The downturn hits home
Folsom City Council candidates offer different solutions to ongoing budgetary woes
As the financial crisis continues to drag down the nation’s economy, elected officials everywhere must choose which dreams to fulfill and which to defer. In Folsom, home of the prison, the factory outlets and the historic downtown, the local economy will be the incoming city council’s No. 1 priority. As the election approaches, evidence of the downturn is everywhere you go in this city of 70,000 people just east of Sacramento. Reality is setting in, and it’s looking grim.
The number of foreclosed homes is growing, and property-tax revenues are shrinking. Several commercial areas in town continue to thrive, but elsewhere businesses have disappeared, leaving gaping holes in silent strip malls. Vast swaths of new commercial development lie vacant.
The housing bubble has burst, the boom is over, yet the ideal of perpetual growth lives on. An enormous new shopping center continues to rise north of Highway 50. Plans for residential and commercial development south of the highway are proceeding. Talk of reining growth in—even as the economy contracts—is virtually nonexistent.
Whoever is elected to the two open city council seats in Folsom on Tuesday will confront a deepening recession with their hands tied behind their backs. The city faces its bleakest budget crisis in years, and the city council will have to figure out how to fill all those empty businesses and homes, as well as address the ongoing water shortage and the impact a proposed 1,500-bed prison mental-health facility will have on the city.
Despite these challenges, none of the five candidates running for the two slots has the blues. All appear to be in agreement that local government must preserve and improve public services like parks, police and firefighters. Their differences lie in how they would balance those goals with propping up the local business community.
Incumbent Folsom City Councilman Jeff Starsky and challenger Rosemary Younts say the city must make up for revenue shortfalls by bringing new businesses to the area.
Starsky has his eye on attracting pharmaceutical companies; Younts stresses the need to bring in “clean and green” businesses.
“The biggest thing is to attract business that brings attractive jobs so our children can live and work here,” Younts told SN&R. “When you have that kind of a situation, you’re a lot healthier and you support reducing traffic.”
However, that’s a daunting task considering that some of the nation’s largest retailers are scaling back their operations, or in the case of Mervyn’s, going out of business entirely.
John Arnaz, who has been endorsed by Mayor Eric King, incumbent Councilman Steve Miklos, and Loretta Hettinger of the Heritage Preservation League of Folsom, says he’s more concerned about the near future and the pressure the financial crisis is putting on the city’s budget.
“Due to budget issues, we’re hunkering down,” Arnaz said. “We’re going to have to protect what we already have.” He insists that the needs of citizens must come before special interests as Folsom navigates through stormy economic weather. “I’m an independent voice,” he said. “Most of my support is grassroots.”
Candidate Ernie Sheldon, commissioner of the Parks and Recreation Department, is known around town for protecting community interests for the past 20 years. He remembers the missteps of some past leaders.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “Folsom boomed in ’86-’87. We didn’t get enough funding to build parks. That has to be funded properly.”
Sheldon takes pride in an assistance program he created in 1987 that allows oft overlooked prison families in Folsom to participate in recreation activities, like swimming, free of charge.
“We have to do some extraordinary things to take care of those kids,” said Sheldon. “I’m running for them.”
Starsky pointed out improvements made while he has been in office, such as the addition of 26 fire personnel. He also helped secure funding for Folsom Lake Crossing, the bridge that will replace Folsom Dam Road.
He is endorsed by the police and firefighters’ associations of Folsom as well as developer Jeremy Bernau. Bernau’s endorsement has some around town worried Starsky has too many special-interest ties. He maintains that quality of life and development go hand in hand.
“I believe that a strong business base in the community provides the revenues for cities to fund the public benefits, such as parks, as well as keeping the public safe by maintaining a strong police and fire presence,” he said.
Candidate Michael Gordon, a father, teacher and coach who also serves on the city’s planning commission, wants to preserve Folsom’s historic past while taking advantage of opportunities for modern development that are “sensible and intelligent.” He told SN&R he hopes to attract engineering, biotech and alternative-energy firms to the area.
“They will create jobs that are high enough paying that people can live, work and play in the same town,” Gordon said.
From the Rainbow Bridge to Highway 50, campaign placards scream the candidates’ names, leaving Folsom residents the task of determining what makes each candidate unique beyond the fonts on their signs. Some voters have already made up their minds.
Dennis Garrett, a Folsom resident for eight years and a corrections officer at the prison, thinks the current city council is doing a good job. He’s looking for a candidate who won’t overspend and put Folsom into deficit like other cities.
“I like Michael Gordon,” he explained. “I like new ideas, and I like to mix it up with the incumbent, Starsky. I like the fact that [Starsky] was in on the bridge project.”
Jane DeSoiza, Folsom resident since 1981, supports Sheldon.
“Ernie, to me, is a man of integrity,” she said. “I think he has the best interest of Folsom and its residents in his heart.”
Younts has a big supporter in George Econome, with whom she worked at the Mercy Foundation. Econome admires Yount’s “grit” and her experience with fiscal matters.
Loretta Hettinger supports Arnaz, in part because he is concerned with the future of several Chinese historical sites in Folsom.
“Our history is what distinguishes us from other cities,” she said. “Everyone has a Macaroni Grill and a Ross. But our cultural heritage is what sets us apart.”