Escondido City Hall / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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There are 7,000 election ballots still to be counted in San Diego County as of Wednesday, and Escondido’s Measure E – the city’s proposed sales tax measure – has “no” votes leading by just over one point, or 450 votes. 

But if Escondido voters make up the same share of those remaining countywide votes as they did of all those already counted, there are just about 250 votes remaining, not nearly enough to close the gap. 

It’s safe to say, Measure E failed. 

The measure would have implemented a 3/4-cent sales tax increase in the city for 15 years that was estimated to generate approximately $21 million annually.  

Supporters argued the tax would have provided the revenue needed for the city to close an $8.5 million deficit in its current budget, which city analysts project to grow to $10 million annually over the next five years. 

Measure supporters were optimistic that the tax increase would pass based on early polling that found roughly 60 percent support for a tax hike that would be spent on public safety, public works and addressing homelessness. In the end, less than 50 percent of voters felt that way. 

But what happens to Escondido’s projected budget shortfall if the measure fails? 

For the past few years, Escondido has had to find creative ways to close the widening budget gap each year, including drawing from other funding sources and making cuts to city services. 

Last year, they closed a projected gap with the help of $3.7 million from federal pandemic relief funds, while also cutting planned maintenance and repair projects, and increasing the revenue it expected to bring in from sales and property taxes by $1.4 million from initial projections. 

One of the cuts the city made was $133,000 from the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. In earlier budget deliberations, the council considered cutting up to $1.9 million from the arts center, which the center said would have significantly curtailed its operations. 

Other cuts narrowly avoided included a hiring and salary freeze for all city employees and a reduction of up to $5.6 million spent by the city each year to support community organizations. 

City staff also proposed pulling funds from its pension trust fund, which sets aside money for future pension liabilities. It’s not an ongoing source of revenue, and funds could be depleted in under four years if used each year to close the projected budget gap. 

Other options that city staff considered included eliminating community programs geared toward youth and seniors, like the Tiny Tots program, the Volunteer Escondido Program and the Kit Carson Skate Park. 

Staff weighed whether eliminating positions or closing the Escondido Public Library were necessary, but didn’t present those options to the council. 

Instead of these measures, the city has relied on using one-time funds. Still, the budget picture has taken its toll. From 2008 to 2021, city staff has been reduced by more than 140 employees, a 10 percent reduction, as the city’s population grew by more than 10 percent.  

The city has, during that time, reduced its share of pension and employee benefit costs by forcing employees to fund a larger portion of the costs.  

Meanwhile, the city has deferred maintenance and capital project costs to the tune of more than $8 million annually on physical city infrastructure. 

The May staff report says Escondido now has the lowest per capita spending on city services in North County. Escondido spends approximately $703 per citizen compared to the two other full-service cities in North County, Carlsbad ($1,368 per resident) and Oceanside ($912 per resident).  

“Escondido has been consistently doing more with less,” the staff report said

Taxing cannabis could provide one way to increase revenue without increasing general taxes.  

Last year, a city staff report estimated the city could bring in $2 million annually from legal cannabis sales with five operating dispensaries and a well-developed permitting and code enforcement process, enough to cover about a quarter of its current projected shortfall. 

The council, though, voted against allowing legal cannabis sales in the city last year, on a party-lines vote with the Republican majority voting no.   

In Other News 

  • The former Escondido police chief Ed Varso is returning to lead the Escondido Police Department after leaving the position in June to be the police chief at the Menifee Police Department in Riverside County. He will start the new role on Dec. 27. (Union-Tribune) 
  • After news broke about sexual abuse charges filed against a former instructor at Callan Swim School in San Marcos, parents and staff members are now demanding that the school itself be held accountable. Nicholas Piazza, 19, is facing two charges of child sexual abuse, one related to an alleged incident in July 2021 while he was working at Callan, and another from his time as a private swim instructor in September. (The Coast News) 
  • Christmas on Knob Hill is back. San Marcos resident Bill Gilfillen and his wife, Elaine, have brought back their famous front-yard holiday display once again. Enjoy it every night from 5 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 30 at 1639 Knob Hill Road. (Union-Tribune) 

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