Thursday, April 22, 2010
After hearing each Marina department head say martial law will ensue if they take an 18 percent cut, Mayor Bruce Delgado fervently rattles off possible excesses in the city’s budget: nearly $400,000 for the human resources department, $60,000 paid to a school consultant, $250 for city employees to stay at a Monterey hotel. Seated next to City Manager Tony Altfeld, Delgado proposes that city executives should take salary cuts, be given perks to live in the city and be required to work more than 40 hours a week.
“Maybe we are in store for another radical reorganization,” he says. The suggestion is met with awkward silence.
Despite Delgado’s Jay Leno-like jaw, silver hair and dark eyebrows, this was no stand-up routine. His rapid-fire rant came toward the end of one of the extra-inning City Council sessions – on a Saturday, of all days – that have become the norm under his administration. Employees complain that more than 20 positions are frozen and that they are 25 percent understaffed. General fund expenses exceed revenues by $4.1 million. At this pace, the city will be broke by 2012.
Railing in Marina’s deficit spending is what the city’s first Green Party mayor campaigned on. Delgado’s insistence on budget-trimming, however, infuriates his critics, who are equally angry at running mate Councilman Frank O’Connell.
Gary Wilmot, who Delgado defeated last November, spouts off about gang activity seeping into the family-friendly coastal town, pointing to the city’s two homicides this year.
“It’s because the police department isn’t staffed the way it’s supposed to be staffed,” he says. “Nitpicking is not the solution.”
The Marina Gazette publisher backs Councilman Ken Gray’s suggestion to put three tax measures – 1 percent sales, transient occupancy, and card room tax hikes – on the November ballot. The room is split between two tracks: Put some taxes before voters, or take a scalpel to the city’s budget first.
You’d think the liberals would be on the former side and conservatives on the latter, but the archetypal camps are flipped. The Republicans have become the party of tax-and-spend and progressive Delgado, who tools around the city in his blue Zenn (zero emission/no noise) electric car, is the fiscal watchdog.
It looks like there are three votes on the five-man council for an election: Jim Ford sides with Gray on the triple tax and Dave McCall says he’ll support a sales tax. But Delgado warns that passing a tax in a recession will be tough, especially if the city hasn’t done its homework.
“Any little excuse you give people to vote no on a tax could fail the tax,” he says. “If we fail, we lose trust. We’ve got to get them to say yes the first time.”
Not only could the city’s financial future be at stake in November, but there could be a dramatic shift in leadership. Gray, a smart-growth advocate turned moderate swing voter, isn’t running again. McCall, whose term is ending, wants his first at bat as mayor. More crucially, Delgado, 17 months into his first term, doesn’t know if he’ll take another swing.
• • •What Happened?
It wasn’t that long ago that Marina, population 20,000, was poised to become the second-largest city in Monterey County. With more than 2,000 acres of free Fort Ord land, the city lined up developers who rolled out plans for Marina Heights, University Village (now The Dunes on Monterey Bay) and Cypress Knolls. The city cashed in on land sales and expected rows of cookie-cutter homes along Imjin Parkway, a public square and city park on Second Avenue and a senior community next to Marina High School. “We were planning for this huge, rapid, explosive growth,” says Altfeld, adding that the city was spending based on the anticipation of future development dividends.
But – in case you haven’t noticed – the housing market crumbled and the recession took hold. Now the roads to the first phase of Marina Heights lead to deserted cul-de-sacs, as the developer waits for interest from a homebuilder. The city booted out the first Cypress Knolls developer after the company fell through moving the senior project forward. And in the most recent sign of tough financial times, Creekbridge backed out of building the 1,400-home new urbanist project north of the city on Armstrong Ranch.
The Dunes developers managed to build the shopping center at Highway 1 and Imjin. The retail center provides 40 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue and created 640 jobs, according to the city. But in a highly controversial deal, which helped energize Delgado’s base, the City Council committed $106 million in redevelopment cash to get the developer to restart installing the roads and utilities. The project’s other facets, like restaurants, a movie theater, hotel and brewery, are largely on hold until the market improves.
That’s not to say it’s all foggy skies in Marina. European solar farm developer kpmsun wants to put its first American solar project near the city’s airport, an untapped 845-acre economy-boosting area. Two companies, Peninsula Housing Partners and Coastal Rim Properties, have pitched competing plans for the Cypress Knolls site, and plenty of smaller projects are making headway (see sidebar, below). CHOMP and Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System are gearing up to build medical facilities.
