In fact, City Manager Shawn D. Nelson said Temecula’s population has grown from 25,000 to 100,000 in the last two decades.
“Temecula has made amazing strides in its first two decades as a city. But our best is yet to come. I believe that our difference is that we care more,” he shares. “If you care more, you try harder, and if you try harder, you end up doing a better job. It’s not a complicated formula, but it has served us well over the years. If we continue to love what we do and love our city, Temecula will continue to be a wonderful city, and our future is bright. The moment we stop caring will be the moment Temecula changes.”
Residents Are Happy
When asked if residents have embraced the changes he says, yes and no.
“I think that change is always difficult for people. I think many people embrace the changes that have occurred in the city, but I know there are some who would prefer things to have stayed the way they were 20 years ago. We have to understand that’s how some people feel, but then, still realize the current environment we are in and work to preserve our quality of life to the absolute best of our abilities.”
As City Manager for the past 10-and-a-half years, Nelson, 49, has seen a lot of these changes – the good, as well as some that have and continue to be challenging.
“I think the biggest challenge is all of the multiple issues that can come at you at any one time. The only way to effectively address all of these complicated issues is to have an outstanding city council to work with and an excellent team to support you,” he says. “In our case, we are blessed to have both.”
Temecula, which boasts nearby Pechanga Resort & Casino, a quaint Western downtown area complete with Western saloons, as well as numerous wineries and renowned golf courses, gets the majority of its revenue – more than 40 percent — Nelson says from sales tax revenues.
So, are residents OK with this city that now seems to be bursting at the seams?
“I do think we have had significant growth but I also think that many longtime residents are still here. We have worked diligently to maintain that small town feel even though we have grown from 25,000 to over 100,000 since incorporation,” he says. “I believe that small town feel is a direct result of the city council’s commitment to funding community services and special events that have established long time traditions in Temecula.”
Adjusting to Tough Times
And while many other cities have been down on their luck, Nelson says Temecula has fared better than most in this tough economy.
“Our budget has been affected like everyone else. In our case, we decided up front that we needed to match our staffing levels with our activity and demand for services. As such, we were able to successfully implement about 25 early retirement offers and eliminate over 75 part-time positions that were no longer needed because of the reduction in activity,” he continues. “This saved us more than $3 million annually. With other strategic cuts, we were able to balance our budget without having to use any reserve funds and without reducing any public services that were most important to our citizens. Further, because of the attractive construction environment, we were able to transfer savings from construction projects into a secondary reserve fund, which raised our General Fund Reserves from 20 percent to over 40 percent.”
A Seasoned Council
He says he has also been lucky to work with a well-established and well-versed city council, which has ultimately helped him in his role as city manager.
“I would say first, communication is of paramount importance. Never allow the city council to be surprised. Before an article ever comes out in the newspaper, we have already told our city council about it,” he says. “I send an e-mail at the end of every day to our city council regarding issues that I believe are important to them. Further, on any average day, I forward between five to 15 e-mails from department heads, community members or the press to make sure our city council is engaged on the issues that are most important to them within the guidelines of the Brown Act. I believe this has helped to establish a strong bond of trust between the council and myself.”
However, he admits that he’s only ever worked for one city council, and that’s the city council in Temecula.
“…But I have had the opportunity to view how many other cities and city councils function. I think what makes our council unique and better is the fact that they are seasoned, experienced professionals,” he says. “We have been extremely fortunate to have long standing city council members and that stability has truly helped solidify our city.”
Another major difference Nelson adds “is that our council genuinely respects each other. That is significant. Because we’re not always going to think alike, but to respect everyone’s right to have different opinions without allowing that to become personal is a valuable attribute that our city council has. I think the Temecula City Council is one of the most effective and functional city councils that I have ever seen.”
Unlike some city managers, who often shun the spotlight, Nelson doesn’t mind speaking to the press, however, he does have an idea or two why others might not.
“I can’t speak for other city managers,” he explains. “I think inherently the city manager position is to follow the direction of the city council. I’m sure that many city managers are concerned about being perceived as getting out in front of their city councils.
“I have had the press say to me that I seem to fly under the radar screen,” he continues. “I don’t think that in any way means I have something to hide. I think it means I’m doing my job properly.”
In terms of the troubles that the State of California has had and how it may or may not affect his city, Nelson has an opinion on that, too.
“Leadership is about having the courage and conviction to make tough choices in difficult times. The State of California is attempting to do too much with not enough resources. As a result, it ends up not doing much well. In my opinion, the state needs to prioritize those services and functions that are most important and essential to our citizens, and then do those things with excellence. We do not have the fiscal luxury to be all things to everyone. The Legislature, in my opinion, needs to understand that.”
As for what lies ahead for this once completely Western-type of town, Nelson says, Temecula’s small town flavor isn’t going to disappear any time soon.
“In fact, in a recent survey, the number one thing that our residents commented on that they liked about our city is our small town feel. That is quite an accomplishment when you consider we have grown four times in the past 20 years,” he says.
Interestingly enough though, there are many larger commercial properties and private individuals who have been, and continue to be, interested in setting up business here. But on the flip side, the many long time, Mom and Pop shops are still standing strong.
“I think we have a combination of both large and small businesses. As a result, it has provided many shopping opportunities for our citizens, which I think they appreciate. It has also required all businesses, small or large, to use sound business practices to remain competitive in this difficult economic environment,” he says.
Of course, Nelson is the first to agree that Temecula isn’t ‘Shangri-La,’ and it does have some things that aren’t picture perfect.
“Traffic congestion used to be the biggest complaint but it has not been as big of an issue as in the past because of the significant capital investment that has been made by the city,” he says. “In fact, more than $100 million in road improvements have been constructed by the city. But because of the growth, we have experienced an increase in traffic, and that concern by our residents is warranted.”
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