SOUTH EL MONTE — "You look at any town around here and try to be honest," Councilman Greg Meis said, scanning the audience at a recent City Council meeting.
" . . . This is the junk heap."
For one long moment, Meis' words hung in the smoke-filled air of the council chambers, a painfully embarrassing acknowledgment by an elected official and 25-year resident that his is one of the worst looking cities in the San Gabriel Valley.
Meis' remarks came at a recent council meeting during one of several debates in the past 18 months over the fate of 237 deteriorating corrugated metal industrial buildings scattered throughout the city's three square miles. The buildings, many of them rusting and unpainted eyesores, line some of the town's busiest thoroughfares.
Replacement Cost Unknown
City officials say they do not know how much it will cost to replace or renovate the metal buildings, but either way the expense to the owners undoubtedly will run into the millions of dollars.
The debate over the metal buildings, however, has posed a dilemma for city officials.
"They are trying to please the residential community by trying to upgrade the city, but on the other hand (they are) making an attempt not to run the businesses out of town," said former Planning Director Nancy Owens.
Some observers say the council wishes the metal building issue would disappear like smog after a rain shower. But it won't. The clock is winding down.
The council must deal with the problem by April, when a 1966 ordinance giving owners of metal buildings 20 years to demolish or replace the structures takes effect. This has forced a showdown between council members who want to fully enforce the ordinance and those who would compromise and allow property owners to only refurbish their buildings.
Majority Favor Leniency
So far, the majority of the council has taken the more lenient stand, which satisfies most business people. But the issue appears far from resolved. The five-member council is scheduled to consider the matter once again at its Feb. 13 meeting.
Meis, who plans to seek reelection in April and is in the minority on the council in advocating removal of the metal buildings, has been accused of playing politics with the issue.
It is indeed a thorny subject that veteran City Hall observers say exemplifies the time-honored central theme in local politics: business interests versus those of the town's 17,300 residents. But the metal-building issue cuts deeper than campaign rhetoric, they say.
The debate goes to the heart of what might best be described as a civic identity crisis. The conflict touches on the city's longstanding desire to shed its image as one of Southern California's industrial low-rent districts and to invigorate a stagnant local economy. Sales tax revenue, which was about $2.7 million in fiscal 1984-85, is expected to be about the same this year, City Manager Raul Romero said.
The metal-building issue also stirs fear among some city officials that pressuring businesses to improve their appearance will lead to their departure or closure and a subsequent loss of sales tax revenue and jobs.
"Personally, I would like to see all those tin buildings go," Councilman Albert Perez said in an interview last week. "On the other hand, I would have to live with myself that I may be putting some people out of work and putting a strain on the businesses."
Meis, who served on the council that approved the 1966 measure, views the problem differently. "Someone always suffers," Meis said. "If they have a viable business, they make the investment. I'm looking out for the city as a whole, the big picture. We have to upgrade or we're going to die."
Much Commercial Land
More than half the city is zoned for commercial, industrial and public use, and businessmen--through lobbying efforts by the 300-member South El Monte Business Council--have continued to impress upon the council their value as employers and tax revenue producers.
With low monthly rents, some below 30 cents a square foot, for metal buildings, South El Monte has become a haven for small enterprises just starting out or operating on a slim profit margin, several businessmen said. Virtually everyone agrees that the metal structures are unsightly, but businessmen and most council members contend that removing them would force some companies that could not afford to rebuild to move or close, which could damage the local economy.
"We are marginal and we hire (marginally trained) people," George Barrett, owner of Harris Conveyor & Rentals Inc., said at a recent council meeting. "It's not Silicon Valley."
Barrett said in an interview that he could not afford to spend the estimated $400,000 to $500,000 it would cost to replace his 20,000-square-foot, metal-sided facility.
Viewed at Litmus Test