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State of the City – ‘Escondido is leading in economic growth’ says mayor Sam Abed

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed gave another of his ebullient, upbeat “State of the City” addresses on Wednesday, talking about the city’s economic achievements without downplaying its significant challenges.

As he always likes to do, the mayor started off with his signature, “Is this a great city, or what?” It was the mayor’s seventh State of the City Address, and if attendance was any measure, it was the most successful so far. Three hundred and fifty had breakfast, which was 100 more than last year, according to Jerry Van Leeuwen, CEO of the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

The Center was the location, once again, of the celebration, which started off with presentation of the colors by the four-member Escondido City Color Guard. Craig Carter, Escondido Chief of Police, was the master of ceremonies, and with a show of wit not normally associated with law enforcement, kept things moving along, although not quite fast enough to please “hizzoner” who quipped that they would talk about it later in his office!

Jeanne Nutter and Keith Roynon of the Roynon Museum of Earth Science and Paleontology accept the council award in the Youth Category from Councilwoman Olga Diaz. Chief Craig Carter is in the background. Photo by Michelle Geller, courtesy of City of Escondido

Each city councilmember awarded honors for outstanding volunteers. They included Dan Forster and Heather Moe in the field of Business; Barbara Preston, Arts; Margie Ballard, Compassion; Robert Barrientos, Community; Don Piller, Education; Keith Roynon, Youth: Dominic Polito, Public Safety. In addition, this year’s “Mayor’s Leadership Award” was presented to the Escondido Charitable Foundation.

For comments from individual councilmembers, see below.

The mayor declared, “I am pleased to report that the State of our City is outstanding, energetic and inspiring. We have held true to our promise: One prosperous City, a better Escondido for all. We promised you a better city and we delivered a better city.”

He unveiled the city’s new video that celebrates all things the city has to offer.

“Escondido is a great place to visit, explore, do business and raise a family,” he said.

Celebrating the city’s achievements, the mayor declared, “Our city’s success is driven by strong partnerships and collaborations.  The City Council continues to focus on government core function priorities: Economic Development, Financial Stability, Public Safety and Neighborhood Improvement to build a positive image and pride in our community and strive for an honest, transparent and efficient government.”

He noted that 560 net new businesses moved to Escondido. “Westfield North County added more businesses: A new 24 Hour Fitness Center, a Black Angus, the California Pizza Kitchen and they will soon add a new upscale movie theater, making Westfield North County one of the best shopping destinations in the region. The City Council has just approved the new Marriott Springhill Suites at La Terraza. Our first full service hotel will break ground in the next couple of months,” he said.

The city’s Economic Development staff works with 10,000 plus businesses to help them be successful. “Our management team is focused on ‘Getting to Yes’ when it comes to new projects.” This includes streamlining and reducing regulations to lower the cost of affordable housing and fast tracking 35 major commercial, industrial and residential projects underway in Escondido valued at $1.2 billion.

It works with other Hwy 78 cities, “Innovate 78” to attract capital, jobs and talent to North County. The city’s “Visit Escondido” office planned 1,700 events last year to promote restaurants, wineries, arts and attractions. Transient Occupancy Taxes (tax collected from hotels and motels) increased 10% over last year.

The mayor added, “Our local, regional and national sports tournaments bring tens of thousands of visitors to Kit Carson and Ryan Parks each year. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Stone Brewing Company, the second and third largest tourist destinations in North County attract over two million visitors a year. When Stone Brewing Company submits their plans to build a new hotel, the City promised to approve their application in 60 short days. We are proud to have such a successful business here in Escondido.”

Sales tax revenue increased from $22 million in 2010 to a record $36 million today. Abed attributed this to the council’s focus on strategic economic growth and touted six years of balanced budgets without using reserves or raising taxes. “We turned a $16 million deficit into a $10 million surplus. We built a $17 million reserve fund and created $.5 million Pension Liability Reserve to stabilize our long term unfunded liability.”

This led to the city’s general obligation bond rating being raised AA- by Standard and Poor’s.

