ESCONDIDO — When peppered with questions about public safety, the city’s former police chief, and library hours from concerned citizens, Mayor Sam Abed stressed the challenges and recent successes of balancing the city’s budget at a public hearing on Oct. 9.
Before taking questions, Abed opened the hearing with a presentation regarding Escondido’s revenues and operating budgets in recent years. He highlighted that the city went from having a $15.6 million deficit in 2010 to a $5.9 million surplus in 2013.
He went on to explain how the city’s $81.9 million general fund budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year is being spent. He showed that most of the budget is being spent on police and fire expenditures, and added that the city is in the process of hiring more police officers and raising police officer pay.
“We’re running a pretty good, efficient government. I’m pretty proud of it… We are looking after your tax dollars, trust me,” he said.
Answering questions before about 50 residents and city employees, Abed held fast to tying the public’s inquiries back to maintaining a balanced budget, with the exception of addressing one question about the city’s former chief of police.
Referring to the recent speculation regarding former Police Chief Jim Maher’s sudden retirement last year, one woman stood up and asked the mayor for the exact date that Maher’s severance agreement was discussed by city council in closed session.
“I am going to answer this one more time,” Abed started.
He stated that personnel matters are under the authority of City Manager Clay Phillips, but as a “major issue” Maher’s severance was discussed in closed session.
Addressing rumors that the city is withholding half of Maher’s severance until he agrees not to run for office, Abed said, “There is nothing in Chief Maher’s contract that would keep him from running for office. Period.”
But in the end, he did not reveal the date the topic was discussed in closed session among city council members, and concluded his statements by saying, “I’m not going to answer any more questions about this.”
Other Escondido residents asked Abed about opening city libraries on Sunday afternoons and increasing the hours at the city pool.
The mayor explained that expanding city services costs money that the city does not have in its budget.
“Government can no longer afford beyond the basic core functions,” he said.
He said that opening the libraries on Sundays would cost about half a million dollars and challenged the questioner to find that money in the city budget herself.
“Look at the budget, you tell me,” he said.
Resident Mark Skok said that by offering city-sponsored activities like the pool, kids might be less likely to participate in criminal activities. He asked the mayor to look at creative ways to prevent crime.
“Kids without something to do is crime waiting to happen,” he said.
The mayor countered that it was not the government’s responsibility to raise children on the taxpayer’s dime.
“If you want to have kids for the government to take care of them, the government can’t afford to do it. Mom and dad have the primary responsibility,” Abed said.
He said that people expecting otherwise, “Maybe they shouldn’t have kids.”
Another resident raised the concerns about the economic disparity among Escondido residents and asked why the city seemed to be focused on helping the private sector.
Abed answered that in recent years the city has been investing in private businesses in return for increased city revenues.
Citing the investments in the local WalMart and Lexus dealer, he said both businesses created jobs and brought in significant revenue for the city.
The mayor also mentioned during the discussion that the city is working with the U.S. Postal Service to prevent the closure of the post office location in downtown Escondido. He said that opening a satellite post office downtown instead is being considered.
Abed closed the hearing by saying that polls have shown that Escondido residents are happy with the direction the City Council has taken.
Noticing a couple people in the audience shaking their heads in disagreement, he said, “The election will validate this.”
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