on about $35,000 worth of spending, all of which might be described as discretionary money near and dear to the mayor's heart. Ewin asked for cuts in council travel and organization memberships, asking that the participation in government groups be limited to California organizations only and joined Councilwoman Kristine Alessio in proposing to eliminate the car funds paid to council members in lieu of mileage.
Madrid has long served with national mayor groups and attends numerous conferences each year around the U.S. where his longevity has often earned him prominent roles in the organizations. Madrid says such travel keeps La Mesa in good position to win grants and keep up with the latest trends. Madrid made a number of comments about narrow-minded, short-sighted critics in the community and leaders who pander to critics "who just say no to everything.'' It wasn't hard to decipher the targets intended as Madrid and Ewin throughout exchanged direct stares. But for anyone not familiar with the personal animus and subtext of meaning these otherwise subtle issues bring up, these big fights over small dollar issues can seem more academic and arcane than substantive.
After the meeting, Madrid exited quickly as Ewin and Alessio lingered outside the chambers with members of the La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group, a self-appointed watchdog group that also is quite critical of Madrid, as they rehashed the events of the night. It had the look, perhaps, of a political action committee taking shape a year ahead of Madrid's next run for re-election.
But no one was announcing a candidacy -- yet.