Economic funding on the table

Council to consider five proposals geared toward economic diversity

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Among the items facing the Ridgecrest City Council at tonight’s regular meeting are funding requests ranging from $147,000 to $1.5 million to generate economic development opportunities in the city (see related article, this page).

In 2009 the city of Ridgecrest procured some $24 million from a bond sale to fund various redevelopment projects in the city. Although redevelopment agencies (RDAs) have since been dissolved in California, the city still has some money to spend — including about $2 million allocated for economic development.

Five applicants have since come forward with unsolicited requests for funding, and staff has been working to design a metric that will allow members of the council to choose which projects they want to fund.

At the June 4 council meeting, Eric Bruen — who is a member of the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce board and CEO of Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union — said he believed the metric alone was not sufficient as a basis for making the decision.

“Having a proposed matrix and applying objective criteria is wise. However, if there is to be no public discussion or presentation on the project, then you will fail in two key areas,” said Bruen.

“The first is transparency — while objectivity is necessary, a level of transparency over the architects and motivations of the project is something this community demands.” He noted that the council could not rely on the “just trust me” adage.

“Second, the key word of ‘objective’ falls short since the matrix is dependent upon only the perspective of city staff. If you are going to have a thorough review process for economic viability in this community, you should reach out to those people beyond staff who understand economic viability.”

Economic Development Mana-ger Gary Parsons said that among the challenges in scoring each proposal is that, since each was unsolicited, there is no common format — or even objective — to allow side-by-side comparisons.

Parsons presented a metric designed to track existing investment, new job projections, estimates on revenue-generating potential and other data points to give the city an analytical way to evaluate proposals.

Councilman Steven Morgan said that given the city’s prior “disasters” in economic development investment, he understood the need for transparency. But in terms of opening up the process to the public, “It will not go well. I’m sorry — it just won’t. We’ve already heard people say, ‘don’t put money into other things the city desperately needs, just put money into this.’ That’s just wrong.

“If you don’t think some people are going to hate this from the get-go, you’re living in a dream world. What happens if we’re not successful? What are you going to do then? Are you going to back us, or are you going to stab us in the back like you did the last time?”

He went on to list various concerns about projects, though he did not specify which, including making false assumptions for grant money and generating realistic projections for infrastructure costs. He added that he wanted to see how much money each proponent put in. “Because if it’s isn’t two-to-one, three-to-one, four-to-one against ours, I’m not interested.”

Councilman Jim Sanders said he appreciated the metric, but did not want to rely on that alone. He added that since the city is spending public money, he encouraged as much transparency as possible.

“Because of past failures, trust is important. We need to have a good feeling about whatever we do.” He said that in addition to other data used to vet proposals, he wanted to contact references for each proposal. He also agreed with Morgan that he was not interested in funding a project 100 percent.

City Attorney Keith Lemieux said that the default setting of any information the city received is that it automatically became part of the public record. (In the intervening time, each proposal has been subsequently made available to the public.)

Councilwoman Lori Acton said she was interested in bringing jobs to Ridgecrest that did not have a requirement of being a scientist or engineer.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over and expecting different results. All I hear is ‘pave the roads, pave the roads, pave the roads.’ Okay — I’ll pave your roads, and we won’t have economic development. It’s okay. Without economic development we can’t pave them again. And this situation is going to keep happening.

“I want to see how to make it work. I don’t want to hear, ‘There’s these problems.’ Adapt and overcome. That’s what we need. I just want to see that it’s all going to work and we have funding for it all. That’s what I want to see.”

Mayor Pro Tem Chip Holloway was absent from the meeting, but had City Manager Dennis Speer read a statement on his behalf.

He cautioned the council against isolating a winner based on available funds. He said that instead the city should evaluate individual merit and, if viable, give support when funding is available.

“This is by far one of the best opportunities we will have as a council to try and change the direction of the current revenue stream. Expanding our economic base and taking steps to diversify our economy is our only hope to address pressing needs in this community,” he said.

“I personally welcome honest, open input from everyone,” he said, though he added that there is no guarantee of funding availability for anything.

“If we don’t allow the community access to as much information as possible moving forward, we risk alienating individuals who could provide financial creativity and other opportunities henceforth unimagined.”

Mayor Dan Clark said he disagreed with that approach, stating that using the metric eliminates the aspects of emotion, popularity and politics.

If the council is objective, “No one can fault us for making whatever decision we make,” he said. “Now they will. There will always be people who rant in the papers just like we saw today. You just have to shake your head and say, ‘if only they knew …’”

He said using the metric alone allowed for a “brilliant” decision. “Whether it’s successful or not — we can’t guarantee that — but we do our due diligence.

“What I don’t want to do is have them come up because of schmoozing with the public. We’re elected officials. I’ve been told that there are people in the community who know a whole lot more about business, and they’re absolutely right. But we’re the elected officials. We’ve been asked by this community to make this decision.”

For additional information on tonight’s council agenda, see related story.

Story First Published: 2014-06-18