Over a short span, Temecula has quietly created and staffed a new division aimed at serving a growing segment of its population – one that has largely gone unnoticed in most cities in the region and state.
Temecula, in large part to Councilman Mike Naggar, has earmarked funds and created programs to serve, educate, train and employ youth and adults with autism and its range of learning and developmental disabilities.
It is Naggar’s goal that Temecula’s effort – which costs more than $150,000 a year – will soon be duplicated in other cities throughout the state and nation.
“This is my new mission and I hope it’s yours, too,” Naggar told an audience of about 80 people at a recent ceremony for the second annual Light It Up Blue event at Temecula City Hall. The month-long lighting campaign, which cost the city about $5,000, is part of a global autism awareness effort.
Naggar said he will keep his autism awareness and services push at the forefront of his efforts as he prepares to navigate an uncertain political path. Naggar said he plans to retire from the council in two years, at which time he’ll run for a seat on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.
Naggar said he doesn’t envision himself seeking a fifth term on the Temecula council in November 2016. Naggar said that making his supervisorial plans known now will help him build early support and possibly dissuade other candidates from entering the race.
Naggar will seek the seat now held by Jeff Stone, a former Temecula councilman and three-time mayor who was elected to the countywide post in 2004. Stone became the first Temecula-area resident to win the Third District seat that had been dominated for decades by Hemet-area political leaders.
Stone confirmed in a recent e-mail that he will not run for a fourth term on the board when his seat becomes vacant in two years. Several other Southwest Riverside County political leaders are said to be contemplating a campaign for Third District supervisor, but Naggar is believed to be the first to make his plans public.
Autism is a spectrum of neurological disorders ranging from mild to severe that affect attention, learning, speech, social interaction and completion of tasks. The disorder has become the focus of mushrooming interest as research makes new inroads into its cause and long-term impacts.
Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control announced a roughly 30 percent increase in the prevalence of the disorder. In 2012, the agency reported that 1 in 88 children (11.3 per 1,000 eight year olds) had been identified with autism spectrum disorder. On March 27, the agency said that estimate had increased to 1 in 68 children (14.7 per 1,000 eight year olds).
The disorder is five times more common among boys than girls. White children are more likely to be identified with the disorder than black or Hispanic youth. Children as young as two can be diagnosed with autism, although most are identified by age four, the recent CDC report noted.
For more than a decade, Temecula’s services to the developmentally disable were limited to its High Hopes Program, which targets area residents ages 18 and older. That all changed after Naggar and his wife gave birth to their son, Liam, who is now eight.
Naggar said Liam’s diagnosis prompted him to examine the range of local government and nonprofit services for autistic youth. He concluded that more services were needed, and he has pressed for greater awareness and programs at the city.
“All of a sudden I had all these questions,” Naggar said in an interview following the April 2 Light it Up Blue meeting and ceremony. “There are a lot of people out there (with autism). What’s our obligation?”
Over the years, Temecula has relied heavily on task force panels and master plans to examine community needs and build city and public interaction.
More than five years ago, Temecula wrapped up its work on a youth master plan, a 23-page document that cost about $35,000 to prepare and gather input from more than 1,200 youths, parents, public officials and social services providers.
That effort was followed by the creation of Temecula’s Quality of Life Master Plan, a $130,000 planning document that was approved by the council more than two years ago. That plan lists an ambitious slate of public works projects, youth and senior programs and heightened maintenance of existing facilities through the year 2030.
With Naggar as its driving force, Temecula in 2010 launched the Southwest Riverside Autism Task Force. The group includes the county as well as the cities of Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Canyon Lake, Menifee, Perris, Wildomar and Hemet. Soon afterward, the group’s combined efforts crafted a Special Needs Resource Guide and an Autism Community Playbook.
The Task Force met in September 2012, and the Community Playbook was completed a month later. Naggar planned to “re-launch” the Task Force at the April 2 meeting and ceremony, but scheduling conflicts prevented all but three of the designated elected officials from attending.
One of the meeting participants, Hemet City Councilwoman Shellie Milne, praised Temecula’s autism-related efforts and noted that she would welcome such services for her child who has Down’s syndrome.
“I’m just trying to get a special needs presence out there,” Milne said as she described an arts project that is in the works in the Hemet area.
Naggar said the multiple absences at the April 2 task force meeting were understandable given the pressing duties of the other elected officials. He said he expects the task force will hold its next meeting in nine months to a year.
Following the creation of the resource guide and playbook, Naggar and Temecula staff and council officials began to look inward at city services.
