STATE OF THE CITY ADDRESS: Captain Kendrick Calmly Leads La Verne Through Economic Storm

January 14, 2010
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Mayor Don Kendrick helped trim the city budget while still attracting front-line businesses to the city.

Mayor Don Kendrick helped trim the city budget while still attracting front-line businesses to the city.

On a gorgeous, sun-kissed Thursday morning in La Verne, Mayor Don Kendrick delivered his first State of the City address. At first, the theme of his talk, “Weathering the Storm,” didn’t quite seem appropriate on such a picture-perfect, Chamber of Commerce day. Nary a storm cloud was in sight, but the Mayor was elected in March 2009 to see beyond the next 24 hours.

As the mayor noted, the financial headwinds facing the city have steadily picked up. In 2009, La Verne’s tax revenues fell by 13%. They weren’t off as much as Claremont’s (26%), Pomona’s (27%) or Los Angeles County’s (16%), but the results still showed the city would have to tighten its belt.

City budget planners had projected a decline of about $400,000 in tax revenues in 2009. The actual number was a $900,000 shortfall.

“We’re almost $1 million off from the year before (2008) and a half million worse than our projection,” Kendrick said.

If there was a silver lining, the mayor noted, October 2009 tax revenues were no worse than October 2008’s.

Increasing vacancies were one economic indicator the Mayor cited to show the fragile state of the economy.

“One of the things you’re seeing — for the first time in I don’t know how long — is vacancies along Foothill Boulevard in the commercial district,” Kendrick said. “It’s a sign of the times, and for the first time since the Depression, assessed values will be reduced, impacting property tax revenues.”

Stop the Raid

Adding to the city’s financial uncertainty and budgeting difficulty is the penchant for California to raid the coffers of local municipalities to deal with its own budget deficit.

“It seems the state has a knack and a history for thinking the cities can solve its problems, so we will be eying that very closely,” Kendrick said. As he spoke, a petition sponsored by the League of California Cities began circulating in the room calling for a stop to the practice. If an estimated 1.1 million valid signatures are collected, an initiative could earn a place on the 2010 statewide ballot this fall.

“I would encourage each and every person to sign it,” Kendrick said.

The City of La Verne doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for an initiative to become law. Therefore, the Mayor mentioned a series of money-saving measures the city has already taken to draw down expenses.

“As you know,” Kendrick said, “La Verne is a frugal community; it’s a prudent community. You look at our city hall, it’s not the Taj Mahal. We have an adequate building. Our purpose is supplying services, not creating (showcase) buildings.”

As a result, the City has a healthy reserve fund to protect the city against rainy days, “and we will continue that,” Kendrick said.

Trimming Labor Costs

The mayor credited three initiatives, all dealing with labor costs, for saving the City about $500,000 a year.

“As contracts have been negotiated, employees have agreed to cost-saving concessions,” the mayor noted. “This is very important to us because everybody understands we’re in this together. It’s not just them or us, it’s everybody.”

Furthermore, the city has initiated staff reductions through attrition and early retirement. Third, maintaining a four-day work week for city employees has helped keep costs in check.

Kendrick said he believe implementing these reductions didn’t cause a similar reduction in benefits and services to the community.

Indeed, in spite of working under a constrained budget, it was hardly gloom and doom for the City. At the end of 2009, La Verne could proudly point to a number of noteworthy achievements.

“As you go through the city, both the San Paolo district north of the airport and along Foothill Boulevard and downtown, we have a diversity of businesses,” the mayor said. “We’re not going to get the car dealership, but as times get tough, we can hold our own better.”

In 2009, La Verne, in fact, held more than its own.

Starting off his address, Kendrick engaged in a bit of fun asking his audience a series of questions for which he had small gifts (coasters and coffee mugs consistent with the frugality of “weathering the storm”) for those first to answer correctly.

The audience learned that city will save $17,000 by using more efficient lighting systems. Similarly, a new citywide phone system will save La Verne an estimated $30,000 a year. More important, a live person will still be on the other end of the call during regular business hours.

“When you call, you won’t get a machine that says, ‘Punch one, two, three or four,” Kendrick said to great applause. “You will still get a live voice during business hours. That’s very important to all of us.”