Public Safety is a top council priority. “Our proactive Community-Oriented Policing will continue to achieve environmental change, one neighborhood at a time,” he said. In 2016 the EPD initiated the third Neighborhood Transformation Project in West Escondido. Last year Crime and Property Crime decreased by 2 and 3% respectively.

“We created a COPS Unit to focus on new challenges facing our businesses and residents. We promised you a safer city and we delivered a safer city,” he said.

In 2016, the Escondido Fire Department launched the lifesaving smartphone App called PulsePoint. Users of this App, who are trained in CPR, are notified by central dispatch to assist in emergencies and increase heart attack survival rates, he said.

“The City Council has set in motion plans to build a State of the Art Library as a part of the Grape Day Park vision for our Downtown and Civic Center to provide an innovative learning experience,” he said.

He noted $2.6 million spent to improve parks and recreations centers. The Boys & Girls Club celebrated a new baseball field last year with a $350,000 donation from the San Diego Padres and Major League Baseball.

The downtown holds many special events, such as the Tamale Festival. Abed singled out Sunny Side Kitchen landing on Yelp’s top 100 places to eat in the nation and noted that the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, Escondido History Center, Roynon Museum of Earth Science. “Cruisin’ Grand” and the Grand Avenue Festival bring tens of thousands of visitors annually.

“The California Center for the Arts presented outstanding shows and performances to 300,000 visitors last year including Shen Yun, the best classical Chinese dance and music performance in the world,” he said.

Now that Palomar Health has moved all operations from the old hospital to the new, Abed said the city is “is committed to work with Palomar Health to develop the downtown campus to its full economic potential.”

The top challenges facing the city are Poverty, Homeless & Pension, he said.

Escondido’s poverty rate is similar to the County’s, and has increased 4 points since 2007 to 16% last year. “We must face this challenge and continue to strive to create job opportunities at all skill levels,” he said.

Homelessness also increased. “In 2016, the Point in Time Count revealed 532 homeless people in our City with 307 sheltered, and the unsheltered homeless doubled to 225 last year.

“The City has established a police task force to manage the growing homeless population,” said the mayor. “We contributed $75 thousand to the Hawthorne Resource and Recovery Center on Ash Street to provide 32 beds for post-medical recovery stay for homeless veterans. The City Council also approved the Interfaith Haven House year round homeless shelter.”

The city has partnered with Solutions for Change and contributed $2.1 million to build 33 transitional housing units in Escondido to provide permanent solutions for homeless families. The Escondido Charitable Foundation dedicated funding to help the homeless last year.

Abed blamed a lot of this on AB 109, which has released hundreds of criminals from State prisons, and Prop. 47, which lowered the threshold to prosecute drug and theft charges from felony to misdemeanor and meant more criminals on the street. He predicted that Prop. 57, would release even more.

Abed noted that the city’s pension obligations “continues to skyrocket,” and said PERS projections could double the city’s annual obligation from $20 million this year to an estimated $40 million annually in 2022.

“This unsustainable unfunded mandate by the State is a financial crisis and the biggest threat to local government. If the State doesn’t immediately change the law to allow us to move from defined benefits to defined contributions for new employees, the pension cost will force many cities in California to default on their obligation and limit their services to just police and fire.”

Abed said he would be happy to lead “a Class Action lawsuit against the State to protect the taxpayers. Sacramento says: We are your government and we are here to help you! We say: Sacramento, no thank you, just leave us alone!”

Top priorities for the future:

• Relocating the Public Works Yard to be ready to build the Escondido Business Park. “This strategic location at I-15 & HW 78, will create 1,000 new jobs at $75,000 average pay and attract clean tech manufacturing to our city,” said Abed.

• Neighborhood Improvement:   including allocating an additional $3 million a year in funding to street maintenance.

• Partnering with the city’s 18 “neighborhood groups.”  “A survey conducted by Escondido Education Compact shows that the vast majority of our urban core residents trust our police. They also identified two top priorities: Crime and appearance. I have already asked my colleagues to include $.5 million in the next budget cycle to address these pressing needs,” he said.

