Escondido, CA

Councilman Ed Gallo: ‘We are going in the right direction’

Part of a series. The Times-Advocate plans to interview all candidates for mayor and council. We invite candidates to contact us to set up an interview.

When you sit down with longtime city councilman Ed Gallo, you are struck by the fact that he still has his New Jersey accent, even though he has been living in Escondido for so long that he can tell you the history of just about every building in the historic downtown.

He represents District 1, which is the smallest district in terms of area, although all districts are approximately the same in population.

Asked why he is running for a fifth term on the council, he says, “To keep going on the path. We are going in the right direction. Since I came back on the council in 2010 [after a two year hiatus] we have had a balanced budget every year.”

Now, says, Gallo, in spite of the fact that the city is going to have to come up with $40 million in the next few years to fund the pension payments that CalPERS has saddled it with, it will be able to do that without cuts. “We are going to put money aside,” he says, referring to the 115 Irrevocable Pension Trust that the city council is in the process of adopting over the next few months.

“We just hired the company [PARS] to implement this plan,” he says. He contrasts the current council with the council he served with in 2008. “I told people we needed to make cuts and the old council continued to spend dollars and dig into the reserves, until it fell to ten percent of the budget.”

Today, he says, the reserves are 17 percent. “And the goal is twenty-five percent.” To critics who say that reserve is too large, he retorts. “If you are running a household you know how much is coming in. Isn’t it more prudent to set aside funds so you have funds available?”

Like many cities around the state, Escondido’s pension plan, the state-run CalPERS, “lost money with the dotcoms and they told cities to continue writing checks. No cities were worried when things were going well. But when things go bad everything you did yesterday catches up with you.”

Today, he is pleased with the council’s philosophy. “We are going in the right direction. This city is better off than in decades. The biggest issue is future funding and where does the money come from? We can’t spend money that we don’t have. That’s been our philosophy—the philosophy of the entire council—since I got back on.”

His issues, which are the same issues of all the council majority are the following:

1) Economic development

2) Fiscal responsibility

3) Neighborhood improvement

4) Public safety

“They all relate to each other and intersect with each other,” he says. “Economic development to provide more employment, which gives us more sales tax revenue.”

He notes that Escondido “is the second largest sales tax revenue of any city in the county.” That is despite the fact that Escondido is the fourth largest city in population.

Gallo credits Escondido with having built the first enclosed mall in San Diego county, the old Escondido Mall, which was located along East Valley Parkway near Ash for many years.

Then came the Westfield Mall, what was originally called North County Fair. These choices by the city council guaranteed Escondido’s place as a high sales tax generator.

The important factor in economic development, says Gallo, is to increase effectiveness in the permitting process. “We are always working to do that.”

Downtown housing is another factor in economic development, says Gallo. “We are getting feet on the street. The more people we get downtown the better, and the more sales taxes we collect.” He points to developments such as Latitude 33, and its sister development, Latitude 2, which is being built now.

But the biggest residential development is likely to be what results from the 14.5 acres that Palomar Health just sold to Integral Communities for $18 million.

Asked if this wasn’t a small price, he said, “They are not selling a hospital. It’s dirt. The average price for industrial land in the city is about $1,3 million. So, this is a reasonable price.” He added, “I would like to see them implode the building! We’ve never had that in Escondido before.”

Other residential developments he is looking forward near the city’s urban core include Touchstone, which will be building near Hickory & 2nd Street on a vacant lot.

“John Paul the Great University is also planning student housing that will free up Latitude 33 units and bring more people to the center.” He concludes, “It’s all working out. Escondido is a prime location. The more people we get to move near the center the more gathering places you will get downtown.”

Gallo defends his vote on the library outsourcing to Library Services & Systems. “It was the right thing to do,” he says, noting, “I did something no other council member did. I went to the city manager of Temecula, where they contract to LS&S and asked him how they were doing. I didn’t’ talk to one of their employees, but to one who employs them. I heard nothing but glowing reports. It was unsolicited.”

He says the process for outsourcing was very public, “and we listened to the public. I think the biggest misconception is that we sold the library. We did no such thing. We didn’t sell it and we are getting additional hours on Sunday. And we will save $400,000 a year.  We have been taking a lot of steps to reduce our expenses since 2011. And a lot of people are ticked off about it.

“We are territorial. We don’t like people messing with our stuff. But sometimes we need to make decisions for the whole, not just for the part,” he says.

How does he reconcile that position with paying a city manager one of the larger salaries in the state?  “When you have excellent results sometimes you have to spend some money to save bigger money,” he says.

Gallo asks that residents give the new library contract a chance. “It’s just started. Let’s see what happens. You have to give them some time. Don’t forget we have the out clause—if they don’t perform.”

On Neighborhood improvement Gallo has a lot to say. “I like spending money for this. When we approve neighborhood improvement funds it uplifts the attitude of the residents. They are more apt to call the police when they see activities they shouldn’t.”

He points to one of the neighborhoods that received such aid: Park Place. “It was one of the forgotten areas of town, with lots of gang activity. When we did the improvements, people took ownership. Not one hundred percent, but it cut down a lot.”

Another such neighborhood with Hickory between Mission and Washington. “That was ten or twelve years ago,” he recalls. “We had no street lights on the whole block. We pushed to get street lights and gang activity was reduced because there was no place for them to hide.”

Today the city is working on “The Elms Neighborhood,” two and a half blocks that had two street lights and now has six. “It’s a totally different atmosphere,” he says. “People feel safer.”

These neighborhood improvement efforts were funded by Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from the federal government. They can be used for what the city used them for, or for social programs. “People pay taxes, they want safer streets, a good fire department, good schools and graffiti eradication,” he says.

Gallo is very pleased with the recent “Report it” app residents can download for their phones. “It’s huge. People are using it more and more. We need more people to learn how easy it is to report things. It was laborious before. Now it’s easy.”

He is also happy that the city has spent an extra $4 million each of the last few years to improve streets. “People notice all the new street work. It’s about making people feel good about the city.”

Regarding the homeless, Gallo points to a new effort headed by a newly hired Deputy City Manager, William Wolfe, who was tasked with trying a different approach. “The team he put together has found family members of homeless people and cleaned them up and sent them home. You see pictures of some of them and you’d say it wasn’t the same guy. It’s a problem that every city has, and we are addressing it in a professional way.”

Finally, says Gallo, “We have two of the top tourist attractions in the county, the Safari Park and the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. Not to mention all of the new wineries and breweries that are attracting people to the city.”

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