About three years ago, the city created a new employee position known as its “inclusion services specialist.” Yvette Martinez, who has a background in social services and special needs programs, was hired to fill the position. Martinez said she cannot point to another city in the region that has such a post in its roster of authorized positions.
The closest municipal parallel that Martinez could identify is the city of San Diego, which employs a recreational therapist.
“We’ve definitely taken a very forward approach for our special needs population,” Martinez said of Temecula in a recent telephone interview. “We offer a variety of programs.”
Martinez anchors what has become Temecula’s Human Services division. It also draws upon a part-time assistant and periodic college interns. It spends about $150,000 a year on its programs and operations, said Kevin Hawkins, Temecula’s community’s services director.
“It’s pretty lean and mean,” Hawkins said of the division’s spending.
One of the city’s offerings – the Supporting Kids Involving Parents program – targets infants to 6-year-olds who have been identified as autistic.
In December, the city announced a partnership aimed at educating police, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, dispatchers and other emergency services personnel on how to better recognize and communicate with autistic citizens. The awareness-raising training touched on such issues as the jarring effects of light and sound stimuli, communication difficulties, behavioral “meltdowns” and such wandering-related dangers as drowning and exposure.
At the time, Naggar said he hoped such training programs would be enacted statewide.
“This epidemic is not confined to our region,” he said in a press release. “It is a public health crisis and I am hopeful other jurisdictions might see what we are doing in Temecula and Riverside County and use it as a model in their communities.”
On March 11, the Temecula council approved Naggar’s recommendation to launch the Global Citizens Viticulture / Hospitality Vocational Program. A city staff report said the program, which is aimed at providing job training to special needs teens, meshes with Temecula’s Youth and Quality of Life master plan.
The program will work with a local vineyard and it will teach youth the history of the area’s wine country and provide computer, viticulture, hospitality and customer service skills.
Graduates will receive a food handler’s license and a customer service certificate in hopes of winning jobs in the fast-growing winery and restaurant industries.
The council agreed to allocate $10,500 for the program for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Those program costs will include student transportation, snacks, city staff time, tools and supplies and food handler permit fees.
A $25,000 grant will be sought for the program, according to the staff report. The grant deadline is April 28 and recipients will be notified by September. It would cost Temecula about $35,000 to operate the program on a year-round basis, the report said.
A March 28 story in The Wall Street Journal stated that disability experts estimate that 85 percent of adults with autism are unemployed. But the article also noted that several companies, including some that recruit workers for highly structured or detail-oriented positions, are now viewing autism as an asset in the workplace rather than a deficiency.
At the April 2 task force gathering, Naggar noted that tailored exercise equipment and some special needs recreational activities that are expected to be unveiled in about three months at Margarita Community Park are “already funded.”
Ron Bradley – who has observed Temecula’s genesis and growth from the inside and out – said he knows of no other cities in the region that have embraced or equaled its autism effort.
“I don’t know of any other city, other than a major city, that provides such a social services program,” said Bradley, who served as Temecula’s city manager from 1994 until 1999 and subsequently held interim manager posts in Murrieta and Hemet.
Most cities the size of Temecula rely on nonprofit or county programs to address such social services needs, Bradley said in a recent telephone interview.
“I can’t point you to any city, especially the size of Temecula, that has embarked upon such an ambitious project,” he said.
Bradley said the rapid expansion of Temecula’s autism-related services meshes with the city’s track record of targeting its surplus revenues to areas of perceived need.
“That’s not to say (autism services) is not a good idea,” Bradley continued. “It’s something that should be looked at. They (autistic residents) still need help. Their needs haven’t gone away.”
Bradley said Temecula’s enviable sales tax revenues – fueled by a regional mall and an array of auto dealers – have enabled the city to rapidly add parks, museums and other amenities that other cities in the region are unable to match.
Naggar included a plea in his remarks to the April 2 task force gathering, which culminated in refreshments and a city contractor illuminating Temecula’s Civic Center complex with more than 60 blue lights.
Naggar said isolated questions have surfaced about the funds that the city has spent on the month-long blue light program and the array of special needs services. He countered the perception that “Temecula is awash in money,” and noted that the city budget has been stretched as growth has slowed and tax revenues have leveled off.
Naggar said the funding questions have spurred the need for advocates and parents of special needs youth to thank council members for their ongoing support. Improving autism awareness and services addresses a crucial community need, he said.
“That’s what we need to change,” Naggar said. “That’s how we need to get the word out.”