• Improve water reliability by spending $300 million over the next 20 years to improve and expand our water delivery system including the recently approved recycled water facility at Ash and Washington.

“These significant infrastructure improvements will also provide more competitive water rates to 3,000 acres of agricultural land and 125 farmers in Escondido,” said the mayor.

He lauded the city’s “historic settlement agreement protecting Escondido’s local water supply and Lake Wohlford,” which was approved by Congress and signed by President Obama.

“I would like to thank our Tribal neighbors, the Vista Irrigation District and the US Departments of Justice and Interior and our City Attorney Jeff Epp for their full cooperation in peacefully resolving 40 years of litigation and bringing a new supply of water to North County,” he said.

• Create a “Smart City” using innovation and technology to enhance on-line services, reduce cost and engage people more actively.

Escondido’s Report It App and the Track It Program help residents report graffiti, potholes, shopping carts and street lights. Last year, out of 15,000 calls received by the city, 2,400 calls were sent via the Report It App.

The city has 44 Wi-Fi Hot Spots and “Cox will soon spend $800,000 to build 3 miles of fiber for hi speed internet service to another 170 businesses in our industrial Park,” said Abed. For Escondido to be a Smart City, “we must create a comprehensive policy framework, assess our readiness to innovate, incorporate energy, public safety, transportation, traffic signal synchronization and telecommunication to ensure connectivity and create public/private partnerships.”

Abed declared, “In closing, let’s build a city driven by values, optimism, pride and generosity. One city working together for the common good. Let’s celebrate our successes every day. Let’s realize our dream of a future inspired by 21st century innovation.”

Abed concluded, “I will continue to honor your trust and lead our City with pride, thoughtfulness and passion. I am deeply committed to providing the American Dream for us and our families. Together, we will make Escondido one of the greatest cities in America.”

City Council Awards

In presenting the “Community” award to Robert Barrientos, District 1 Councilmember Ed Gallo said, “Robert Barrientos has been the President and property manager of the Lansing Circle Neighborhood Group since it was first organized in 2008. Prior to Robert’s involvement, Lansing Circle was a rough neighborhood to say the least. The area, consisting of 16 individually owned apartment complexes in the heart of the City, had such a bad reputation that local pizza restaurants refused to deliver there, and the police department wouldn’t respond to the frequent calls there without backup.”

His involvement changed that. He “transformed Lansing Circle by creating partnerships with the apartment complex owners, the police department and City Hall. With his understated yet firm approach, he brought everyone together to identify resources, empower neighbors, evict problem tenants and rebuild Lansing Circle into the safe, family-friendly cul de sac that it is today.”

Gallo also presented Margie Ballard with the “Compassion” award.

Ballard, 94, has been a volunteer with Palomar Health for over 29 years. “She has flown under the radar for much of that time,” said Gallo. “Throughout her years of service, she has led many volunteer programs such as the Hospital Auxiliary Board and the Volunteer Leadership Council, and has influenced change and offered her life experience along the way. She currently supports community volunteers at Palomar Health, and assists at the new Birth Center and the Behavioral Health Unit.” She has provided over 13,000 hours of service “in the form of compassion and empathy during difficult times at Escondido’s hospitals,” he said.

District 2 Councilmember John Masson presented the “Public Safety” award to Firefighter Dominic Polito, a 12-year veteran, who is an Engineer on Engine #1311 out of at Fire Station #1. Polito is “the driving force behind the now legendary StachetoberFest. On the surface, StachetoberFest may just seem like a great excuse for a bunch of guys (and gals) to grow mustaches and then show them off while drinking Stone beer. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that StachetoberFest has come to the aid of families when they are most in need, raising almost $100,000 for its recipients since its start nine years ago,” said Masson.

