ESCONDIDO — Over three hours, the Escondido City Council outlined its top priorities for the city for the next several years.
Atop the list is the growing concern over unfunded pensions, which are estimated to rise by $40.2 million by 2022, according to Mayor Sam Abed.
He said it is “rising to a crisis level,” which puts the city in a difficult position regarding its General Fund, as a portion of those funds are used to pay for CalPERS, the state pension fund.
The rise in cost, Abed said, amounts to 33 percent of the General Fund, which would wreck havoc on city services provided to residents and cuts to staffs may be possible.
Councilwoman Olga Diaz added to the discussion say the rate paid by the city could force entire departments to be cut.
The five city leaders, though, said the problem begins with the state of California and its investments and rate of returns. Those returns were pegged at 7.5 percent, but cut to 7 percent, which led to the significant rise put on the city.
Councilmen John Masson and Ed Gallo, along with Abed, said the rate of return would be more like 5 percent, which would put the city even deeper in the hole.
However, Escondido isn’t the only city in the state facing the issue, the council said. In fact, it concerns every city and adjustments to funding pensions must be addressed as soon as possible.
“I’m concerned with the lack of control we have as a city,” Masson added. “This thing is a disaster and we could all end up in bankruptcy.”
Perhaps the second biggest topic of discussion centered on the city’s rising homeless population, which fell under public safety.
Gallo said the city should approach San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar to tap the county for funds to get people off the streets.
Diaz said the lack of shelters compounds the issue, and the one catering to homeless kicks them out during the day. As a result, homeless populate parks, sidewalks, libraries and do not get the services required to get them into housing and the workforce.
“They don’t have anywhere to go,” Diaz said. “They need a place to go during the daytime.”
As for economic development, the council had numerous ideas and plans, but all agreed the old Palomar Hospital campus is of critical importance to the city.
Masson said the city must be selective in the project, as the right one would change, for the better, the surrounding areas.
Abed noted the city’s “35 significant” current development projects and how those will also add revenue to city coffers. He highlighted the two hotels approved, one at La Terraza and the other at Stone Brewing.
They also discussed options to streamline development opportunities, which would help the city generate more revenue to combat the pension problem and continue to provide services.
“We need to entice more business, better business,” Councilman Mike Morasco added. “There are too many inhibitors. We need to become better facilitators.”
The new storm water regulations mandated by the state, which many on the council have railed against, said it slows the process and can turn away potential developers.
Diaz said alternative compliance would be advantageous for the city, if they can get a plan approved by the state before any other entity. City Manager Graham Mitchell, said the alternative compliance plan is in the process of being completed, although it wouldn’t be finalized and possibly approved by the state until next year.
They also discussed other areas of improvement such as a stronger and better presence online including the city’s website and social media feeds.
In addition, Masson re-ignited a long running passion project of Diaz’s in stumping for a linear park along Escondido Creek.
Currently known as the “Homeless Highway,” Masson and Diaz said if the city could manage to create the park, it would dovetail into economic development as well as provide numerous recreational activities for residents such as walking and biking paths.
The council also discussed at length cleaning up blight, holding property owners accountable for violating city codes and traffic light synchronization.