In his most recent quarterly “town hall meetings,” Wednesday, Mayor Sam Abed fielded questions about the proposed 392-unit development for the Escondido Country Club area and comments from residents unhappy with the proposal to outsource the Escondido Public Library to a private company.
Before the Q&A began, the mayor showed the city-produced video about the community, its economy, business, prospects and opportunities, followed by a slide show on economic growth, and public safety challenges.
Repeatedly, the mayor pounded home that while the 2017-2018 budget will be balanced, the city faces a $40.3 million deficit in four years based on pensions, health care and workers compensation.
“Folks, I want your help to find $40.3 million in four short years,” he said. “This is the reality and we want the public to understand. My passion is to maintain the same level of service we provide today. We can’t borrow money and we don’t want to raise taxes.”
That problem, said the mayor, is why the city is focused on saving money with the library by contracting to Library Systems & Services (LS&S), which won’t be required to pay library staff the benefits the city does.
Noting the city’s six years of balanced budgets while maintaining core functions, Abed declared, “We have cut expenses and we have become more efficient. We did not spend more than we made. Actually, we had a $10 million surplus the last six years, which we used to improve our core services.”
Pension regulations are set by the state, and city reduced its pension formula to the lowest allowed by law. New hires use that lowest pension formula. “Nevertheless, we are $244 million underfunded for our pension,” he said.
This dovetails into why Abed favors the LS&S contract: “The difference between the library today and what we have with LS&S is that the biggest savings would be $400,000 because they won’t have to pay substantial pensions to the thirty employees of the library . . .The difference between a private employee and public employee is millions of dollars. And we can prove that big time.”
The mayor was asked if the city will become a sanctuary city. Calling the most recent “sanctuary state” law passed by the legislature, “nonsense,” Abed said the city will obey SB 54, but it will still turn illegal aliens who are criminals and fall into police hands over to immigration authorities.
“We are working on getting criminals out of our community!” he said to applause.
An audience member asked why the city doesn’t have a citizen’s budget committee, as several neighboring cities do. “Why do you feel the residents of Escondido doesn’t deserve a budget committee?” she asked.
Calling the city’s budget process “a great success story,” Abed said the process is important enough that all five council members want to do that job. “The committee has been tried and it has been politicized. The budget is transparent. We are not hiding anything.” He insisted that the public’s participation is welcome and invited, “But it’s so important that the council needs to participate in the process. We are as transparent as the city can be.”
Laura Hunter, head of the Save our Escondido Library Coalition, sparred with Abed about the library, asking why he hasn’t changed his mind in view of “significant new information.” She noted that the analysis of LS&S by Cynthia Smith, interim director, library and community services, “was kept from you, and I hope you are upset about that.”
She said that at a recent budget workshop “Your own actuary presented that the state is taking more action about this issue.” She said the actuary told the council that the “pension crisis is caused by the failure of the [pension plan’s] investments to perform. This is a period you can weather. Your library trustees have asked for more alternatives to be evaluated. Have you changed your position based on all this new information?”
The answer was no. “The reason to outsource the library is more pressing now than it was a month ago,” he said. “I disagree that the pension problem is going away in a period of time.” He challenged her and other critics, “Tell me how we will pay the unfunded liability? The pension is going to be a crisis for many cities and I don’t want to be one of the cities to file bankruptcy and close libraries. The pension crisis is real. These are real figures.”
Asked why the council hasn’t considered other options besides outsourcing the library, Abed said, “Why didn’t we consider other options? Because I think the library today has deficiencies. I see this as an opportunity to make the library better.” Citing figures that the library is at the wrong end of several performance indices, he said, “I didn’t do these performances indices. We have a significant deficiency in program attendance. Circulation is well below average.” Circulation is well below average and computer use has been declining since 2011, he said.
He accused LS&S opponents of “overblowing LS&S’s credibility problems. Eighty-three libraries have been with them for thirty-five years, ninety five percent have renewed. Are 83 counties out of their mind? LS&S are the best in the business [they are, in fact, the only one in the business.]”
The mayor appeared to fault the Escondido library for having too many qualified staff members. “We have eleven libraries in our city but that’s a luxury. They are taking $900,000 in salary out of making the library more efficient,” he said.
Noting that the draft contract between the city and LS&S is now on the city’s website, Abed, said, “We’d love community input. This contract is performance driven with strong accountability measures and it preserves the city’s control and interest.” He said it commits LS&S to producing a strategic plan in cooperation with the city, library board, and residents. It will, he said, work on expanding the library, planning a bond measure to build a new library, enhance programs and provide a detailed scope of services.
“LS&S must compile monthly, quarterly and annual performance reports. In 30 days if we have a problem, and LS&S does not perform, the contract will be void. We are not giving up control” He added, “LS&S is a professional organization ready to make the library better, more efficient, and most importantly more relevant.” He predicted savings of $10 million over the next ten years.
An audience member chided Abed, for “being incredibly willing to hear information provided by the LS&S but not by anyone against.”
She pointed out the dissatisfaction that Jackson County, Oregon has had with LS&S, but Abed countered by saying that “ninety seven percent of their libraries are happy—and they have made them better.”
City Manager Jeff Epp said that staff had looked closely at Jackson County, but felt that that information, “is a little old. Recently, he said, Jackson County “Had a good workshop with LS&S, they have had great dialogue. It didn’t raise any significant red flags. If you stack it against all the material from around the country, from Shasta County, Florida County, counties that have renewed, the clear overwhelming evidence is that LS&S is serving their communities very well. We think they are going to do a fine job.”
Another speaker brought up the opposition by the Library Board of Trustees.
Epp said that board is “a very dedicated group of folks. But I don’t think they studied it as closely as staff did.” If they did, he said, why did they bring up the option of having the County take over the library. He cited the memo written by Cynthia Smith on this option (see article front page.) “If we did that we would have to eliminate the Board of Trustees. That perplexes me,” he said.
Abed added, “We love our library board of trustees, but they don’t have forty million dollars to pay us. How can we survive as a city when we have to come up with $40 million.”
“We have a done a due diligence with the contract we have drafted. We have the best performance measure. If it doesn’t work we will cancel the contract,” he said.
Much of the rest of the meeting was taken up by the mayor being grilled by members of the Escondido Country Club area.
“We are dealing with a difficult land use matter,” said Abed. “New Urban West is a good developer, but my issue is the number of homes. Hopefully we can come to a compromise that is acceptable.” He said this issue comes up wherever he meets people in the city.
Asked why the city accepted the developer’s application, he replied, “We have an obligation to accept an application. We can’t say, ‘We don’t like you.’ Everyone has a right to apply and go through the process. Our job is to make sure the developer enjoys their rights and meets their obligations.” He noted that the developer faces a challenge, it must mitigate all significant impacts required by city ordinance. “It’s going to be a challenge because the community was built dense enough with narrow setbacks because 110 acres were set aside for open space.”
He said he was concerned about the proposed 392 homes. “I will not support 392 homes because of the number.” He pointed out that this number is just a few homes less than the number Michael Schlesinger proposed in Prop. H, which was defeated.
Since the project began the public review of its environmental impact report, the public has submitted 500 comments—which the staff is reviewing.
The project will come before a city council vote in November.
“We have to have a project that will make not only the Country Club but the city proud. If we do nothing, the Country Club property values will deteriorate. Between doing nothing and building 400 homes there should be a compromise,” he said. “If we don’t do anything the chain link fence will continue to be there for years and years and your property values will go down. You can’t continue to have 110 acres not maintained. Brown grass is not a violation of the health and safety code.”