Temecula chamber hosts city council candidates forum

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Clockwise from top left, moderator Brian Connors and Temecula City Council candidates Adam Ruiz, Jessica Alexander, Mark Gular, James Stewart and Alisha Wilkins, pictured in a screenshot of the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce's Temecula City Council candidates forum, Oct. 26. Valley News/courtesy photo

Five candidates for the two Temecula City Council seats up for grabs this year took part in a virtual forum hosted on Zoom by the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce Monday, Oct. 26.

Moderated by former chamber board chairman Brian Connors, questions for the forum were solicited from the community and had a focus on Temecula’s business environment and candidates’ plans to improve the city.

Temecula City Council District 4 candidates who took part in the forum were Mark Gular, Adam Ruiz and James “Stew” Stewart, and District 2 candidates in the forum were Jessica Alexander and Alisha Wilkins.

Absent from the event was District 2 candidate Andy Black, who has withdrawn himself from the race and endorsed Alexander although his name remains on the ballot, as well as District 4 candidate Sonia Perez.

Candidates were asked individual questions, plus two “roundtable” questions for discussion by each candidate.

The first roundtable question posed to all of the candidates was related to financial issues faced by the city of Temecula amid the COVID-19 pandemic — the city’s revenue dropped during the 2019-20 fiscal year, but was able to be balanced with reserve funds.

“What financial changes will the city need to make with the reduced revenue from the COVID issues this year?” Connors asked the candidates. “How will you make sure the additional one percent sales tax approved by the citizens stays applied to infrastructure and what it was intended for, not the general fund?”

Measure S, the one-cent sales tax increase passed by Temecula voters in 2016, does go to the city’s general fund, though it was advertised as being specifically directed “to maintain 9-1-1 emergency response times, prevent cuts to local paramedic/police/fire protection, school safety patrols, youth/after-school, senior, disabled services; improve freeway interchanges/reduce traffic; (and) other general services” when it appeared on the ballot four years ago.

Gular, who lists his current occupation as a navy reservist and student, was the first to answer.

“As a council member, I would have to ask myself why wouldn’t the one percent go towards its intended distribution?” he said. “Since the citizens are the ones who approved the one percent increase, I would honor the infrastructure and its intent. You know, in order for us to hold the line, the city and each department would have to mind their operating expenses and being part of the city council team, we’re going to have to maintain our integrity by regularly viewing and evaluating our operational spending.”

Stewart, the former mayor who resigned earlier this year over an email that was criticized as racist, though he maintained it resulted from a typo, took the time to suggest the city use some of the Measure S funds to pay for a new police station.

“We have the funds available to actually put our officers within our city limits, instead of driving to and from French Valley, at last check $185 an hour we’re paying for them to commute from French Valley into our city,” Stewart said, “and I think there’s a lot of value to having our police officers in our city center, preferably I like having them by the old city hall because that would create an instantaneous response to Old Town, and if we get a lot of calls it will be to Old Town.”

While the city’s projected budgets for the next five years are balanced, that is due to multiple budget reduction measures, Temecula’s chief financial officer told the City Council in June a couple of weeks after Stewart’s resignation, and the city will have to dip into reserves by about $800,000 next year and about $250,000 the year after.

Ruiz, a business owner who is currently the Temecula Community Services Commission vice chair, noted that Measure S funds can be applied to the general fund despite the earmarks advertised when it was on the ballot. 

“A budget is a living working document so I think it’s important that we take time to really look at that and go, ‘how is this money being spent and how are we allocating what we need to do?’” Ruiz said. “I do think moving forward we’re going to have to prioritize some of our expenditures and maybe look to defer some of those out, but it’s crucial for me that we maintain public safety and don’t forego any of that. I think the spending that we do needs to be responsible.”

Wilkins, a local business owner and current chair of the California governor’s Commission on the Status of Women & Girls, said the Measure S funds are needed not just for the infrastructure earmark, but to maintain other aspects of the community as needed.

“We need to fund our city at the appropriate levels to maintain the high quality of life and services that are provided to our community whether it’s for parks and recreation, or law enforcement et cetera, we need to maintain those levels,” Wilkins said. “I would be very cautious about doing any kind of knee jerk reaction on funding that goes to those particular services because there has been so much instability in our community as a result of COVID but at the same time, we also have to make sure that we’re also willing to pivot. I mean, what we don’t want to do is ignore our businesses that are suffering right now.”

Alexander, a business owner as well as a former Marine and police officer, answered the question by describing herself as a “fiscal conservative.”

“If we need to pause projects or push them out, well, that’s a possibility, but our biggest thing for me is maintaining the safety and the quality of life here, to make sure that we’re still attractive to bring businesses in to maintain and stay strong to bring revenue continuously,” she said. “The transparency part is so important as well, and working together with everyone in city hall to ensure that the money is spent exactly where we put it, where the public wants to put it.”

The candidates were also asked about their views on bringing more businesses to Temecula.

“What do you see as the biggest obstacles to bringing businesses with quality jobs to this city?” Connors asked. “What do you think are the solutions to removing those obstacles so that employers will want to relocate here?”

Gular said he doesn’t see any problems for businesses relocating to Temecula, and suggested encouraging employers to allow the city’s workforce, much of it consisting of commuters, to telework.

“A lot of people are moving here from LA, OC and San Diego like myself for the more affordable living so I think we are creating a more diverse atmosphere and attracting talent these employers would want to hire for their businesses,” Gular said.

Wilkins said before even considering attracting new business, the city must focus on the current business population, which she said earlier is facing problems due to the pandemic.

“One of the first things that comes to my mind when I’m considering that question is how can we attract new businesses when the current businesses we have aren’t happy and thriving?” Wilkins said. “And so I truly believe in that concept of take care of home first. So that’s what I’m proposing, is that we need to take care of the folks that are already here, make sure that they’re profitable so that they can actually be our ambassadors to other businesses. Because they are much better spokespeople for Temecula as business owners than we are ourselves.”

Stewart said he thinks it will actually be quite easy to attract businesses to Temecula once planned infrastructure improvements to Interstate 15 are in place.

“As far as attracting business to Temecula, that is not going to be as hard as you think because we’ve got the freeway fix that is going to start in approximately one year and I think that’s gonna be a critical fix to the next chapter of the city of Temecula is when we get those auxiliary lanes put in and we get the flyover put in and the backup doesn’t go all the way to Fallbrook,” Stewart said. “I think it will become a lot more attractive to attract businesses here.”

Ruiz said he believes the city needs to continue marketing itself — something he believes is already being done fairly well.

“There’s a lot of times that I traveled in the past or I even heard stories of people coming back from an event like ICSC (International Council of Shopping Centers) where they say ‘Temecula’ and people say ‘where is that? I’m not exactly sure what Temecula is,’” Ruiz said. “And now people know exactly where it is, they know exactly what we have here.”

Alexander said focusing on issues like higher taxes would be her main focus. That issue, though, is not one that could be tackled entirely at the city level.

“In my opinion, after knocking on thousands of doors and talking to the people of Temecula, I’m gonna be honest with you, it breaks my heart when I see that these people want to leave California,” Alexander said. “It’s expensive for them, or the taxes are going up, they can’t have their businesses here. My biggest thing is I am running so other people don’t have to run anymore, I don’t want people to have to leave California and have to leave their homes. We want to make sure that they stay here because if they stay here, their businesses stay here, and so my opinion is let’s bring an influx, let’s continue to bring an influx of these businesses here, let’s support them let’s get them to thrive in their businesses and continue to work with these small businesses as well to continue to grow.”

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.