Blakespear sounds optimistic note on her first-ever State of the City address as mayor

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Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakepear sounded an optimistic note March 28 at her first State of the City address, telling the audience, “By all objective and subjective measures, the state of our city is strong. Objective numbers show that we have low crime, and high property values. We are fiscally sound and responsible, and boast high quality public amenities and community gathering places.”

The event, hosted by the Encinitas Chamber of Commerce, attracted a sold-out crowd of 250 to the city’s Senior Center. Blakespear also praised her colleagues in city leadership, both elected and staff, for their transparency and responsiveness to constituents.

“What does it feel like when you interact with the city?” she asked. “Here, I don’t think we’ve ever been in a better place, and we continue to improve. Good governance is a process; it’s not an outcome. And our process is to embrace transparency in decision-making, collaboration between community organizations and the city, the highest level of professionalism at all levels – particularly when dealing with the public. A positive outlook, and our adaptability to residents’ changing expectations from local government, inform the way we provide services.

In an e-newsletter the following Sunday, Blakespear wrote, “I think it’s useful for the mayor to give Encinitas residents a snapshot of our status every year. I put a lot of thought into this presentation, which gave me a great opportunity to reflect and assess on many levels.”

Blakespear began her 45-minute presentation by running through the city’s budget. “Almost half of the city’s $85 million yearly operating budget comes from property taxes,” she said. “Sales taxes made up 14% of our budget. That is why it is always important to ‘Shop Local.’ Actual revenues were 6.37% greater in 2016 than for the previous fiscal year. Our budget is balanced, as is required by state law. We have about $31.8 million in reserves, which is more than double best management practice for reserve amounts.”

On the expense side, Blakespear said, “A major chunk of our yearly expenses goes toward the city’s highest priority, which is keeping residents safe. You’ll see 27%, or $28.3 million, devoted to public safety this year.

“We are in the enviable position of having a substantial amount of money in our Capital Improvement Program. Many cities devote the majority of their revenue to operating expenses and debt service which leaves very little for capital projects. Our capital projects include the Leucadia Streetscape project, rail corridor quiet zones, drainage improvements, street and pavement improvements and a new park in Leucadia.”

She’s hoping for future savings, Blakespear told those attending the State of the City address.

“The section called ‘general government’ is where you’ll find expenses that I’m hopeful we’ll be able to cut back in future years,” she said. “For example, we’ve spent close to $1 million on lawyer’s fees and settlement agreements related to our housing element problems. This is money I’d much rather be using to make Encinitas even better, and I’m hopeful that soon we’ll stop this bleeding.

“An important piece of this puzzle to focus on is the amount of debt service. We are devoting only 6% of our yearly expenses to debt service. Guidelines suggest that anything under 10% is excellent for a city. What is our debt servicing? It’s the yearly principal and interest on the bonds we took out to buy the Hall property, which became the Encinitas Community Park. Our debt service also includes the construction of the Encinitas Library, wastewater facilities at San Elijo and the purchase of the Pacific View property, plus the financing for the construction of the new Moonlight Beach Safety Center.

“The city’s unfunded pension liability currently sits at close to $40 million dollars. Over the last three years, we have made the conscious decision to allocate 5% of annual savings to our unfunded pension liability. That is nearly $1 million in the last three years. We send the state about $4.8 million per year in pension costs and that is a number that keeps rising. The city council will consider pre-paying additional pension liability during our upcoming strategic planning sessions.”

The mayor then talked about some highlights of the past year:

Public Safety

“The city contracts with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services and has approximately 45 deputies serving our city,” she said. “More often than not, our deputies can be seen out in the community engaging residents, visiting our local schools and talking to business owners and associations about crime prevention and emergency preparedness. Encinitas was among the top 10 safest cities in California in 2015 when compared to cities of comparable size. Comparing year to date numbers from 2015 to 2016, violent crime has decreased by 17% citywide.

“Additionally, the City Council allocated an additional $100,000 for an overtime fund for Sheriff’s Captain Maryon to use as he sees fit, with a particular focus on preventing and managing problems in our vibrant downtown. In a return to our roots, which I absolutely love, there will be a Sheriff’s substation set up in the former Keilani’s building on D Street. This is the location of a Sheriff’s station about 50 years ago and the remnants of the holding cell still exist in the building. We’re grateful to the local property owner for making this space available at no cost to the Sheriff’s Department.”

Fire Safety

“We maintain six fire stations in the city,” Blakespear said. “In 2016, the fire department responded to 5,883 incidents in Encinitas of which 4,281 were medical related. As you can see, most of the time, our firefighters are responding to medical emergencies as opposed to fighting fires. The average response time was 4 minutes and 42 seconds. This year, under the leadership of Chief Stein, the fire department provided CPR training to every 7th grade class in the San Dieguito Union High School District.”

