Costa Mesa City Manager, Allan Roeder, has seen everything from a visit by President Obama to the current decision to sell the Orange County Fairgounds by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Here’s a closer look at Roeder, who has served the Costa Mesa community since 1974 when he began as a student intern, and has been the CM since 1985.
Q: What are the key issues plaguing the City of Costa Mesa currently?
First, the plummeting housing market and the resulting uncertainty in the mortgage/lending community each have had a very definite impact on residential neighborhoods.
Costa Mesa has not experienced the high numbers of foreclosures evidenced in the Inland Empire and some areas of Orange County. But each of the plus-400 foreclosures the City has experienced generally results in an impact on a neighborhood.
Properties left abandoned or where the lender is unable to secure the property and properly maintain it quickly becomes blighted. These conditions invite vandalism and other criminal activity. Homeowners who have already seen their property values drop substantially understandably become extremely alarmed when the ‘Foreclosed’ sign appears on their block.
As a consequence, the City has seen a very sizable increase in code enforcement complaints pertaining to property maintenance along with an increase in calls for service to our police department. In addition to the more obvious impacts that foreclosures represent, we have also seen routine building permit activity drop off and a good number of residential remodel projects already in progress halted.
Whether it is uncertainty about the economy, the loss of employment or some other adverse economic impact, many homeowners have had to put off the necessary re-roofing of the house, halt the room addition and pare back even the routine landscape maintenance. The combination of these actions affects not only the physical appearance of a neighborhood but adds uncertainty to those who live there.
Q: Another is that the homeless are becoming an issue …
Yes, another very clear sign of difficult economic times is the increase in the number of homeless, as well as those who are ‘underemployed’ and who have had to turn to public assistance in increasing numbers.
Our City works very closely with a number of non-profit organizations and church groups that provide assistance to those who are homeless or are in need of additional assistance simply to ‘get through.’ The numbers of persons seeking assistance has grown substantially over the past year. Of additional concern are those on limited, fixed incomes such as many senior citizens who have seen their retirement or savings substantially reduced.
Many of these individuals have worked their entire lives and never asked for public assistance to meet basic needs. The concern here is that those living under these conditions will not seek help and may suffer from a lack of medical attention, basic nutritional needs and the very necessary social interaction.
Q: And the financial instability of local government is an issue as a result of the economic downturn, too, please explain.
I am undoubtedly biased in my opinion that local government provides the bulk of the services most people come to rely on day-to-day. Whether it is police and fire, emergency medical care, maintaining streets, the neighborhood park – the soccer and Little League fields, street lights, street sweeping – pretty much everything we rely on daily.
All of that requires tax revenue to support and with retail sales off, property taxes flat or declining and hotel occupancies down, the tax revenues have dropped accordingly. For Costa Mesa – which relies significantly on sales tax revenues from South Coast Plaza and the many automobile dealerships on Harbor Boulevard – it has resulted in a drop in revenues of about 15 percent so far.
The City historically has been very conservative financially with most of its local tax rates at the low end when compared to cities statewide. While this is beneficial to the business community and residents alike, it also means you have to keep expenses in close check and operate with a very small reserve. The sudden drop in the economy has consequently required some fairly serious budget reductions at a time, arguably, when public expectations for local government services are increasing.
Q: Recently, you received word that Gov. Schwarzenegger wants the Orange County Fairgrounds to be sold in order to help the budget … what were your first thoughts? Is it a good idea? Is he a mad man, etc?
All of us in city government have been watching matters unfold at the state level very carefully for a long time. Even at such time as we believe we have our own budgets balanced, we know it’s never a certainty so long as the state’s budget is unresolved.
So, when the Governor announced the prospect of the sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds to help ease the state’s budget woes, it did not come as a complete shock. Were we expecting it – no? But the same proposal was floated in 2004 when the state faced a severe budget imbalance so the announcement was not without precedence.
In fairness to the Governor, he has been supportive of local government so it’s difficult to know whether this is a sign of how severe matters have become in Sacramento or part of the campaign for the ballot measures. Ultimately, it is a very shortsighted proposition that has not been thought out any better today than it was in 2004.
Q: How will the sale — if it happens — actually help the City of CM?
The City currently receives around $500,000 a year in taxes from the Orange County Fairgrounds – generally sales tax from the Orange County Market Place and the annual Fair.
