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Tustin Approaches the Fiscal Cliff

fiscal-cliff-congress(This article appears in the January 10, 2013 edition of the Tustin News – ed.) You could hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on a news broadcast these past few weeks without hearing about the Fiscal Cliff the country is facing. Here in Orange County, many cities, including Tustin, are facing their own fiscal cliff of sorts.

According to an Orange County Register story, the state recently demanded “that 19 Orange County cities and the county itself turn over a combined $263 million in unused funds previously earmarked for low- and moderate-income housing.”

“Some cities have already paid up, including Anaheim and Buena Park,” the article says. “Others are fighting the demand, saying the state’s calculations are wrong.”

Tustin’s share of that is $14.3 million dollars. The deadline to turn over the money was December 13th. Although there has been no mention of it on the agenda, the city has taken steps to return or justify the retention of the funds.

Tustin City Manager Jeff Parker said that at the time of the state’s request, $7.5 million dollars remained in the redevelopment fund with no foreseeable plans for use by the city. It has already been returned to the state.

The remaining $6.5 million dollars has been handed over to the state under a protest procedure, he said. Hopefully, that money will be returned as it had been earmarked for low and moderate income housing on the MCAS property.

Councilmembers Chuck Puckett and Beckie Gomez, and Mayor Al Murray did not return calls for comment.

What if the state refuses to return the money? “We may file a lawsuit against the state relative to the $6.5 million,” Parker said.

That could, at least give them a bit of breathing room and, face it — thanks to the long running lawsuits against Tustin Unified School — they are getting to be experts at frivilous litigation.

One thing is for sure: Paying the funds back could be a real financial problem for the city, although Parker assured me the bulk of the $6.5 million was paid out of land use funds with just a small amount coming from the General Fund reserves. He maintains that reserves are still above 20 percent.

At the beginning of this year, then-mayor John Nielsen promised to keep city reserves above 15 percent. It is quite possible that goal will be just a pipe dream when the state is through.

On the Agenda, March 6, 2012

Not much afire at the Tustin City Council Meeting this week. Some issues to wind down the now defunct Redevelopment Agency. We were wondering how the city was going to incorporate the 5 RDA employees back into the city structure. From the last meeting, it appears they will continue to be housed in the “annex” building, an office suite across the street from City Hall. There are a couple of items on the agenda addressing issues of the new oversight board. Eyebrows should be raised over the proposed makeup of that board.

Closed Session

An exposure to litigation and initiation of litigation, two cases each, head up the closed session agenda. Of course, we have our existing litigation in reference to Tustin Unified School District and T-Mobile West. The Tustin News ran an interesting piece Sunday regarding the T-Mobile litigation and litigation between Orange County cities and wireless companies in general. The issue at hand with Tustin has to do with opposition to  proposed wireless systems in Cedar Grove Park. The design review was given a final thumbs down in January and T-Mobile subsequently sued the city.

The litigation between the city and TUSD has gone on for too long. The city made a lame offer to settle the lawsuits which would have done nothing to resolve the issues at hand. We understand that the oldest of the lawsuits is scheduled to go forward in April. Hopefully, our new city manager, Jeff Parker, will get both sides to listen to reason and settle this beforehand.

Open Session

Presentation, Quiet Zone, OCTA – One of our favorite local politicians, Orange Mayor, Carolyn Cavecche, will be offering a presentation on Railroad Quiet Zones that have been established throughout Orange County. While I miss the sound of the horns from the trains, I imagine folks living closer to the railroad crossings are quite happy. We look forward to hearing what Mayor Cavecche has to say.

Public Hearing
Item 1 on the open agenda is a Public Hearing on a draft ordinance that would affect the way Zoning Districts are referenced in the Zoning Code. The Planning Commission adopted the necessary resolution at their last meeting to send this forward to the council. Unfortunately, we understand that no one testified publicly about this proposed ordinance during the Planning Commission meeting. Our issues are, of course, with the substantially added wording that appears to have come about in the aftermath of the Fairbanks issue.

Consent Calendar

Urban Areas Security Initiative Grant – Tustin will share in a federal grant money given to Santa Ana for the Urban Areas Security Initiative. Money from this grant can be used for training and equipment to assist cities in “building and enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, mitigate respond to and, recover from acts of terrorism.” We are near one of the top choices for terrorism, Disneyland, after all (I kid you not).

Item 5 is a request to approve plans for battery backup for traffic signals along Irvine Blvd. A great idea and glad to see our town working on this effort to reinforce the infrastructure.

Item 7 Consultant Services Agreement with Willdan Homeland Solutions – Willdan is a top trainer for homeland security in the state and across the country. Their specialty is integrating services between federal, state and local governments in the event of major disasters or incidents. It is good training that will serve the police department and our top city staffers well. A bit expensive at $40,000 or so but we are told it is well worth it.

