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LOW: Maverick Councilman Throws Wrench Into Auto Project : Councilman Applies Brakes to Auto Project

August 31, 1986|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

COVINA — At least three of the five City Council members consider the Covina Redevelopment Agency's proposal to condemn property for its auto-row project to be a straightforward attempt to boost tax revenue.

But to Councilman Robert Low, the agency's efforts to acquire the Firestone auto service center on Citrus Avenue raise serious questions about the U.S. trade deficit and the quality of public education.

Low's opposition is crucial to the future of the auto-row project because state law requires a four-fifths majority on condemnation votes. Councilman Jerry Edgar has been advised to abstain from voting on all matters pertaining to the auto row because he holds a second-trust deed on property within the project area.

That effectively gives Low veto power over any condemnation for the auto row since the other three councilmen favor the project.

The city staff recommended condemnation of the property on July 7 after Firestone officials and negotiators for the agency could not agree on a sale price.

However, when the City Council, sitting as the redevelopment agency, considered the recommendation, Low voted against it.

At another agency meeting Aug. 18, Low again told his colleagues he could not support the resolution of condemnation.

After an angry debate, the agency members voted unanimously to continue the matter to their meeting on Tuesday.

Offered for Sale

The agency already has agreed to sell the parcel to Reynolds Buick of West Covina for $289,000. The Buick dealership will be one of four in the Citrus Avenue auto row.

Although the agency expects an overall net loss of $2 million in the acquisition and transfer of the property, city officials also expect the car lot to yield $3.8 million in increased sales-tax and property-tax revenue over the next 20 years.

However, Low said he is dubious of the condemnation resolution's claim that acquisition of the land is justified by "the public interest and necessity."

"Government does have the right to take property for public use, but I think we're stretching it here," Low said in a recent interview.

Revenue Concerns

"I am concerned the money will be used to build a new City Hall, build plush new council chambers and give raises to administrators," he said.

However, he added that his opposition could be assuaged if the city were to earmark $120,000 of the sales-tax revenue generated by the auto-row project to buy new books for the city's library.

This offer has sparked accusations of political blackmail from Low's council colleagues.

Councilman Henry Morgan said that Low, whose proposals to increase library funding have been voted down in the past, is trying to pressure the council into supporting one of his pet projects.

'Pound of Flesh'

"I think he sees this as an opportunity to get a pound of flesh for his vote," Morgan said. "This is the first time he's had any kind of leverage at all to trade his vote on condemnation for more books in the library.

"He's trying to hold the city hostage for something we really need to be competitive in the sales-tax area. . . . The community doesn't deserve this kind of pure political hogwash."

Low has countered that he is not playing politics, but instead is looking out for the public good, nationally as well as locally.

The councilman, who teaches government at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, said he is concerned with America's standing in the world economy.

"The United States is not as competitive as it used to be," he said. "We currently have a foreign-trade deficit of $83 billion." The Commerce Department reported that the trade deficit for the first half of 1986 is $79.54 billion.

Covina's role in resolving U.S. trade problems is twofold, Low said.

First, the city must ensure that its young people are well-educated, hence the need for more library books. Second, the redevelopment agency should not undermine American industry, he said, noting that one auto-row dealership will sell Volvos made in Sweden, while another will deal primarily in Japanese Acuras.

"The ironic thing is that we have an enormous trade deficit and we're actually subsidizing the sale of foreign cars," he said.

City Manager Richard Miller contends that Low's opposition to the condemnation proposal is weakening the city's bargaining position. He said the city had hoped to use the resolution to prod Firestone officials, who have expressed reluctance at giving up the service center's prime location.

"The threat of condemnation is a good way to get people to the bargaining table," Miller said. "If Firestone feels we don't have the votes for condemnation, they won't be as likely to negotiate."

Firestone officials could not be reached for comment.

Seeking to avoid a continued stalemate, Miller said that he will urge Mayor Larry Straight and Councilmen Morgan and Charles Colver to mollify their maverick colleague.

"I'll be recommending to the council that we make some embellishments to the library project," he said. "The whole auto-row development really hinges on the council's decision. I really hope we're able to satisfy Mr. Low's concerns."

Although Morgan has been among the most vocal critics of Low's tactics, he agreed that capitulation may prove to be the lesser evil.

"I don't think we should have to politically buy him off," Morgan said. "The question is: Do we flat out hold out and jeopardize $3 million in revenue to the city?

"We'll have to do something to buy his vote."

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