Menifee city manager takes steps to bolster economy

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Armando Villa, city manager of Menifee, announces the return to virtual City Hall services, due to an increasing number of coronavirus cases in the city and county. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

Menifee city manager Armando Villa said the growing city still “has a lot of catching up to do” but was very pleased how far it has come economically since it incorporated in 2008.

Even in today’s uncertain market due to the coronavirus pandemic, Menifee remains in a growth period in the commercial development sector.

In an exclusive interview with the Valley News recently, Villa, who has served as the city’s manager for the past three years, said, “When Menifee became a city in 2008 the residents knew what the neighboring cities had. We were always looking over our shoulders.”

Now, the city is working hard to reach out to commercial and retail developers throughout the nation with some success. It’s still becoming one of the fastest growing cities in California, even with its state and county health officials recently renewing its recommended “stay at home” orders and “nonessential” business closures due to a surge in coronavirus cases.

“Community services have taken the greatest hit,” Villa said. “It was the stay at home and closing of business mandates that did it.”

But, he said bigger stores and grocery outlets that are seen as “essential” businesses, like Lowes, are continuing to do well and producing revenue for the city at this time.

The emergency funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the state has not come through as expected to Menifee and other California cities small businesses who have taken the greatest financial hit, he said.

“We were looking for the cavalry to come in from the federal and state government, but it didn’t come to the cities,” he said.

Surprisingly on another economic front, Villa said the residential housing sector sales in the city are rising, keeping with the average 1,500 home sales per year promising the 3,500 or more new residents expected this year will bring more property tax revenue to the city. Still the best revenue stream for the city comes through sales taxes.

Even with those revenues continuing to come in, Villa said his staff has been concerned that the city’s initial estimated $1.5 million general fund budget deficit might reach as high as $5 million in six months or a year.

The brightest spot in the city’s anticipated revenue stream has been the local Measure DD sales taxes that can only be spent by the city. He praised the city’s decision to start up their own police department with the help of Measure DD one-cent sales tax approved by the voters.

After canceling the Riverside sheriff’s public safety contract to start their own police department and other prudent budget cuts, the initial $1.5 deficit in the estimated 2020-2021 general fund has been nullified with no worker layoffs.

But Villa and staff came up with a series of unique economic strategies in preparation to offset the probability of long-term revenue loss. Many of those strategies have already been employed and are finding great favor from developers and new homeowners. The strategies have been focused on the use of virtual online developer planning procedures that can be done right from a developer, builder, business owner or investor’s home.

The city development staff began with what they called a “One Stop Shop” where a developer, using the city’s website and the provided forms, could do everything needed to forward development plans. Still, appointments had to be made to drop by necessary mylar drawings and blueprints for their projects, on-site inspections and gather other needed information.

Today, Villa said, the process has been turned into a “No Stop Shop” where the developer can do almost everything virtual with only one inspector needed to give a project final approval instead of two or three needed before.

“I don’t know if any other cities are doing that. We are the only city offering that service now.” Villa said.

His staff is continuing its work to even better to streamline the services offered and required by the city.

He said he and his staff have had to find a new way of doing business due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He said he wanted to know why people and developers want to live or build in the community and to find out is taking a lot of study. A survey is currently being offered on the city website with those same questions asked.

“They are the stakeholders in our plan all the time.” Villa said. “We try to have focus groups to understand their challenges and what we can do to develop our processes lining up with those challenges.

“When they (developers) hear a city is willing to work with them and implement a project in a streamlined way they talk to each other and say ‘You should go to Menifee…It’s a lot easier to do business in Menifee.’ That’s the kind of buzz we are trying to create.” Villa said.

He pointed out that Menifee has many acres of vacant land along Interstate 215 and other high traffic areas that can be developed.

Villa said the city wants to convey, “It has a quality of life. A quality of place and development, and is a safe city for everyone.”

He emphasized the city has made a huge investment in safety by creating its own police department and has recently revised its building and zoning ordinances in preparation for the growth it is expecting in the next five years.

He said Measure DD should be renamed as a “quality of life measure” because it is what the residents approved.

“If we didn’t have Measure DD and the revenue it produces,” Villa said. “We couldn’t be here today.”

Tony Ault can be reached by email at tault@reedermedia.com.