Lompoc City Council and mayoral candidates during a debate Thursday aired their opinions about parks, public safety, homelessness and economic development, while exchanging gentle jabs about the history of facilities maintenance and the impact of budget cuts.
“You can ether vote in a council that is passionate and driven, or continue to vote in the same council and have them produce the same results and read from the same script that they’re currently reading from,” said District 1 Councilwoman Gilda Cordova, who is running unopposed.
The debate, sponsored by the nonpartisan American Association of University Women Lompoc-Vandenberg Branch, was aired online, recorded for later viewing online and simulcast via TAP-TV. It was broadcast in English and Spanish, with closed captioning.
AAUW State President Dianne Owens served as moderator in the debate, which included: Cordova; Mayor Jenelle Osborne, whose term expires this year; and challenger Victor Vega, a sitting councilman representing District 2; along with District 4 Councilman James Mosby and his challenger, Jeremy Ball.
The terms for Vega and District 3 Councilman Dirk Starbuck do not expire until 2022.
In opening statements, Osborne highlighted her background as the owner of her own business, volunteer efforts supporting the library, Police Department, arts and youth organizations, her appointment in 2012 to the economic development committee and later election to serve on the council, and finally as its mayor.
“Being elected to council, then mayor has allowed me to give my commitment wholeheartedly to the community,” the 20-year resident said.
But, she added in quickly, bringing the divisiveness of the current council to the fore, “it’s been difficult to deliver on goals” with a split council and called for “a new council energized to bring all of us a better Lompoc.”
All five candidates agreed that supporting permitted cannabis businesses provides nearly 1,000 jobs and crucial sales tax revenues that reduce the burden on the city’s residents, but Ball took issue with the lack of taxation on cannabis production.
“We’re missing the boat,” said Ball, another Lompoc native.
Under the city’s existing permitting fee schedule, production facilities that gross less than $2 million per year pay a flat $15,000 fee, while those grossing more than $2 million pay a flat $30,000.
“If that goes to $100 million in gross revenue … they still pay $30,000. That’s not an equitable and fair system. That’s not helping my community, while I see other areas of our community struggling, trying to figure things out. We didn’t get it right here,” Ball said.
Vega said cannabis-related businesses should be given time to settle in after working their way through the application, permitting and build-out expenses.
“It’s dishonest to change the rules before they even get established,” he said.
Ball repeatedly referred to the city’s failure to pass a sales tax during an economic peak rather than its adoption in March. As the debate turned toward the city’s reduction of police services, lack of safety equipment for public safety staff, perceived failures in parks maintenance and other shortfalls, he turned time and time again toward the delay in approving that funding source.
Mosby, also born and raised in Lompoc, took issue with any additional taxation, particularly on the cannabis industry.
“Tax on production is a tax on labor. You tax labor, labor leaves. When you have other communities doing zero tax, they will leave,” said Mosby, who was initially appointed to the City Council in 2014 and then reelected in 2016.
He had previously served two years on the city’s utility commission.
Airing a certain optimism about the city’s trajectory, Mosby repeatedly defended City Council decisions, citing data and projects currently in process.
“We have one of the biggest booms going on,” he said, noting “40 to 45 businesses going on” and “over 200 permits happening.”
He said the water treatment plant has “a great reserve balance,” the water facility’s new wells are producing 4 million gallons, solid waste management has new trucks and a new bulldozer, and that the city has put $2 million into street repairs this year. He added that the city is renovating one park at a time, noting completion of renovations at Johns-Manville Park and Thompson Park, with Beattie Park in progress and Ryon Park on the schedule.
Osborne disagreed, and said the city needs “to bring back staffing in the planning department so permits get processed.” She said she is also performing essential relationship-building with Vandenberg Air Force Base and REACH, an economic impact organization that focuses on the Central Coast.
Osborne backed the city’s new 1% boost. She and Cordova said the city also should review the city’s cannabis taxes and fee structure to bring them in line with other community’s schedules.
Candidates’ top priorities were: Mosby — public safety, stable reserve fund, property capital improvement plan; Osborne — public safety, equipment and infrastructure, and reducing gang and drug influences; Vega — public safety, affordability, social services; Ball — public safety including returning gang enforcement, drug enforcement, traffic enforcement and community liaison positions; Cordova — city budget, replacement of critical safety equipment, “return general fund reserves to adequate levels,” and returning dedicated economic development and code enforcement positions to city staff.
Mosby said the city currently has code enforcement in the shape of law enforcement, wastewater code enforcement, Fire Department staff, building officials, a city biologist and conservation observation, but other candidates said a team dedicated to code enforcement was necessary to improve the look and safety of Lompoc.
“The Fire Department and Police Department shouldn’t be responding to code enforcement,” Osborne said.
Vega noted the code enforcement officer position was removed when a grant, dating back to 2013, expired. He pointed to the “40 other city staff” that can provide that service while, he said, saving the city $250,000 with “one less person.”
“We haven’t gotten this right. The impact of not having code enforcement impacts property values. That’s not fair.” Ball said.
“Do not be fooled. … The reality is you’ve cut in every department. To say public safety should be doing code enforcement? How can they run around and do code enforcement when they can’t do gang enforcement and traffic and other duties,” Cordova said.
While Mosby said the city’s infrastructure was “in good shape” or in line for repair, other candidates were less cheerful.
Vega, calling Lompoc a “full-service city,” said “the city needs to maintain infrastructure within the budget process, but capital improvement also needs to be addressed.” Ball again returned to the revenue the city might have generated had it passed a sales tax three years ago.
“We would have $12 to $15 million more, especially during a great economy, to put into our parks and a lot of infrastructure,” he said. “So we’re behind, not just on things that need to be fixed, like wastewater, but adjusting how we attract and retain employees so they want to work here and stay here.”
Lompoc native Cordova repeatedly mentioned watching Lompoc deteriorate over the years, particularly the city parks.
“If we can’t even go out and enjoy the parks and the recreation areas that we have with our families, then what do we have to offer?” she asked.
Osborne said the city has made inroads on the water, wastewater and landfill programs, “but we don’t have the reserves we actually need.” She also said the city needed to address the “digital divide.”
“We really need public municipal broadband,” she said.
Cordova, Ball and Osborne called for collaboration throughout the city, as well as with county, state and federal representatives.
“We absolutely have to have strong relationships, regardless of party, with state, federal leaders to be in good standing, to make sure we’re there to make sure we can get what’s due to us, to make sure they know Lompoc exists and they aren’t turning a blind eye to us,” Ball said.
Candidates agreed homeless remains an issue in Lompoc, and called for coordinated efforts between law enforcement, county mental health services and various nonprofits designed around addressing homelessness and related issues, including mental illness and drug addiction.
“Lompoc Valley has more services available than any other city in the county. Every person deserves to be served with dignity,” Vega said.
Osborne noted the City Council had approved a safe parking program but hasn’t implemented it. She said the city “turned down $200,000 per year from the county for three years that would have allowed us to have that program.”
Cordova called for a 24-hour mental health clinician on staff with the Police Department to provide immediate aid as needed, while Vega suggested having a social worker or mental health worker partner with them.
Mosby said the Police Department had been fully funded, but Osborne said that funding level wasn’t enough to “aggressively deal with” the revolving door of a “training ground” for police officers who move on to other departments while not having the funds for lateral transfers. She said bringing in new officers who inevitably move on to other, higher-paying departments doesn’t create the relationships needed for successful drug prevention and enforcement programs and a gang task force.
“Community policing means you have officers who want to be here and continue to be here, not just funding it,” Osborne said.