Bickering politicians, ever-swelling budget deficits, millionaire gadfly enigmas and revolting senior citizens. Chula Vista’s got it all.
And why not? This is a city of almost a quarter-million inhabitants. It’s the 90th-biggest city in the United States. If Chula Vista was in Wisconsin, it would be that state’s second-largest city.
But what really sets Chula Vista apart is the city’s extraordinary tale of boom-to-bust.
A few years ago, Chula Vista was a Mecca for public sector workers. Municipal lawyers, firefighters, police officers and other city workers flocked to the city in the South Bay, lured by a gold-rush-style real estate boom and the lavish benefits and salaries that came with it.
But, as we all now know, the boom didn’t last. The vast tracts of housing built primarily in the east of the city turned out to be economically septic and, when the real estate bubble burst, Chula Vista home prices came tumbling down, triggering a wave of foreclosures that continues to wash across the city.
With that drop in property values came a large and sudden reduction in property taxes, the backbone of Chula Vista’s $120 million-$130 million annual budget. Since 2008, the city’s property tax revenues have declined 18 percent, accompanied by similar drops in about every other revenue stream, from sales taxes to motor vehicle license fees.
Now, as it faces an estimated $18.6 million deficit, the city’s part-time City Council has found itself making cutbacks that just a few years ago would have seemed obscene: It has stripped back almost all city services, from graffiti abatement, to senior and recreation centers, to the trimming of city-owned trees and bushes. It’s frozen police officer and firefighter hiring and pay increases and, in the last couple of months, Chula Vista’s finalized agreements with unions to roll back the benefits that were once one of the city’s main bragging points.
This is a city in crisis mode.
We decided we needed to pay more attention to Chula Vista.
So, I’ve spent the last two weeks looking at the city’s dirty laundry. I’ve met with all the members of the City Council, with the exception of Mayor Cheryl Cox, who I have an appointment with Thursday morning. I’ve interviewed the city manager, the police chief, former politicians, gadflies, political consultants, business people and everyday Chula Vistans.
The goal of this assignment? To provide the rest of the county with a clear window into what’s been going on in San Diego’s second city.
In several posts on this blog over the coming days, I will lay out what I’ve found and tell some of the stories of the city of Chula Vista as it struggles to mop up the mess left over from years of spending without investment, growth without planning and political in-fighting.
I don’t expect to be able to define a city of a quarter-million inhabitants after a few days of reporting. But I do hope to shed some light on the major crises currently hitting Chula Vista, and to provide some information and analysis on the political environment in which those crises are unfolding.
As we publish these posts, I encourage readers from both within Chula Vista and beyond to join the conversation.
If I’m wrong, tell me I’m wrong. If I’ve missed the point, set me straight. And if you’ve got an even better story for me to focus on in Chula Vista, send me the documents, tell me who to talk to and let’s get the story out there.