Escondido, CA

City Council updates action plan: improved homelessness and graffiti eradication

The Action Plan Update at Wednesday’s (July 11) City Council meeting was a chance for the city to give itself a report card on the initiatives that it has set itself for 2018. 

In the update Deputy City Manager William Wolfe reported significant success in several areas, including the removal from Grape Day Park of the oppressive homeless presence that had prevented city residents from enjoying the park; and largescale graffiti eradication.

The Action Plan is divided into four areas: Economic Development, Fiscal Management, Neighborhood Improvement and Public Safety. At a city council workshop held in February 2017 the City Council had identified 70 individual strategies to pursue. Twenty-nine of them had a milestone date of June 2018, so Wolfe reported on them. 

The document can be find at this URL:

Economic Development

In the area of Economic Development, the strategies had included increasing the number of businesses that generate sales tax without retail sales operations and to assess the willingness of business groups, such as the Downtown Business Association (DBA) to support a formalized structure to fund enhancements such as holiday decorations, lighting, landscaping, and security. 

The DBA was contacted and declined to be part of a formal structure, although it has been very cooperative in working on the downtown beautification, including funding part of it, said Wolfe.

Another strategy the council had asked staff to explore was to work with the Chamber of Commerce to foster feedback from the business community on temporary sign regulations, i.e. signs that are not permanent, such as banners.  Wolfe said they would be meeting with the Chamber of Commerce about this issue August 9.

The city is also evaluating the viability of transferring responsibility for ensuring adequate parking in existing multi-tenant commercial and industrial properties from the city to property owners and leasing agents.

Two of the strategies adopted last year had addressed the overall desirability of self-storage facilities and whether the city should restrict their number. 

The goal is to limit the proliferation of targeted non-residential land uses that do not serve the broader interest of enhancing city revenues, since car washes and storage facilities don’t pay much in the way of sales taxes to the city.

The city has since then adopted amendments to the land use regulations that make it harder for both self-storage and car washes to locate here. It was the conclusion of the council that there are enough such businesses in the city for now.

Wolfe reported that discussions are ongoing to “facilitate re-development of former Palomar downtown hospital site with land uses that support the City’s long-term vision.”

The city’s vision includes “streamlining the entitlement process” i.e. making it easier for the developer to navigate the city’s land use regulations, “to ensure a quality project that provides benefits to the downtown area and serves as a landmark for the East Valley Parkway and Grand Avenue Gateways.”

Other parts of the vision include “incorporating a transit hub, as well as vacating adjacent streets to maximize development potential” and “balancing residential and commercial densities and intensities to strengthen the customer base for downtown.” 

Fiscal Management

One of the strategies that has been successfully completed was to Increase Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenues by assisting in the completion of Marriott Springhill Suites, and seek additional high-quality lodging opportunities.  TOT taxes are collected by hotels and motels that operate in the city and go directly into the general fund.

“We are looking for similar opportunities,” said Wolfe. 

Strategies that are in progress include evaluating opportunities for outsourcing city operations. “Most departments are taking advantage and finding it efficient and cost effective, but are looking for more,” said Wolfe.

Another area of concern is to pursue negotiations with the County to increase the city’s apportion of property taxes for future annexations. 

City Manager Jeff Epp noted that there are a number of County “islands” in the city that the city doesn’t have an incentive to annex into the city the taxes it would collect wouldn’t “make the city whole for the added expense,” of doing things like adding sidewalks and other city improvements. 

Epp said they have to do an analysis for each proposed annexation, to see, for instance, if they have existing curbs and gutters, or the city would have to add them. 

Deputy Mayor John Masson said, “I hope we don’t assume we have to do curbs and gutters. Most people who live in the country don’t want that. In some areas, we have high income earners on large lots that don’t need that.”

City Council member Ed Gallo commented, “When I first moved here, there were areas of the County that were in the city, like a one block area where the question was, ‘Who will fight the fire?’ It created some minor problems.”

Councilmember Olga Diaz commented, “If it costs us more to annex that’s a big concern. We shouldn’t be losing money on these things.”

Neighborhood Improvement

The area of Neighborhood Improvement had the most strategies: 30. Wolfe highlighted several of them that had been implemented, such as the Neighborhood Transformation Project (NTP) a program whose goal is “environmental transformation, one neighborhood at a time.”  Although the most prominent department involved in NTP is the police department, all of the departments are involved and help quarterly meetings. They also are exploring funding sources such as grants with the goal of giving NTP its own budget.

In progress are the city’s aggressive campaign of graffiti removal; completing the traffic signal synchronization one corridor per year and investigating the application of “adaptive signal timing,” including potential grant funding for its implementation. 

He noted that at two traffic corridors that signal synchronization has saved closed to a hundred hours in total traffic delays per day (see separate story, this paper.)