“There are a whole lot of things happening,” says Doug Yount, director of development services. “Although we are in an ugly, great recession, there seems to be lot of investment in Marina.”
City leaders still hope the city will be more than a commute path between Salinas and Monterey, or a parking lot for big Pebble Beach events. But no one seems content gambling on whether economic development will rescue the city from its current drain-the-reserves trajectory – especially not Delgado.
• • •Super Mayor
Kids ride spring horses and climb monkey bars in the playground outside Marina’s community center, on Hillcrest Avenue next to City Hall. Inside the center, a diverse group of families eat spaghetti, line up for ice cream and barter for raffle tickets supporting Marina Pony Baseball Softball. Delgado eagerly greets some volunteer firefighters while dressed in a windbreaker and Marina High School baseball hat – it’s the team’s first year – and carrying his bike helmet and a petition for an initiative to stop state raids on cities’ public safety and transportation money. (He’s apparently neck-and-neck with Pacific Grove Mayor Carmelita Garcia in a competition to collect the most signatures.)
He forgot his reusable set of cutlery, so he grabs a Styrofoam plate out of the garbage, loads up on some meatless noodles and sits down. “I was trying to catch pigs today,” the 50-year-old Bureau of Land Management botanist says, excitedly lifting his bushy eyebrows.
In addition to trapping feral pigs on Fort Ord, his day job involves overseeing native plant restoration, volunteers and sheep grazing. He moved to Marina in 1996, two years after the Army base closed, and opened up an area the size of San Francisco to habitat and recreation.
Delgado’s election was an ideological change in a town long dominated by retired military. The city’s prior elected mayor, Ila Mettee-McCutchon, a staunch Republican, is a retired colonel who ran the city for five years. He’s also symbolic of a demographic shift: These days, people now come to Marina for the base’s reuse purposes, like Cal State University Monterey Bay. “The Army was pretty good for our past, and the university is good for our present and future,’’ he says. “I think the Army is always going to be great for character.”
Students and young families are already attracted to the city for its relatively affordable rents and less-pricey homes. And more students are on the way: Monterey Peninsula College just broke ground on its new Marina satellite campus, expanding from the existing portable trailers to a new education center that is expected to have 500 full-time students in its first phase.
Besides the budget, Delgado’s most repeated theme is turning Marina into a full-fledged college town (think Santa Cruz). He says it could help redefine the city’s downtown strip malls and super blocks and change the economic climate. “[Businesses] don’t want a bedroom community of a closed army base,” he says. “They’d much prefer a university town, a lively town.”
CSUMB’s newest dorms are already in Marina (the main campus is in Seaside) and Delgado has been pushing to annex the college’s faculty, staff and student housing, which technically falls within unincorporated county. Annexation would make about 1,300 East Campus residents Marina voters and likely lead to more liberal city leaders.
In a city where there are already pitched battles between Old Guard conservatives like McCall and Councilman Jim Ford and the Democratic/Green wing – Delgado, O’Connell and sometimes Gray – the debate will only intensify. The majority of the council may stall annexation, citing staffing constraints. “I have one and a half votes beside my own,” Delgado concedes.
City Hall hasn’t turned sharply toward sustainability under his leadership. Although the city did sign the United Nations Urban Environmental Accords and the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (after the council vetted it three times), it still hasn’t joined five other Peninsula cities around the county in banning Styrofoam food packaging.
But a solar score could be on the horizon. The kpmsun proposal calls for a 3-megawatt facility on 12 acres that could power 720 homes. The firm approached Delgado first and is now working with city officials. Plans call for Marina’s solar power plant to become a marketing tool for kpmsun and the city to draw green businesses to the airport business park.
Delgado’s also trying to bring street fairs and other events to the city with the hope of attracting students. Before the baseball fundraiser, Delgado was at an ice cream social with members of the city’s 35th Anniversary Committee, which is putting together an Earth Day celebration; prior to that he met with CSUMB President Dianne Harrison and Seaside Mayor Ralph Rubio about strengthening the university’s ties to the cities. But all this running around is making him lean toward calling it quits.
“My girlfriend says, ‘You’re history if you run again,’” he confides, adding that his sleep, exercise and diet have suffered as he shovels in a buttery piece of garlic bread. “I still haven’t taken the time to take care of myself on an emotional level. No matter how bad or good my opponent is, I shouldn’t let my opponent dictate my life decision.”
