Escondido is currently set up to spend more money every year on its obligations than it expects to collect from taxes.
In its last budget cycle, that meant the city had to close an $8.5 million budget deficit. But Escondido’s long-term budget projections show the situation isn’t going anywhere, with the city expected to run a deficit of up to $23 million by 2036.
That’s because the city has closed its shortfalls in recent years with one-time funding sources. Those temporary patches have included Covid relief funds, loan repayments and tapping into its pension trust.
Twice, Escondido attempted to address the structural imbalance by raising sales taxes, with ballot measures projected to raise around $20 million annually. The first one failed at a City Council meeting in 2020, and the second failed at the ballot box last year.
But city staff has been consistent about the structural nature of its ongoing deficits. “Until revenue is increased on an ongoing and structural basis, the city will have to continue to rely on short-term, one-time resources to continue operations and avoid drastic cuts to city services,” staff wrote in last year’s budget.
Escondido has not had to enact drastic cuts to city services, but balancing its budget has hit some aspects of the city.
The biggest impact has been on Escondido’s maintenance and public works.
Christina Holmes, director of finance, said city staff estimates that more than $8 million of maintenance has been deferred annually since around 2008.
That includes maintenance of parks, playgrounds, libraries, recreation centers, pools, streets, sidewalks, bridges, storm drains, fleet and other city facilities.
Holmes said the annual $8 million in deferred maintenance compounds. A park or recreation center that has not been maintained will remain that way until the city finds the funds to do so. In the meantime, that leaves roughly $120 million in backlogged fixes that Escondido doesn’t have the money for.
Voice of San Diego has previously reported on the decline of parks countywide, and with this magnitude of deferred maintenance of parks, Escondido is no exception.
The city has also reduced pest control measures at its parks, has cut public restroom maintenance at parks by 50 percent, has curtailed the replanting and refreshing of the landscaping at parks and other city facilities, and it decreased how often the parks’ parking lots are striped and sealed.
Amy Landers, a longtime resident of Escondido before moving to San Diego a few months ago, knows better than most people about the conditions of the park restrooms in Escondido.
Landers, who owns a professional cleaning business, has been voluntarily deep cleaning park bathrooms across Escondido since August 2022. She’s been documenting her cleanings on her social media.
(Right) Amy Landers at Kit Carson Park in Escondido on April 20, 2023. On her free time, she deep cleans the bathrooms at the park and others. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
“I was at Kit Carson Park with my kids, and my daughter had to go to the bathroom, and it was disgusting – absolutely foul,” Landers said. “This wasn’t the first time we’d experienced this, so I decided that day that I had to clean it because no one else was doing it properly.”
Landers said the first bathroom she cleaned at Kit Carson Park last year hadn’t been professionally deep cleaned in over two years.
The one-time funds Escondido has used to stave off steeper cuts mean other programs that had been on the chopping block could be gone soon, if the city can’t fix its structural deficit.
That includes several community outreach programs that target crime prevention and youth engagement that narrowly avoided being defunded by the city.
Cuts to youth development programs run by nonprofit Escondido COMPACT, the Escondido Police Department and other outreach programs have been considered over the last couple years, but the use of one-time funding sources has kept them afloat, Holmes said.
Other community programs like the Tiny Tots program, the Volunteer Escondido Program and the Kit Carson Skate Park have also previously been considered for defunding.
The city is still trying to establish a long-term funding source for these programs, Holmes said. If one isn’t established soon, it’s unclear how long residents will be able to access them.
Escondido has also seen a reduction in city staff by more than 140 employees since 2008, Holmes said. That’s a 10 percent reduction while the city’s population has simultaneously grown by more than 10 percent.
The city also cut $133,000 from the California Center for the Arts, Escondido this year, but was close to cutting $1.9 million, which the center said would have significantly curtailed its operations.
A May 2022 staff report said these mounting cuts have resulted in the lowest per capita spending on city services in North County. Escondido annually spends approximately $703 per resident, compared to the two other full-service cities in North County – Carlsbad, at $1,368 per resident, and Oceanside at $912 per resident.
Full-service cities provide almost all municipal services to their residents, including police, fire, libraries and parks and recreation.
To close past budget deficits, Escondido has relied on several different one-time funding sources, one of those being its 115 Pension Trust.
Though there’s no penalty for taking or diverting funds from this trust, it’s not a limitless pot of money, Holmes said.
Taking from the trust may also hurt the city in the long run.
The city created its Pension Trust in 2018 to set aside funds to reduce pension liabilities and stabilize pension costs.
Pension liability is the difference between the total amount the city owes to retirees and the amount of money available to make those payments. Escondido currently has around $270 million in unfunded pension liability.
The city has to make annual payments toward this debt to the state pension system. These payments are currently around $25 million per year, according to CalPERS. As of March 2022, the Pension Trust Fund had a balance of $25,840,638.
Relying on funds from its Pension Trust to close annual budget deficits keeps the city from making deeper cuts in the short-term, but in the long term it increases the size of the city’s pension liability, which could result in even steeper cuts down the line.
Escondido will adopt its budget for the next fiscal year in June.