Talk of Tough Times Dominates La Mesa City Planning Session

La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid began today’s annual strategic planning meeting with a dire warning. Continuing financial problems at the state and local level will force difficult decisions and may require further consolidation of services with other municipalities. Adjusting to the “new normal,’’ he said, will keep local government struggling to maintain services. His address follows:

By Art Madrid

Today’s workshop is going to be unlike any of our previous retreats. To a great extent, factors beyond our control now dictate how we will function as a city. Our survival skills require us to be more flexible and nimble than ever before.

A good indicator that we are adapting to our new environment will be the review of our accomplishments and successes for the past year.

Unlike the past, we will only focus on setting short term goals not to exceed 24 months; beyond that time frame, circumstances and conditions we’ve relied on for our mid- and long-term projections are blurred. To some extent, it’s like looking into a black hole.

There is a similarity between the world of astronomy and Sacramento. In astronomy, a black hole sucks all of the light around, never to be seen again; Sacramento sucks all of our program dollars and entitlement revenues – never to be seen again either. Therein lays our current fundamental problem; a weak economy and a dysfunctional state government.

There’s more. The other shoe that’s about to drop comes from the California Public Employees Retirement System. We’ve been forewarned to expect a fee increase to cover retiree benefits because of massive investment losses they’ve experienced during the on-going recession.

In addition to these real challenges, we have some who blame the council and staff for this economic meltdown because “we don’t run the city like a business.’’ Frankly, La Mesa’s best practices exceed many of those in the private sector.

If we were eligible for service performance awards like those in the business world, our trophy case would be full of Edward Demings, Malcolm Baldrige or J.D. Powers awards. We average six to ten annual awards or certificates of accomplishments from organizations that recognize La Mesa for its best business practices in the public sector.

We are always open to responsible suggestions on how to address ongoing challenges. However, simplistic solutions from self-serving interests who bleat to “cut the fat,’’ “tighten your belt’’ or “postpone the purchase of new police vehicles or a ladder truck for the fire department’’ are not only irresponsible, but intellectually dishonest. A better solution is to engage in meaningful, good-faith dialogue on how together we can address our fiscal challenges.

Single issue focused critics could care less that public agencies are mandated by Washington, or Sacramento, to implement a host of high cost, unfunded programs that further affects the city’s financial bottom line.

Two examples of these directives are the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, and the “FOG’’ Fats, Oil and Grease Programs. Their respective annual costs to La Mesa are $325,000 and $80,000.

Unlike Toyota, La Mesa will not sweep its challenges under the rug. An example of our ability to adapt to the “new normal’’ is the consolidation of our fire services programs with two sister cities. This is a classic example of the future direction we will take to protect our revenues and enhance the delivery of services.

In the very near future, I will be asking this council to adopt a program for evaluating other services and departmental programs that are logical candidates for consolidation. Two quickly come to my mind and I’m sure each council member can add to that list.

The most vexing challenges local governments are facing today is solving a three-part problem; establishing equitable salary and retirement benefits for our employees, determining the city’s ability to cover these escalating costs and their long term impact on our taxpayers.

When the economy rebounds, and it will someday, it won’t resemble that of the past. The “new normal’’ will bring dramatic changes in both national and worldwide economic standards. As policy makers, we must be able to adapt to those changes and act in a responsible manner for all concerned, not just vocal special interests.

Of course, there will always be those unwilling to do their part of shared sacrifices or accept the new, real-world economic conditions. For them, it may necessitate the consideration of a career change; their other option is to adjust their expectations just like the rest of us have been forced to undergo.

Philosophical debates, cheerleading for single issues or saber rattling is over. If I were to suggest a theme for today’s workshop it would be “We will continue to look forward and let others look back.’’ The ball’s on this council’s court to act in a responsible manner!

In order to be effective and prudent with our time today, we’ll focus our discussions and planning strategies on the best economic forecasts, current and projected, from as many sources as possible. Understand that Sacramento is coming after more of our monies in the very near future; the questions of how much they will steal and its impact on our total budget are still unknown. . . . .

.. . During today’s deliberations, we must remember and factor in our discussions the pledge made to residents during the campaign, that if Proposition L (a sales tax increase) passed, their vital service levels would be protected.

Finally we need to recognize all the hard work staff and our city employees have done thus far to sustain the high quality of life standards that makes La Mesa one of the best communities in the region in which to live and raise a family.

In military missions, there are individuals who serve as “scouts.’’ They go out before the main body of troops to assess their safety from camouflaged pitfalls and unexpected or unforeseen dangers.

During the next several years, this council and staff are the “scouts’’ for all La Mesa residents. We will scan the economic environment, avoid disastrous consequences and make necessary and difficult decisions to project the city’s financial stability.

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Tags: Art Madrid, Government, La Mesa, annual strategic planning

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Comment by Phil Sluder on April 7, 2010 at 4:52pm
It's not the government's money or Sacramento's money - it’s the people’s money.
So when you say Sacramento is a black hole (sorry Astrophysicists), it means they already have plenty of our money and are spending it irresponsibly. We do not need our local government doing more the same. The citizens stopped buying our new vehicles and trucks when we saw our life savings drop to half over a year ago. But you see, that's one big difference. The people have to be responsible today and tomorrow, but it seems the council members are only worried about the next 24 months. What would have been wrong with saving money for this rainy day?
So don't call me "simplistic" when I just want to spend what I have and I don't want any more debt or taxes. No one is handing me someone else's money to spend.
Comment by Craig S. Maxwell on March 24, 2010 at 7:17am
Summery of the above: A) We (the city) are not responsible for our fiscal plight; and, B) Yet, in any case, will continue to raise your taxes.
Sound familiar?
Comment by La Mesa Today on March 20, 2010 at 8:38am
This comment was originally posted by member Steven S. Kane
The Sheriff's Department has ably provided law enforcement services to the County and many communities, including cities like Poway, for many years. Can't La Mesa save significant money by contracting with the Sheriff? In a police emergency in La Mesa, the Sheriff's Department can muster more units than the LMPD. It is great for La Mesa to have its own police force and it is a source of "civic pride," but isn't it an unaffordable luxury now? Has the Council studied this alternative to compare the costs?
Comment by Kevin G George on March 19, 2010 at 1:36pm
Thank you Mayor Madrid for being an advocate for Citizens first , and a public employee second !
I hope your attitude will be shared by all the members of the Council .
Kevin

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