It is impossible to know whether the sale and redevelopment of the property would be financially beneficial to the City or not. There is no development proposal – just an estimated value of $180 million based on the Governor’s proposal. The property is presently zoned Institutional and Open Space by the City of Costa Mesa to reflect its present use. The City has no intention of rezoning the property to some other use to facilitate the state’s sale of the property.
Q: Will it make a big dent in the overall scheme of things in your city? How much are we talking in dollars as far as what the city could lose?
In terms of the City of Costa Mesa, it is not only a matter of the loss of tax revenue but the loss of a very important part of the community’s character. The Orange County Fairgrounds has been part of Costa Mesa for more than 50 years.
It is home to the annual Orange County Fair which brings close to one million people a year to the community. It is home to the Orange County Market Place which provides hundreds of small businesses an opportunity that simply does not exist elsewhere in the county. It is home to numerous expositions and shows throughout the year in addition to concerts at the Pacific Amphitheater. The impact of the loss of the Orange County Fairgrounds goes more to the community’s identity than simply tax dollars.
Q: In addition to generating about $500,000 per year in sales taxes, how else does it help the city?
In addition, the Fairgrounds reimburses the City for the additional cost of police services for the annual Fair and other events which amounts to about another $350,000 per year. The impact of the Fairgrounds on the local economy has never been quantified but when you consider the numbers of visitors it attracts, the number of local businesses that provide goods and services to the Fair and the impact on local hotels and restaurants, it is substantial.
Q: You mentioned that Pres. Obama made his first speech outside of DC in your city … so things have come full circle … ?
Yes, President Obama made his first trip outside of Washington D.C. after being sworn in as President. He was not the first Presidential figure to visit Costa Mesa at the Orange County Fairgrounds – so did Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, among others. In some small irony, Governor Schwarzenegger even held one of his earlier rallies at the Fairgrounds – so much history!
Perhaps it is simply a matter of civic pride but when you watch the national network news and the headline broadcast from Washington D.C. says ‘President Obama takes his national agenda on the road to Costa Mesa,’ it’s hard not to feel very proud of your community.
Q: What was it like to have the President visit CM?
Whether it was because this was President Obama’s first trip outside of Washington D.C. since becoming President or his popularity or a combination of these and other factors, the level of preparation was well above what we have seen before.
First of all, the official notice was only a matter of days – a week at most. The logistics for an event of this nature are considerable from working with the FBI and Secret Service, the White House Staff, the Orange County Fairgrounds and numerous other parties. And of course – because the event was being held in Costa Mesa – there was an immediate expectation that City Hall could provide tickets to the event, a chance for a personal meeting with the President – all sorts of wild expectations.
The reality is that having the leader of the Free World in your community is an honor – no matter who the President is – and you do your absolute best to ensure everything goes to perfection. Whether you’re the City Manager, the Street Sweeper Operator or the Police Chief, your focus is attention to detail and working with federal authorities – not looking for a photo op.
Q: What do you remember most?
I must say that following the President’s speech as the support military aircraft and the Presidential helicopter lifted off from the OC Fairgrounds parking lot, I think everyone experienced a great deal of pride. In particular, the fact that a President could visit your community and address a crowd largely consisting of regular citizens and do so without incident, in a peaceful manner that allowed everyone the right of free expression irrespective of their beliefs was quite amazing. It is unfortunate but that simply doesn’t happen many places on earth.
Q: What does the future outlook look like for CM?
I believe the outlook for Costa Mesa is very promising. Yes, current conditions are difficult but they are difficult all across our country – we’ll work through this. The community is very resilient and diverse in many, many ways. I have said for many years that if you were to look for any single city in Orange County that best embodied all that is Orange County, Costa Mesa would be right there near the top.
Q: How so?
We are home to several major national and international corporations, as well as numerous small starter companies – many who have gone on to great success. There are very high-end, exclusive neighborhoods, as well as neighborhoods who struggle with signs of blight, graffiti and overcrowding.
There is arguably the greatest concentration of high-end retailers in the nation at South Coast Plaza in the same plus-16 square miles that includes numerous mom and pop stores. It is an economically and ethnically diverse community with multiple colleges and universities, and home to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Tony Award winning South Cost Repertory Theater and numerous small art galleries.
But perhaps most important is that it is a community of individuality, a community that does not feel the need to ‘look or be like everyone else,’ but a community that pulls together and supports one another.
The writer, Debbie L. Sklar is a 20-plus year journalism veteran residing in Southern California, where she is a writer, columnist and editor for many local, regional and national publications. She is a regular contributor to PublicCEO.com and may be reached via e-mail at DLSwriter@cox.net