Marine Safety

“More than 3.1 million people visited our beaches in 2016,” Blakespear said. “Last year alone, lifeguards performed more than 1,000 rescues and provided medical aid to more than 2,000 people. Our top-rated Junior Lifeguard program attracted more than 1,000 participants. This was the former lifeguard tower at Moonlight Beach and this is the new design. When completed, it will house equipment and personnel to ensure safety on our most popular beach. We continue to work with the Coastal Commission to finalize a solution to stabilize Beacons Beach.”

Housing Element Update

Blakespear told the audience that one of the city’s most important challenges is getting Encinitas a state-compliant housing element. “As many of you know, the city’s proposal for a housing plan was rejected by the voters last November,” she said. “So we’ve taken a new approach – we’ve gone straight to the group that mounted the opposition and are working directly with them in a completely open and transparent way to come up with a solution. We’re starting with the messages that have been repeated most clearly by residents and this group. Namely, we’re trying to create a plan that stays within 2 stories. And we want the plan to result in more housing that is affordable. That might mean affordable by design, which is essentially smaller units, like the tiny house movements. The question will come down to whether it’s possible to achieve the state requirements and meet the needs of the stakeholders.

“We’re working as diligently as possible to do that, and right now I’m feeling very optimistic about our progress in putting together a new plan that we can take back to the voters. Also for the first time in memory, the city of Encinitas is proposing state legislation to make it easier to permit the existing accessory dwelling units in our city. The state bill would allow a building inspector to certify property for basic health and safety without requiring that the property come up to all current codes. The bill has just been introduced and we’ll see where it goes from here.”

Blakespear then ran down a list of the city’s major capital improvement projects and other activities.

Leucadia 101 Streetscape

The city’s largest infrastructure project will cost approximately $23 million, she said. “The first phase of the Leucadia Streetscape project, will begin at A Street and continue north of Basil,” Blakespear said. “This first phase which is fully funded will cost $9 milllion. It’s currently in the environmental review phase and will begin in 2018. Some of its key features are expanded sidewalks, new and enhanced bike lanes, roundabouts, new trees and landscaping, street furniture and improved drainage to reduce flooding.”

Street Paving Improvements

“Street paving improvements are a major part of our city budget,” Blakespear said. “They include improvements to: Pavement, Roads, Drainage and Safe Routes to everywhere. After spending about $1 million on street paving for several years, the city tripled that in 2014. This year because we accelerated our pavement plan, we are spending $6.8 million dollars on street paving. This is a huge amount of money. But this is the right time to do this because oil prices are low and that’s biggest factor in the cost of pavement. Our streets are among the highest quality in the county, with an average rating of 76.3 which is well above the state average. As you can see, our pavement quality index fell for six straight years before starting to increase in 2014 when we started putting more money into this. Just to be honest about this, putting money into paving is the epitome of a non-sexy project. Residents notice poor quality roads but don’t tend to notice high quality roads. But the commitment of this City Council and the Council before that authorized this budget is that we have roads that are worthy of the quality of our city. We’re a prosperous, classy city and having roads filled with potholes and crumbling pavement doesn’t suit our magnificence. This is also a reflection of the City Council taking care of the basic needs of our constituents.”

Undergrounding of Utilities

The city also undergrounded 34 utility poles on Santa Fe and re-paved and striped that street, Blakespear said. “The re-striping of roads to better utilize space for all types of road users, not just cars but also bikers, runners, and pedestrians is a high priority and something we’re actively working on,” she said. “Safe Routes to School projects and improved trails and opens spaces fall into this same category of improvements that are important to us.”

Flooding Mitigation

To help mitigate flooding in the Leucadia area during heavy rainstorms, the city spent $75,000 to construct five sumps at various locations throughout the city’s northwestern community, Blakespear said. “During the winter storms earlier this year, the sumps were extremely effective in capturing ponded runoff enabling the efficient removal of excess water,” she said.

Safe Route to Schools

The Encinitas City Council is working with the three school districts to identify road improvements that make it easier for families to bike and walk to school, Blakespear said, adding, “This year, we’ve completed improvements at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School and Quail Gardens Drive.”

The mayor noted that the city of Encinitas also is working closely with state and regional agencies, including CALTRANS and SANDAG , “to ensure that the large number of projects they are doing in our city are the least disruptive to our residents as possible. Their projects include widening the I-5 freeway to accommodate a new carpool lane, and a new Park and Ride at Manchester Ave., as well as double tracking in the rail corridor, and dredging the San Elijo Lagoon. They are also building a new train tressel over the San Elijo Lagoon, and building a bike path along the lagoon between the park and ride and the San Elijo Visitor Center.”

