Whoever wins the three available City Council seats in Fullerton, California, in the Nov. 3 election will have to contend with the city’s looming budget deficit.
The budget is foremost in the minds of many of the eight candidates, who spoke to The Epoch Times about possible solutions.
Whitaker, the lone incumbent in the election, told The Epoch Times that pension contributions required by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) are the main cause of the deficit.
About 20 percent of the city’s budget goes to fund public employee pensions, an increase from 14.7 percent in 2012.
He said Measure S, which goes before voters next month, is an attempt to offset budget complications from pension liabilities by boosting the city’s sales tax to 9 percent—the second highest in Orange County.
“It’s actually a pension tax,” Whitaker said. “Their highest priority is to backfill their unfunded pension liabilities.”
“So what you’re seeing, in effect, is severe financial mismanagement.”
Whitaker, who is running in District 4, said that the deficit offers “a golden opportunity for us to refashion government and get more mileage out of it.”
Rather than supporting a “ham-fisted” approach to raising sales tax, he said it could be handled “more surgically” by establishing a sunset for the tax once the budget is recovered and designating a specific purpose for the additional revenue instead of dumping it into the general fund.
He also said he would consider eliminating some of the 700 city government jobs occupied by employees who “are engaged in something that is more administrative than it is providing [an] actual direct public service.”
“As someone who came from the private sector … I just see so much possibility for productivity gains,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity for us to refashion government and get more mileage out of it.”
Whitaker’s opponent in District 4, attorney and Fullerton School District board member Aaruni Thakur, could not be reached for comment. According to his website, Thakur pledges to address damaged infrastructure, combat the homelessness crisis, bring in new business, create new parks, and improve 911 response times.
Asian, Latino Economic Outreach
Both candidates in District 1 also expressed concerns about how to handle the municipal budget.
“Every municipality in the state is going to be asked to do more with less,” Fred Jung, a business owner and nonprofit director, told The Epoch Times.
He doesn’t agree with the approach of cutting back; he thinks there should be ways of increasing revenue instead.
“The city council now and the city manager have been very busy thinking of every cost cutting measure that there is,” he said, noting that the city laid of 153 part-time employees in April. “We’re going to get to a point where we’re bare bones, service-wise, and that disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable in our society.”
To generate economic development in Fullerton, Jung would expand the current deputy director position within the Department of Community and Economic Development. He said the position, which was created last February, would be more effective if it were filled by three people instead of one.
Of the three, one would speak Spanish and another Korean. He said this would provide an opportunity to reach out to the Latino and Asian communities—which make up 37 and 24 percent of the city’s population, respectively—and help them develop businesses and economic security.
Jung’s opponent in District 1, business owner Andrew Cho, provided The Epoch Times with a list of approaches and priorities regarding the city’s budget.
Cho would consider further reducing city staff, closing some libraries and museums, auditing for fraud, evaluating the strengths of part-time scheduling and/or layoffs, outsourcing work, and eliminating burdensome regulations on businesses.
“At the same time, [I’d] focus on revenue-generating opportunities, such as energy projects, marketing/attracting/incentivizing manufacturing, warehousing, retail, and industrial to Fullerton,” he said. “I’m hoping rapid deployment of economic development strategies will avert further layoffs and ongoing closures.”
Three of the four candidates in District 4 believe in aggressive measures to address the city’s budgetary issues—especially if they’re going to solve the infrastructure problems that plague the city.
“The city needs help,” candidate Nick Dunlap told The Epoch Times. “For those of us who live and do business here, we notice the worst-rated roads and streets in all of Orange County, crumbling infrastructure, [and] slow turnaround times with plans and permits.”
“These are symptoms of the bigger, underlying financial problems.”
Dunlap’s first order of business would be to prioritize Fullerton’s finances. He told The Epoch Times he would establish short-, mid- and long-term goals for department heads and the city manager to cut costs internally. In addition, he plans to apply for county, state, and federal grants and funding opportunities.
“We will focus on economic development by helping small businesses here in the city grow and expand, but also by attracting new businesses so that we are adding jobs and growing our economy without raising taxes,” he said.
He also wants to explore outsourcing opportunities, such as leveraging private security to patrol parks and trails while reassigning law enforcement to more pressing matters: “[It’s] better for the department and the community.”
Build an Innovation Center
Dr. Faisal Qazi, a neurologist, says the answer to Fullerton’s budgetary quagmire requires a focused effort to stimulate economic growth.
He told The Epoch Times he would expedite permit processing, lower cost burdens for new businesses, and embrace creative solutions to spur business development.
Qazi said he would propose a partnership with California State University–Fullerton to launch an innovation center, “a collaborative space where startups and creative business models are developed that would comprise our future economic structure.”
On his website, he said that if Measure S passes, he will dedicate a minimum of 80 percent of the tax revenue to infrastructure and road repairs over the next 3–4 years.
‘Politically Risky Approach’
Mackenzie Chang, an asylum officer and former teacher, said handling the budget deficit is the biggest issue facing Fullerton.
“The budget is boring, but it affects the most important services of our city, financial stability, excellent quality emergency services, and improving the infrastructure of our city to facilitate future growth,” Chang told The Epoch Times. “We either need to raise revenues, or we need to cut costs.”
But Chang says it’s unlikely that citizens will support “the regressive Measure S sales tax increase, in part to show their displeasure in the council for being misleading and marketing [it] as a tax to fix infrastructure, when in reality the funds will all go into a general fund. … Also, the idea of paying some of the highest taxes in the region is not appealing.”
Therefore, Chang says, the city must find ways to cut costs. One approach would include scrutinizing overtime pay for police officers and fire fighters.
According to the non-profit Transparent California, he said, Fullerton’s officers rack up an average of $35,000 each in overtime pay. Firefighters average around $43,000 in overtime.
“Our officers and firefighters are overworked, and Fullerton is not receiving the best service it possibly can,” Chang said. “We can reassess shifts to minimize overtime, and with the savings be able to hire for the positions which are currently vacant and potentially reduce costs overall.”
“There is a more politically risky approach that I would like Fullertonians to consider,” Chang said.
He pointed to recent studies that suggest a universal basic income (UBI) is a good policy for addressing homelessness. One study was in Vancouver, Canada, and the other is an ongoing pilot study in Stockton, California.
“A UBI-type program would be controversial here in Fullerton, but I would get the information on how much we actually spend per homeless person here, and see if that amount might be better served as a direct cash payment,” Chang said.
If such a program proved effective, unnecessary bureaucracy would be eliminated, the city would save money, struggling citizens would get back on their feet, downtown Fullerton could be revitalized, and the burden on the police force would be eased.
“These are difficult times, but difficult times are where the good ideas that work survive, and the bad ones are exposed,” Chang said.
While businessman Chuck Sargeant, the fourth candidate running in District 2, did not mention the city’s budget specifically, generating new businesses in downtown and in commercial and industrial areas is a key component of his plan.
Sargeant told The Epoch Times that his top priorities would be repairing the city’s sewers, streets, roads, and water systems; fully funding police and public safety agencies; and working with churches and other non-profits to provide beds, counseling, and jobs for the homeless population of Fullerton.