Council wrangles over Limoneira public safety grant, matching funds

November 22, 2013
Santa Paula City Council

By Peggy Kelly 

Santa Paula Times 

A deal to boost police services involving a three-year grant from Limoneira Co. totaling $750,000 that must be matched by the city was approved Monday by the City Council, but not without deep concern voiced by a council majority.

City Manager Jaime Fontes said the grant was initiated by Councilman Jim Tovias and the city’s match would be garnered by an annual negotiated reduction in payments to the city’s joint powers self-insurance “risk pool” account-$142,000 a year-and one-time revenue from the sale of the city’s former sewer plant.

With the city’s crime rate rising at an alarming rate and five murders in as many months Fontes said a major goal of the grant on Limoneira’s part is “The belief good public safety will equal investment in East Area 1 and 2,” where the company plans 1,500 residential units and commercial development.

Having a safer city would “stimulate home sales” that would benefit present residents and “have a soothing effect on the rates we pay,” for city utilities.

“Very accurate polls have shown that one of the biggest problems we have in marketing ourselves as a community is the perception of crime,” and the city’s ranking “at the lowest end” of Ventura County crime rates.

Fontes said the second biggest factor considered by homebuyers is education and the city helped in “making big headway” by advocating and helping the voter approved school district merger.

Although the city will collect $250,000 annually for three years from Limoneira and match same, thereafter the grant will run dry.

Subsequently, Fontes said sustainability in year four is an issue but that careful monitoring of the grant and spending could maintain the funding.

He noted that Santa Paula Fire was successful in obtaining a grant to hire five firefighters-there was no city match required for the federal grant lasting three years-and that it is expected the grant will be extended.

In addition revenues should pick up from new development and a strengthening economy although the city will be assuming more costs related to staffing a new fire station and sports park in East Area 1.

How the funding will be used will be examined later said Fontes who noted that the annual grant and city match of a combined $500,000 would hire two to three officers, “give competitive wages” and provide equipment needed by law enforcement.

“.... That is on the table and it is easy to look at it and get hung up on technicalities,” but the offer must be balanced with needed public safety services.

Fontes added that with the current crime rate, “We don’t have the luxury,” of turning down the grant. 

To give all the funding to boost the salaries of the present understaffed department would be “disingenuous.... “

The city recently hired seven full-time officers bringing the force including Chief Steve McLean to 28; two are already in the field and five will graduate from the academy in April.

In November 2008 the SPPD had 34 full-time sworn officers a number that was still the authorized staffing until it was reduced in the last city budget.

Fontes said the city should have a minimum of 30 officers; the statewide average is 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents.

“We are way below, we would need 16 more officers,” to meet the average.

The city also has 21 Reserve Officers-down from its 2010 full force of 30-but Fontes noted “They are not the same as a sworn officer,” and subsequently an “accurate comparison” can’t be made.

Fontes said the five SPPD recruits “Are the best group of candidates I’ve ever seen, the best educated,” but they still must be trained.

In reply to a question Fontes said the JPIA risk pool was to cost the city $267,000 annually “just to pay for past litigation,” but negotiations including Tovias lowered the amount partially based on better training of officers that would lower potential liability.

Tovias said he became concerned with the rising crime rate and the “murders that have occurred.... nobody wants anyone to be hurt but if a stray bullet,” hit a child the public would demand change.

After speaking to Fontes and McLean, Tovias met with Limoneira President/CEO Harold Edwards.

Of the latter Tovias said, “What we both saw was a three-year gap,” in funding although “hopefully then the big box store would be there,” in East Area 2 to bridge the revenue gap.

It is a “business move,” on the part of Limoneira that Tovias said has “$50 million tied up,” in the coming development.

Finance Director Sandy Easley was involved in negotiations with the JPIA which the city owes $2.6 million, to that Tovias said he told representatives, “They were taking the money that we need to solve the problem.... “

Noted Tovias, “I have absolutely no concern about that fourth year,” and picking up the financial obligation once Limoneira ends the grant.

Several residents of the Oaks told the council they were now afraid of walking in their own neighborhoods and feared for the safety of their children.

Also in the audience were contractors and union labor representatives that also urged the council to accept the grant.

Tovias noted that the latter speakers have met with Limoneira, “Which is committed to local labor.... (the projects) will create jobs for local labor taking seven to 10 years of work, the people working there could be buying those homes.”

Steve Smead told the council that if at the end of the three years the city does not have the funds to continue supporting police, “Go to the citizens, say look we’ve improved do we want to go back? I think you would have,” a positive response.

Other grants should also be sought but Councilman Bob Gonzales said he supports the Limoneira plan “That should go down as the Tovias Act,” but Vice Mayor Rick Cook said although equally supportive he still has concerns.

