Above the ripe yellow citrus pictured on Lemon Grove’s city seal, inscribed in the swash of the capital L, is “Best Climateon Earth.” While the weather may be ideal, the same can’t be said for the political climate in the city of 26,000, the county’s fourth smallest city in population and third smallest in area.
Since 2007, Lemon Grove’s finances have turned sour. General fund revenues have fallen by $2.25 million, a 19 percent drop in expected revenues. In 2009, sales tax revenues were $724,000 less than anticipated. In 2010 came an additional $510,000 decrease in sales tax. To make up for the shortage, the city has tapped into its reserves, using $2.5 million of the $4.3 million it had in 2007; employee positions have been cut, furloughs have been instituted, and the fire department has merged with El Cajon’s and La Mesa’s.
More cuts are to come. Expenditures in fiscal year 2011’s budget are down $784,000, including a 40 percent reduction in part-time help and the loss of one full-time position, as well as reductions in animal control, street sweeping, and law enforcement.
The shortages will continue. By 2019, Lemon Grove’s structural deficit is expected to grow to $2.8 million, reveals the city’s “Ten-Year General Fund Budget Forecast.”
Some residents see the swelling structural deficit, the cuts to public safety and public works, and the recent talk of a half-cent sales tax increase as reasons that residents would be better off if the city were dissolved and the community placed under county stewardship.
“There’s a smoke-and-mirrors operation in city hall to make it look like it should even be a city,” says Lemon Grove resident Jay Cochrane as he sits on a couch inside his home near the intersection of Massachusetts and Central avenues in western Lemon Grove.
“We don’t qualify as a city. You really do need at least 50,000 people to be viable,” Cochrane says.
The 62-year-old Vietnam vet and retired postal worker hides a long, scraggly gray ponytail under a red San Diego State University baseball cap. Gesticulating constantly, he describes city history, divulging political rumors about past city managers and current city council members as though he were spilling family gossip.
Since moving to Lemon Grove in 1985, Cochrane has attended more than 200 city council meetings. He has evidence to prove his involvement. A few feet away from where he sits is a shoebox full of VHS tapes on which he’s recorded the meetings over the years. Next to the box is a stack of manila folders crammed with brittle, yellowing newspaper clippings from the Lemon Grove Review.
“We don’t have a substantial tax base to generate sufficient revenues, and we never will because the city is built out,” he says. “We can’t pay for sidewalks. We don’t have adequate public safety. Businesses are closing left and right in downtown. There is something terribly wrong with this city.” He takes a rare, brief pause and sums up his central thesis. “This city has an inadequate tax base, fails to meet open space requirements, and has substandard police protection. It’s time for the end of Lemon Grove. We need to be disincorporated.”
Graham Mitchell, Lemon Grove’s city manager, admits that the city has been hard-hit by the recession and that he has heard the calls for disincorporation. He says the struggles that Lemon Grove is experiencing are not unique. He agrees that the city is in the midst of a structural deficit but says that most all cities in the state spend more than they earn. He blames the city’s slumping revenues and long-running deficits on its reliance on car sales and the construction industry.
“We are taking a little heat from a minority of residents…however, this is not a Lemon Grove issue,” he says.
Mitchell disagrees that a city must be a certain size to be viable. “There’s no such thing as an ideal-sized city,” he says during a July 20 phone interview. “Our base operational costs are higher on a per capita basis because we are smaller, and as for our revenue sources, we are one of the lower in terms of property tax, but we are in the middle of the pack on sales tax per capita.”
In regards to dissolving the city government, Mitchell says, “Folks have been talking disincorporation since we incorporated. I understand their position. I get it, but it’s more of a political decision, and I have to help the council understand the downfalls and benefits of disincorporation. If we were to disincorporate, we would give up so much.”
Before the recession, Lemon Grove generated a higher per capita sales tax than many other local cities. “The residents would no longer benefit, and those funds would be evenly divided within the county,” explains Mitchell.
Cochrane isn’t the only longtime Lemon Grove resident who supports closing shop at city hall, especially if keeping the lights on means increasing the sales tax.
Sitting in a booth at Anna’s Family Restaurant, located at the eastern end of Broadway a few blocks from the small downtown strip, Jack Moore sips on a chocolate milk shake and discusses Lemon Grove, where he’s lived since 1975. Moore owns several properties in the city and has spent numerous evenings in council chambers and perusing budget documents.
“If we can’t take care of our streets, we should contract that back to the county, as well as other functions,” says Moore. “A strong argument can be made for disincorporation, but the process is formidable.”
Moore is correct. Dissolution of a city government is formidable, and according to Michael Ott, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, the state regulatory agency responsible for facilitating changes to jurisdictional boundaries, it has never happened in San Diego County.
There are two ways to initiate the disincorporation process. The first is by a resolution of the city council. The second is by a petition signed by 25 percent of the registered voters.
After a resolution is passed or a petition filed, the applicant is required to present the commission with a feasibility study outlining the transfer of municipal responsibilities. The applicant must detail the financial and service impacts that the transfer would cause if disincorporation were to take place.