District 3 councilmember Olga Diaz recognized Dan Forster and Heather Moe with the “Business” award. They own Design Moe Kitchen and Bath, a specialty design business. Dan president of the Escondido Downtown Business Association. “In this volunteer role he has tirelessly and respectfully advocated for downtown merchants, hosted meetings at their business and promoted and sponsored downtown events,” said Diaz. “Dan and Heather are highly regarded throughout the region by customers who have benefitted from their design services. Locally, Heather designed the beautiful interior of the Grand Tea Room.” They also provide funding to the Escondido Art Association’s Art Scholarship Program so three high school art students in Escondido schools receive $1,000 college scholarships annually.

Diaz also recognized Keith Roynon of the Roynon Museum of Earth Science and Paleontology, with the “Youth” award. Over his life Roynon collected a huge, impressive collection of rocks, fossils and bones. “As his collection grew, he felt that many of the children in his hometown of Escondido might never get an opportunity to see museum collections like his.” So, in 2000, he opened a small museum in his converted garage. When his garage could no longer accommodate the growing numbers of students he opened Roynon Museum of Earth Science and Paleontology on Grand Avenue. “Mr. Roynon, who is turning 80 this year, continues to teach classes six days a week. Thousands of children, many of whom are now grown adults, have benefitted from Mr. Roynon’s instruction. His passion for educating youth, and his tireless energy, is an inspiration to the entire community,” she said.

Fourth District Councilman Mike Morasco recognized Don Piller with the “Education” award.

Piller has been a volunteer with the OASIS program since 1997 and has assisted with a wide variety of services they provide. “Don instructs computer classes and teaches senior citizens vital computer skills that range from basic to advanced. Thanks to his classes, seniors who didn’t grow up using computers are Skyping with their grandkids and posting photos on Facebook,” said Morasco. He has taught over 3,000 seniors. He also maintains the computer systems for the program and ensures that their equipment is functioning. He also volunteers with the San Diego Hiking Club and the Forest Fire Lookout Association.

Morasco also gave the “Arts” award to longtime resident Barbara Preston who has served the City’s arts community for much of her time here. “She began as a board member with the Escondido Arts Partnership, and assisted with the creation of 2nd Saturday, a program that is still running today. Barbara has remained a volunteer with the partnership, and is instrumental in the success of their two fundraising events, Panache and the Recycled Runway Show.” She was vice president for First Night Escondido, secretary for Escondido Art Association, and has sat on the Public Arts Commission for two years. She has also been a library volunteer, participating in their “Home Bound Delivery Program.”

Finally, Mayor Abed recognized the Escondido Charitable Foundation, founded ten years ago by Jack Raymond and several others. “Since then, the Foundation has increased effective and responsible philanthropy here in Escondido by supporting a wide range of areas including: health and human services; STEM education; access to the outdoors; arts & culture and more.”

A year after its creation, the Foundation created the “Escondido After-the-Fires Fund” for recovery efforts following the Witch Creek Fire of 2007. More than $106,000 in grants was distributed to those affected by the devastating wildfires.

Today the Foundation focuses on:

• A youth mentoring family support program called “A Step Beyond”

• Mental Health Services for At-Risk Preschoolers and Families through the Escondido Community Child Development Center

• Financial Literacy education through Community Housing Works

• The “Next Step North” Family Self-Sufficiency Program through the Center for Community Solutions

• A Family Housing and Social Services Program through Interfaith Community Services

• Mental Health Services for the Homeless through Neighborhood Healthcare; and

• A program working to find a Permanent Solution to Family Homelessness in Escondido through Solutions for Change, Inc.

Over its life the Foundation has awarded $1.8 million in grants to nonprofits and raised an endowment fund of more than $960,000 to support future needs in Escondido.

The Foundation has recruited more than 155 members, including 100 founders who commit a minimum contribution of $1,000 per year for five years.

Abed declared, “The Escondido Charitable Foundation is tireless in their commitment to helping those in need here in Escondido. I am so pleased to present this award to Jack Raymond, one of the Foundation’s dedicated founders. Thank you, Jack, for all that you, and the Escondido Charitable Foundation have done for our City.”

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