He noted Easley had already reduced the payment to the JPIA and past attempts at taxes to strengthen public safety were rejected by voters.

He questioned the timing of the future Limoneira project noting company representatives “are not starting, but hoping” to start construction in 2015. 

Gang violence is a multi-faceted problem and although “I want East Area 1 to prosper but I don’t want us to give false hopes that by them giving $250,000 it will solve our issues.”

Councilman Martin Hernandez agreed and noted that although Tovias and Limoneira deserve thanks and credit he thought more specific information was needed before the council could approve the plan.

The last city budget “was barely balanced” and information on the plan for the meeting is lacking including the potential salary increases and the status of the JPIA obligation.

Tovias said the repayment was being restructured and deferred and Fontes said the initial six year payment plan has now been stretched to 12 years.  As it is much of the money owed for past litigation for cases “now going back to 2005.”

Hernandez asked if additional interest was being charged and Fontes said a “slight amount about 2 percent.... “

Later Fontes also noted that revenue from the Limoneira project would start well in advance of construction with permitting and processing fees.

Hernandez also questioned the use of one-time money, an issue the council had been cautioned against in the past. 

“I just suggest we postpone this for a meeting or two until we get more information,” that he suggested could be coupled with a mid-year budget update as well as “A strategic plan” for grant spending such as the per officer annual costs, equipment needs and anticipated raises, among other information.

Mayor Ralph Fernandez also questioned the “judicious” use of the one-time money garnered by the sewer property sale for ongoing costs such as salaries.

The city’s financial consultant Dr. Tom Gardner noted there are risks but that the issue is choices and accepting the grant “with open eyes” and the understanding that sustainability might not be achieved.

“..... there are risks for the city,” including other costs coming on board that would impact city coffers. 

“My job here is not to help you make priorities, you do that,” and Gardner said the council must realize the potential ramifications of such a deal.

“I have mixed feelings on this,” said Fernandez who noted his concern on “taking on more debt” with the extended JPIA payment plan. 

“I support public safety; if we could have 47 officers,” but parks are also needed to keep kids out of trouble.

The revenue from the property sale had been earmarked for a new accounting system and the council continues to balance the budget with one time money.

“Another thing that really frightens me is voters approved East Area 1 in 2006 and they haven’t moved a shovel,” with construction now estimated to start in 2015.

“.... nine years and we haven’t seen any revenue in a good year. If they delay a year or two what happens then?”

Fernandez noted the revenue generating big box store under discussion is predicated on residential development.

“As Councilman Hernandez said I would like to see this with depth, where we’re going.... I think we’re close but I’m not totally comfortable tonight on how to achieve this.”

Fernandez noted that he would probably be criticized: “We have a gang problem and when people can’t walk where they want to walk that’s a problem,” he has heard again and again, but there would be no harm in the city getting more information the plan.

Gonzales asked Fontes about the timing of the use of the funds and noted, “I really believe Limoneira is making an investment, not just a self-serving investment,” but one nevertheless “an investment in having a successful project.”

Santa Paula is now “faced with a perception slash reality,” of a crime problem and “if we do not do something about it we’re not doing our job.”

The recommendation does not address salary increases to existing officers that Gonzales said he supports but would still have to be negotiated and an addendum could add more detail to the report.

“Who’s to say the (Limoneira) board wouldn’t say you didn’t want it so we’ll take it back.... I don’t think they’d do that,” said Gonzales but the inference was clear. 

Although there are “some questions, there is a risk,” Gonzales said he would “take the risk to make Santa Paula a better place.... “

Too much detail on the plan could have stalled the process said Fontes and “You don’t have the whole picture because that was not the format,” but some spending specifics will be forthcoming.  

Hernandez noted that the recommendations in the staff report did not state that hiring officers was even in the plan and Fontes counted it was mentioned in the report.

“But not in the recommendations,” said Hernandez.

In addition, McLean was not asked about input or “Have we heard directly what those costs might look like,” and although Hernandez said he appreciates Limoneira’s offer and his faith in their success he was hesitant to approve the item.

“It’s getting late,” said Tovias who testily noted, “Don’t forget the issues here, crimes, murders, everytime the police are pulling people over they are finding guns and drugs.”

The council’s job, he added, “is to lead” and specifics will come later.

Gonzales seconded Tovias’ motion to accept the grant.

The full council approved the motion although Hernandez noted that Tovias is often the councilman who “talks again and again about making wise business decisions,” and it is always “wise in business to know the details.... “

Fernandez repeated his sense of unease: “I support the motion and I’m very concerned.... there is only one other time I supported something and I lived to regret it. I won’t mention what it is but I am very, very concerned about this. 

“I will support it,” said Fernandez, “and hope I don’t regret it.”

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