Deputy Mayor John Masson commented, “I’d like to see that for the entire city!”

According to the Federal Highway Administration, “Adaptive signal control refers to technologies that capture current traffic demand data to adjust traffic signal timing to optimize traffic flow in coordinated traffic signal systems.”

Wolfe proudly reported that the incidence of graffiti, “has been reduced from days and weeks to hours.”

On the goal of improving and maintaining current parks, Wolfe reported, “We started with Grape Day, moved on to Washington Park and we are working on the Creek Park Path.”

Staff is also studying implementing community surveys to assess community satisfaction with city services such as the library. This has not yet been funded, although staff is ready to release an RFP to solicit bids for conducting a resident satisfaction survey if directed by the council.

Another goal that was completed was revamping the city’s website, something that went “live” earlier this year. “That is completed and is a tremendous improvement,” said Wolfe. This action went hand in hand with another completed goal which was to “develop a comprehensive Communications Plan for the City, including strategies for social media and other engagement tools.”

Councilmember Olga Diaz said that several years ago she asked for a satisfaction survey, “because other cities do them.”  She said it should be “a broad city service thing, not just on the library. It is valuable, even if you don’t do it every year and identify areas where residents aren’t happy.” She urged that the website be a project constantly being updated. “Start it over again now, instead of waiting for it to be outdated again.”

City Manager Jeff Epp said the city is talking to the school district, which did surveys before it successfully pursued a bond issue. He predicted, “I think the community satisfaction survey should be a centerpiece for your action plan next year.”

Public Safety

Probably the issue the city faces that arouses the most interest is homelessness.

In 2017 the city council established a “Strategic Plan for Homelessness”  that included:

a. Collaborate with agencies and program

providers to discover best practices;

b. Coordinate with PERT (Psychiatric

Emergency Response Team) regarding

homeless issues;

c. Liaison with business groups;

d. Participate in regional efforts (Alliance

for Regional Solutions, Continuum of

Care, Project One for All);

e. Fund a range of homeless services –

from homelessness prevention, to shelter care, to rapid rehousing (with case management) using CDBG and ESG funds, and permanent housing with HOME funds;

f. Continue to consider applications for site improvements from non-profit organizations working with homeless/at-risk (including domestic violence shelters) populations;

g. Consider an increase in funding to the Alliance for Regional Solutions to address regional homelessness.

This comes under the responsibility of the Police Department, Planning Division and Housing & Neighborhood Services Division, and was placed under the supervision of Deputy City Manager Wolfe. 

The city formed the Community Oriented Policing (COPS) Unit, consisting of four officers and one sergeant, in January 2017 dedicated to addressing homelessness issues.

Wolfe told the council “I looked at websites on other cities. I found a bunch of organization charts and wordy documents and I went in a different direction. We implanted an action plan that involved nearly every department of the city. We’ve hit upon what we believe a pretty successful program. We are going to continue with that plan.”

One of the key elements of this plan is finding family members of homeless persons and linking up with them to reunite the members. 

Wolfe noted that just last week that two more homeless were reunited with families. “One was sent to Maryland who had been responsible for twenty calls to police,” he said.

But he noted that the number one issue of homelessness that needs to be addressed is mental health issues. “That’s the biggest hurdle,” he said.

Diaz commented, “There is no legal mechanism to do something until they break the law. There’s no way to force help on the chronically damaged. The whole system is scattered.” She told Wolfe, “You’ve taken on a significant project.”

She added, “They are everywhere. They have the right to be homeless, but we have boundaries and we can’t cross those boundaries to get them help.”

Councilmember Mike Morasco said, “Individuals are free agents. We don’t have any rights legally or otherwise to intervene if someone doesn’t want it. There won’t be enough teeth behind any actions we can do to take away anyone’s agency.”

Another strategic goal that is an ongoing effort by the city is addressing gang issues by increasing proactive patrol time, continuing the NTP in high crime areas, enhancing PAL (Police Athletic League) FIT (Family Intervention Team), EGRIP (Escondido Gang Reduction and Intervention Program), Girls Rock, etc., maintain partnerships with outside law enforcement agencies and include all community partners in solving gang problems.

In December the council will be provided another update on the strategies and the next Council Action Plan workshop will be held in January. 

Mayor Sam Abed spoke at the end to say that Escondido is one of the only cities in North County with a specific plan that is  marked off as goals are accomplished. “It is a success,” he said. “Escondido is a success in economic development and dealing with homelessness. Grape Day is a family park now. We are saying, ‘We are not going to let you hijack the public parks.’  We have a great successful model in addressing the homeless.” He added, “The city is more engaged with the community than ever before with the website. We are eradicating graffiti. We have a safe city. I’m very proud of our action plan. We are going to continue to make Escondido a better city for all.”

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