A Delgado-less ticket is a scary prospect to his supporters. “In his absence, there’s no one of any stature to run on the progressive side,” says Planning Commissioner Dave Brown, who’s debating whether to run for an open seat on the dais.
But Delgado’s loudest critic says he doesn’t have what it takes to lead.
• • •McCalling the Shots
Dave McCall orders a Diet Coke at Coffee Mia Brew Bar downtown. Wearing a baseball cap, jeans and his iPhone Bluetooth in his ear, he chats with owner Horace Mercurio about the San Francisco Giants. McCall just concluded his commute to San Jose, where he works as a plumbing supervisor and will be picking up his two grandsons soon.
The 28-year resident, whose dad was stationed on Fort Ord, moved to Marina with his wife Robin to raise their two kids. The family man is worried about rising crime rates. The city saw a 3 percent increase in crime in the first quarter this year, although crime on a whole was down 6 percent last year.
Police Chief Eddie Rodriguez says gang members from Salinas, Watsonville and surrounding communities have moved into the city recently (some could be trying to get away from gangs or from cities with heavier enforcement) and acknowledges that the city’s home-bred Fogtown gang is active. “They are trying to recruit kids from here,” McCall says.
He wants a tax increase, partly so the city can hire police officers – the chief complains cops are working overtime to cover the shifts of two vacancies and three injury leaves in the 33-employee department, not to mention eight unfunded positions. “If we want Marina to be the safe haven for families, we are going to have to pay a little bit extra,” he says.
He’s adamantly against cutting services, or staff, any further: “We are below the level of service that we should be providing to our citizens.”
He says Delgado and O’Connell are to blame for the council’s extended meetings, which routinely go past 10pm and where agenda items constantly roll over. “We delve into the weeds on every topic that comes before us,” he says. “They do their homework at the dais, and it shows. Bruce will take up the whole time that is available. If anyone else was at the helm, it would be run more efficiently.”
O’Connell says questions are being asked that weren’t raised before – and that Delgado has boosted public participation.
The two men have battled over whether light rail (Delgado) or bus rapid transit (McCall) should go through the city, and differed over allowing low-cost services at the Marina Equestrian Center (McCall nay, Delgado aye). But both wanted to give the now online-only Chamber of Commerce a small loan and favor relief to mom-and-pop shops strained by the city’s sign regulations.
McCall says he supports annexation of CSUMB housing – just not anytime soon – and avows the importance of bringing student-friendly businesses to downtown. He drew criticism, however, for a January column about whether residency should be a factor in commission appointments. “If a college student or renter who just moved into Marina yesterday, today, he or she can be appointed to a commission and govern our community,” he wrote. (The City Council has scheduled an annexation study session for September.)
The union plumber’s attitude toward the growing university is tamer than Marina Coast Water District board member Howard Gustafson, who’s also considering a mayoral run.
Gustafson, a former council member who served in the Air Force, wants to get rid of the city manager and eliminate the city’s strategic development center.
For him, annexation is a non-starter: “I couldn’t see the line of kids behind the microphone. That has nothing to do with property owners of Marina. I like that we all think the same. We are all good people. We all served our country.”
Nancy Amadeo, whose views are largely lockstep with McCall’s, has also pulled papers to run again for City Council. The Marina in Motion organizer was appointed to council in 2008 but lost at the polls.
“It’s unfortunate that our council is so divided,” she says. “It’s hard to get anything done.”
• • •Back in Session
Delgado leans back in his chair with his hand on his face as Councilman Ford digs into the mayor’s suggested budget cuts during the City Council meeting on last Tuesday, April 20. Ford says a lot of his ideas wouldn’t generate general fund money, the HR department is already outsourced and the local staffer who stayed at a Monterey hotel probably had a good reason. He’s ready to support a tax increase, as is McCall.
“Anyone who is really against these taxes is almost a city killer,” McCall says. Earlier Delgado promised to go door-to-door campaigning against the taxes, if the city doesn’t fully examine ways to cut costs. O’Connell also opposes the tax hikes.
Councilman Gray says the taxes’ prospects already don’t look good: “A divided council, whether we have one or more members that are opposed to it, probably means a tax increase won’t pass.”
After several changes to the convoluted motion, the council votes to take a dual track: direct staff to prepare three tax measures for the November ballot and seriously consider budget savings. It’s a compromise that will buy the city some time, but in Marina the debate is never over.