Item 10 Appointment of Oversight Board Members by Tustin Mayor should be pulled for discussion but it probably will not. The three good old boys are already in agreement that Councilmember Jerry Amante should take the oversight position for the Successor Agency to the former RDA. Becky Gomez has shown that she is not willing to suffer the wrath of the three kids so there may be no opposition. On the other hand, we anticipate more fuel for the fire as Jerry will be up to his usual self-serving…self. Other members are appointees from the OC Board of Supervisors, Flood Control District, Community Colleges and TUSD. These should be interesting meetings that we will keep you apprised of.

11. Set Interview Date for Commission Seats – This would be the Planning and Community Services Commissions. I hope interested parties got their applications in. I would like to see both Jeff Thompson and former Mayor, Chuck Puckett stay on. Overall, both have shown they identify with the values of Tustin residents and Jeff lives in Old Town so we value his opinion when it comes to this valuable resource.

Regular Business

Item 13. Second Reading and Adoption of Ordinance, Planning Commission Authority – Another action required due to the demise of the RDA. Authority being taken over by the Planning Commission is logical and we recommend the City Council adopt the ordinance.

That’s it for this week in our town Tustin. Just enough action on the dais to keep things interesting. We will report on any items of issue (or fireworks from the dais) as they occur.

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Complaints Lodged Against Councilmen

This just came across our desk. Complaints have been lodged with the FPPC against several city councilmembers, including Mayor John Nielsen and Jerry Amante. In the specific complaint against our two councilmembers, they are accused of conflict of interest when they voted themselves into board appointments that have stipends attached. It looks like right now, the FPPC is siding with the complaiants in this.

Here is the link to the LAT Story.

We’ll write more as the story unfolds.

On The Agenda Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Looking over the agenda for the Tustin City Council this Tuesday are several items of interest. Of course, the first thing on the agenda is the closed session. Prior to that session, the public is allowed to comment on any items the council will discuss in private. Two items of concern for every Tustinite are the pair of lawsuits pending between TUSD and the City. If nothing else, members of the community should comment on the waste of money by Tammany Hall Tustin on these two lawsuits. The City has spent a small fortune on litigation that serves no purpose but to drive a wedge between the city and the district.

A public hearing will be held regarding the JAG Grant. The police department is asking to use the grant to combat methamphetamine (no, we don’t have a meth problem in Tustin) and for related equipment. A great idea. We recommend the city council approve the grant.

One item we should be concerned about is the proposed double-dipping of Christine Shingleton. It is Item #10 under Regular Business. Shingleton currently works full-time as the Assistant City Manager. According to accompanying documents, she plans to retire effective at the end of the year. Apparently, the city has not heard of succession planning and they intend to rehire Shingleton in the newly created position of “Assistant Executive Director”, a new title for a job with much the same job responsibilities she had as Assistant City Manager. The alleged reason for hiring her back immediately is that she is the only one (we’ve heard this before) with expertise in the Redevelopment Agency with regards to MCAS property. One question we have, of course, is why not hire a new assistant CM and have Shingleton bring them up to speed before she retires? Why the creation of a new position?  The answer, of course, is obvious. Shingleton will receive her pension along with a nice salary that could reach $105,000 per year plus minor benefits. That’s not cheap at any rate. Of course, the staff report states that there is no increase in cost, indicating that her current pay and benefits already exceeds the proposed “part-time” pay.

So, we looked into it and found that Shingleton is at the top of her pay scale and receives $180,987 per year in base pay. That is about $87.00 an hour. She also receives a car allowance, health and pension benefits that boost her total compensation to over $230,897 or, about $111.00 per hour. That is not really out of the ballpark for a good assistant city manager, which we assume Christine is. But, instead of using the base pay amount to calculate her double dip in January, the city chose to include total compensation. So, she will continue to effectively receive the cash equivalent of a car allowance, health benefits and pension payment benefits even though PERS should be paying for her healthcare after she retires. That means she pockets the money and, in anyone’s book, that is a raise along with a nice, new executive title.

And, what about when they finally hire a replacement assistant city manager (or a city manager, for that matter)? There is every indication this is an open-ended contract and that Shingleton could continue to serve endlessly, albeit for only 960 hours a year, at the council’s pleasure. We are not accusing anyone specifically around city hall but there is a definite smell of cronyism in the air. And anyone who says this is cost neutral goes to the City of Bell school of accounting. This is one item the council should take a close look at. When I contacted one member of the council, they said they could not discuss an agendized item but that it was “all good”. That indicates to me that this is a done deal unless some citizen stands up and questions what appears to be a common practice for well-liked retiring employees.

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