Leo Mullen Sports Park

“Not long ago, Leo Mullen Park became a mud puddle when it rained,” Blakespear said. “When it didn’t rain the grass was worn away until it was just dirt and the field was repeatedly closed for maintenance to try to deal with these problems. Last year, the city installed artificial turf at Leo Mullen Park which allows hundreds of local soccer families to play year round. The field is filled with organic coconut fiber and available all year. This cost just over $1 million and was funded in part by a $169,000 water-saving rebate.”

Environmental Initiatives

Blakespear noted that the city is no longer using neonicotinoids, a chemical in Roundup weed killer “that is believed to be at least partly responsible for the declining bee population,” she said. “We are continuing to organically manage Glen Park, not using any synthetic chemicals, for a second year. Hopefully we can expand this to other parks in the future. The picture on the right shows us planting the first fruit tree for the fruit tree orchard at the park.”

Climate Action Plan

The city of Encinitas “is a leader when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint,” Blakespear said. “Not only are we striping bike lanes and planting trees, but we have banned styrofoam containers. We are taking a very methodical approach to updating our Climate Action Plan. Our goal is to eventually become a net zero energy city. This means we would put enough solar panels on city buildings to offset the energy use of the city. We’re proposing solar panels at the community center, fire stations, the library, public works complex and additional panels at city hall. The Climate Action Plan update is well underway. The city will have a draft, updated Climate Action Plan by June of this year. Work completed to date includes a recalculated greenhouse gas emissions baseline and the development of proposed emissions reduction targets. “ Blakespear noted that in 2016, the city of Encinitas was awarded the Silver Spotlight Beacon Award by the Institute for Local Government and the Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative for implementing Sustainability Best Practices.

Business Development

“Encinitas continues to attract a wide-variety of new and interesting businesses such as the Crack Shack and Lazy Acres,” Blakespear said. “These businesses epitomize what’s authentic and interesting about Encinitas, and fit perfectly within our city’s culture. They are also examples of how change can make things better. Because Encinitas is such a desirable location, excellent businesses like these are always looking to locate here.

Pacific View Elementary School Site

The revitalization and transformation of the abandoned Pacific View Elementary School site into a public arts center is well underway, Blakespear noted.

Coastal Mobility and Liveability

“We continue our planning in the rail corridor with our ongoing master planning process with the Coastal Mobility and Livability Working Group,” Blakespear said. “Their focus – to develop quiet zones that would quiet the trains at crossings throughout Encinitas, provide pedestrian and bicycle friendly opportunities along the rail corridor, and establish safer pedestrian access to the west side of 101. An important rail corridor improvement is the $5.4 million dollar undercrossing at El Portal which is currently in the design phase and is partially funded by a grant. We also funded $670,000 for the quiet zone at Chesterfield. Construction on this project is scheduled to begin in October of this year and is estimated to be completed in March 2018.

Opening Doors Initiative

“The Community Resource Center continues to help alleviate the profound tragedy of homelessness,” Blakespear said. “This year’s unofficial Point in Time count showed us that we had 66 people living unsheltered on the street. Last year, the City allocated over $100,000 to support the Opening Doors one-year pilot project coordinated by the Community Resource Center and Interfaith Community Services. I am pleased to report that since the pilot program began, we have placed 19 households consisting of 33 individuals in permanent housing. 5 of the 19 households are veteran households.”

Parks and Recreation

Over the past year, the mayor said, “our Parks and Recreation Department has been busy working many different projects including coordinating a number of really fun events. There were more than 100 performances, festivals, cultural events and arts education opportunities. Upcoming highlights include:

  • Looking at installing new playgrounds and additional shade structures at City parks.
  • Exploring the acquisition of more open space and better trail connectivity.
  • Moving forward with the design of Standard Pacific Park. Construction of this long-awaited 3.14 acre park located near La Costa and the I-5 freeway, is set to begin in Fall of next year and is estimated to be completed in spring 2019. The current budget appropriation for design and construction is $2.7 million.

Lastly, Blakespear talked about communications. “Recognizing our community need for access to information 24/7, the city has improved upon our communication tools with a new website designed to offer a more user friendly experience,” Blakespear said. “The new site is modern, streamlined, and because of its responsive design, is easily viewable on tablets and smart phones.

“In addition, the new SeeClickFix customer service app, launched in December of last year, enables residents to submit service requests either online or through their mobile device. Residents can also attach photos and videos to each request enabling staff to more accurately pinpoint the service location. Since its launch, approximately 278 issues have been reported utilizing the app. Of the 278, 229 have been completed or referred to the appropriate agency such as NCTD or CalTrans. To enable residents to comment on agenda items from the comfort of their home, we initiated a new e-comment feature to the city council agenda section of the city’s website. Congratulations to our IT Department on an excellent job well done.”

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