Is Escondido improving in spite of its leadership?

The Escondido City Council majority led by Mayor Sam Abed has made much of their city’s fiscal recovery of late — purportedly thanks to shrewd financial management. 

Yet closer examination reveals something far different — a combination that could conceivably be characterized as improvident spending coupled with a spate of shear luck that prevented even further profligacy.

Escondidans are still waiting for answers to the why and how of former police Chief Jim Maher’s departure. All that is known thus far is that part of Maher’s severance agreement included a payment of $150,000 in walk-away money from somewhere in the city’s or the police department’s budget.

It’s unlikely this was planned for in the city’s supposedly lean budget.

Firmly convinced that by hosting the AMGEN Tour de California event the city would gain international exposure and vast crowds of cycling enthusiasts, and looking back at their more limited role in a previous AMGEN Tour that featured a yet-to-be disgraced Lance Armstrong, city leaders eagerly ponied up the bucks to welcome the throngs this year.

It apparently never occurred to them that the only reason a large number of people paid any attention to the last event was Armstrong and that without him as a draw, the numbers were likely to be substantially less. The city, a few months back reported it lost $300,000 on the event.

Earlier this year, the Escondido Chamber of Commerce approached the City Council hat in hand to say that they were in dire financial straits and were looking to the city for a $500,000 bailout in the form of a real estate loan that City Manager Clay Phillips’ staff assured the council was a good deal.

This is a business organization that got itself into it’s own mess. However, two sitting members of the council were past board chairmen of the organization, and four of the five members of the council had been enthusiastically endorsed by various members of that organization’s leadership. The interest on the proposed loan was at below prevailing interest rates for commercial lending and the payments were absurdly low — this was political payback, nothing less.

Thankfully the specter of the state’s seizure of redevelopment funds and the city’s discovery of it was on the hook for more money than initially anticipated, prevented their going through with the deal.

That same luck played out earlier when city leaders careened headlong into a wall while trying to put together a deal to build a minor league baseball park that would have had virtually no financial guarantees or other commitment from a nascent Padres ownership group whose fiscal house was so questionable Major League Baseball refused permission to let them buy the big league club anyway.

Only the unwinding of redevelopment prevented what surely would have been a $50 million catastrophe for the city.

This all begs the question: Is the city of Escondido doing better financially because of its city manager and council, or in spite of them?

Kirk W. Effinger was born in San Diego and raised in Southern California. He and his family have been residents of San Marcos for the past 30 years. His opinion columns have appeared regularly in the North County Times and, later, the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1995. He can be reached at kirkinsanmarcos@att.net or follow him on Twitter at @kirkeffinger

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  1. Kris in AL says:

    Every time I drive by the empty minor league stadium in Huntsville, AL, I think about the vacant land in Escondido.

    Escondido came sooooo close to another White Elephant capital project.

    Other than game time, the Huntsville Stadium ZONE IS DEAD!

    Count your blessings Escondido that the deal fell through.

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