El Cajon fails to wean groups off the dole
Union Tribune (2007-07-13) Staff Editorial
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July 13, 2007
When it comes to requests to give away public money, El Cajon council members
just can't bring themselves to say "No."
The city has become enmeshed in tangled affairs in recent years by saying yes
to worthy causes, or at least causes it deems worthy of taxpayer money.
Sometimes the difficulty has arisen from the blurring of church and state
separation. Sometimes the money has gone to enterprises with poor financial
management and with little to no city oversight.
Now, a city already into a new fiscal year, with a budget deficit of at least
$3.8 million, has violated that maxim, "Charity begins at home."
Four current examples spring to mind.
|At a recent council meeting, a representative of CitizensOversight.org asked
the council about its suspended program of broadcasting religious videotapes
over a public access channel with city funds. Why, spokesman Raymond Lutz
asked, is the city continuing to pay the videographer $5,000 a year for doing
nothing? The question drew only icy stares and cold silence from council
The council had proposed no subsidies to either the Mother Goose Parade or the
San Diego East Visitors Bureau this year. At the same meeting, however, the
council blinked. First, Councilman Bob McClellan
proposed using federal funds
and justifying the parade as a service to impoverished children. Then, Mayor
Mark Lewis admonished parade organizers for not working hard enough at
fundraising. But a soft touch is a soft touch. The council voted to give
$30,000 to the parade, $10,000 to the visitors bureau.
The city is falling further into a financial morass in a third affiliation,
although city officials are downplaying it or trying to keep it from public
scrutiny. In 1999, the city got involved with Mark Hanson of the Heartland
Foundation. It agreed to pass through federal money as a loan so that
Heartland could purchase a building and do job training.
Very quickly Heartland quit making payments on the loan. The city was forced
to skim from incoming federal grants to make the loan payments itself. It is
not clear that the foundation fulfilled any promises in terms of job training.
It is clear that the bizarre loan-default situation continued for years
without the city paying much attention.
Now, the city is being forced to take control of a building it does not want,
a building whose tenants pay considerably less than official rent amounts. All
this, while the legal meter is running for an outside law firm. The city does
not even have a valid appraisal of the building's worth that it is willing to
share with the public. The affiliation could be a budget-breaker. Council
discussions about it on Tuesday were in closed session.
Setting a risky precedent is Councilman Gary Kendrick's request to open a
budget with $3.8 million in red ink to give $100,000 the city does not have as
an additional subsidy to Art Beat, the Christian Community Theater affiliate
currently operating the East County Performing Arts Center. Art Beat failed to
show up recently to plead its case, nor did it supply information the city
requested on its financial affairs, according to the city manager.
Rents are routinely waived for Christian Community Theater and many other
theater users with the city collecting no revenues. The city picks up certain
operating costs as well. The facility is shifting to talk-show hosts, amateur
senior follies and the like from the symphonic performances and headliners of
Police and fire representatives were among those urging the council not to
subsidize it further in a year of distress. Kendrick tried and stumbled to
find possible offsetting cuts in city expenses. Mayor Lewis initially voted to
abstain, according to the electronic voting system, then after whispering
from city staff hurriedly switched to Yes, providing with Kendrick and
the bare three votes necessary.
Art Beat's subsidy is safe until next year. After all, a soft touch is a soft