Kendrick went on to show how the City in 2009 had wisely used a combination of stimulus money (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) and “restricted funds” (money not pulled from the city’s general fund) to operate more efficiently and effectively to pave streets, retrofit lighting fixtures and purchase a major accident investigation vehicle for conducting major traffic accidents and crime scenes.

Water Wasters Spurt Up

La Verne was less successful curtailing water-wasters. At first, the city saw water usage dropped by 16% during voluntary participation. That figure fell to just 6% by the end of the year. The city’s mandatory goal is a 10% reduction. Kendrick said an ongoing education program will be needed to help the city reach its 10% target. “We started off gangbusters,” Kendrick said. “Then somehow, the thought slipped people’s minds.” A little rain will do that but the crisis is real, Kendrick added.

“In spite of yesterday’s downpour, we are in trouble,” Kendricks said.

Bringing more sunshine to La Verne’s budget in 2009 was the opening of the 99 Cents Only store in 2009 in what had been the former Pep Boys center, which had closed its doors five years ago. Already, the city is earning about $20,000 a year in sales tax revenue – far more than 99 cents to be sure.

The city also announced that Panera Bread, based out of Richmond Heights, Mo., is coming to town and will construct a 4,300 square-foot casual dining restaurant and bakery where the closed Michael J’s restaurant now sits at Fruit and Foothill. It is expected to seat 80 people inside and 60 people outside. Tucked under a bowl of oranges at each breakfast table was a Panera Bread menu. “The prices aren’t on there, but the calories are,” cracked Kendrick, sounding as if he were warming up to audition for “The Tonight Show” since NBC can’t figure out who should permanently host that franchise.

Also on the retail front, Kendrick disclosed that Lewis Retail Centers is performing “due diligence” on the former Person Ford dealership site (there were other dealerships at that location but Person is probably the best known). Ideally, the sprawling location might feature a mid-size grocery store, one or two good-sized tenants and one or two free-standing restaurants, Kendrick said.

In 2009, the City also welcomed the new Sara and Michael Abraham Center on the University of La Verne Campus. Trustee Michael Abraham, learning that ULV lacked a large “family room” for students to gather and socialize, challenged the University and its president Steve Morgan to create one. The center, which is the first LEED-(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building in La Verne, was unveiled September 10.

Gold Line Strikes Funding Gold

Perhaps, the biggest game-changing event for La Verne actually occurred outside the city.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation confirmed that the Gold Line project from Pasadena to Azusa has the green light. The project is funded by a combination of Measure R (passed by California voters in 2008) and federal funds, which generate $3.65 million dollars in daily transportation taxes. Once underway, an environmental impact report will commence on the next proposed leg of the light rail project, which will extend from Azusa to Montclair, including a station in La Verne. The extension is expected to reach La Verne in 2017.

The City’s new housing developments are on a slower track. Many projects have been delayed and drawn out because of the current state of the housing market. Not surprisingly, developers and builders have been dragging their heels, waiting for an economic upturn. As such, there has been little or no activity on some projects, including the proposed 14-home Worden Ranch development in North La Verne while Magnolia Court on Foothill, a 101-unit senior housing development, inches along. Other projects pretty much remain on the drawing board for now.

Whatever the state of the budget, retail, housing and public works projects, volunteerism in La Verne remains strong. Kendrick calculated that La Verne citizens volunteered more than 50,000 hours in community service, not counting the contributions of churches and individuals.

The mayor, of course, is one of those citizen volunteers.

“Every Thursday morning, there’s a group of us that have breakfast at the Village Inn,” Kendrick said. “Jon Blickenstaff, our retired mayor, has been there and I have been there for years, and so Jon said, ‘You know, Don, for some reason, this year I’m not nearly as nervous as I have been in the past.’”

That’s because it was Kendrick’s turn to assess the “state of the city,” at a time when there is so much economic uncertainty and nervousness. “I have worked a lot of hours to make sure the information was put so that it was understood,” Kendrick said.

To his credit, he delivered an abundance of information, calmly  and comfortably, appearing very much the right captain to lead La Verne through the current storm.

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