If you want a peek into the demographics and politics of the typical midsize American city in the year 2035, take a look at Escondido’s current situation. Whites are significantly outnumbered but still dominate government. Minorities and the poor feel they are getting shortchanged politically and economically and want to wrest power from the business-friendly old boys’ network. “There is going to be a fistfight,” concedes an Escondido civic leader who is part of the white establishment.
According to United States Census data, Hispanics make up almost half of Escondido’s 146,000 population. Non-Hispanic whites are 40 percent. Median household income in the 2007–2011 period was $51,000 versus San Diego County’s $64,000 and California’s $62,000. Fully 16.5 percent of Escondido residents live in poverty, compared with San Diego County’s 13 percent and the state’s 14 percent.
There are five people on the city council, including the mayor. Four are white Republican males. Deputy Mayor Olga Diaz is the only female, only Democrat, only person of Latin background, and only self-professed Latin person elected to the council in 125 years. Despite the city’s demographic profile, voting tends to be conservative. One reason, some say, is that at various times, a high percentage of the population may be in the country illegally.
A lawsuit may alter the makeup of the city council. In late 2011, a group of Latino residents filed suit, claiming that Escondido’s citywide council elections are discriminatory and violate both state and federal voting rights acts. One result, according to the suit, is a council that “has pursued economic policies contrary to the interests of working people in Escondido, including Latino workers.” Under a settlement proposed late last month, Escondido would be divided into four districts, although the mayor would still be elected by the whole city.
In the Great Recession, Escondido suffered a string of steep budget deficits. Now there is a surplus, thanks in part to the comeback in the auto industry. The city’s ten new car dealerships pump up retail sales, generating tax revenue.
During those recession years, the council cut spending and raised some fees. Formerly, 70 percent of cable TV revenue went into recreation and 30 percent into the general fund, says director of finance Gil Rojas. But in the recession, the council decided that 100 percent of that money would go into the general fund and “a recreation program would be self-sustaining — what is collected would pay for the service.” For every recreation activity, the question is “raise revenues or lower expenses.” The council calls it “full cost recovery.” Last year, $770,000 that would have gone to recreation went into the general fund, says Rojas.
In 2008, Escondido’s two public swimming pools were open a total of 42 hours a week. Last year, that was down to 14. Such changes “are a burden on the people of lower income,” says Pat Mues, an activist who is the writer of a website/newsletter called Escondido’s Future.
The city closed one library. “They sold the books for 25 cents to a dollar. Now the main library is exceedingly crowded,” says Dollie McQuiston, activist with Escondido Chamber of Citizens. Charges for the Tiny Tots Preschool Program now price some poor families out. The council’s four-man majority “doesn’t give anything to the general population. It feels that people have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but when everything is taken away from them, it is pretty hard.”
The History Center in Grape Day Park and the Escondido Arts Partnership were defunded. “At the History Center, people can see what the old buildings were like — for example, the blacksmith shop,” says Mues. “People can take out large chess pieces and play. The Escondido Arts Partnership provides space where community artists can exhibit.”
The gymnasium at the East Valley Community Center now costs $2 per player, but groups with a prepaid rental card have first dibs, says McQuiston.
It’s not just activists deploring recreation cutbacks. Dick Daniels, a Republican, was a council member and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. “My feeling is, don’t cut recreational programs,” he says. By cutting, “You have kids on the street, so you are transferring the cost of those recreational programs to the police. Recreation is a good investment because it minimizes the need for police resources.”
Generally, the community activists believe quality of life is being sacrificed for economic policies that include the kinds of corporate welfare deals that line private pockets.
For example, the council is now making a deal in closed session to prop up the Escondido Chamber of Commerce. The city would buy the chamber’s building, then rent it back to the chamber. After 20 years, the chamber would be given the building free. The council votes on the proposal this Wednesday. “It’s a terrible deal,” says Roy Garrett, who is an attorney.
Earlier, the chamber’s building was on city property that was leased to the business-boosting group for a dollar a year. In the year 2000, the chamber bought the property from the city at a sharply reduced price and, in 2005, constructed the new building on it. Today’s four white male council members have been tied to the chamber in one way or another. “Apparently the chamber doesn’t know how to do its finances,” says McQuiston.
The city is also talking with a Texas amusement company, Hawaiian Falls Waterparks, about putting a water adventure park on nine acres of Kit Carson Park. The admission would probably be about $20 per person, thus putting it out of reach of poor families. The council is debating a big subsidy for Hawaiian Falls but in return would want a slug of the revenue. It might donate the land. That could cause problems. Hawaiian Falls’ parent, Harvest Family Entertainment, boasts that it is “faith-based.” Hawaiian Falls sponsors such events as a “prayer walk.” Giving a subsidy and land to such an organization would invite a lawsuit from civil liberties groups, not to mention nearby neighbors expected to object to possible park noise. The Texas company might propose taking over the Escondido Sports Center and skatepark, which aren’t meeting the council’s full cost recovery standard.
The council is also plunking $500,000 into a fund to subsidize businesses that prettify their storefronts.
At least, a cockamamie $50 million scheme to build a stadium for the San Diego Padres’ AAA affiliate effectively died last year as California killed local redevelopment agencies.