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Budget Is Key Issue in Ventura

Voters will head to the polls Nov. 4 to fill three City Council posts. The seven candidates offer a raft of ideas on stimulating growth.

October 13, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

With California's gubernatorial recall over, Ventura voters must now turn their attention to another election just three weeks away.

On Nov. 4, residents will go back to the polls to choose from seven candidates vying for three seats on the City Council. The low-key race has been overshadowed by the frenzied recall, but campaigning is expected to kick into high gear now as candidates try to connect with politics-weary voters.

The stakes are high. In the next year, the seven-member council will tackle several critical issues, including hiring of a new city manager and dealing with the repercussions of a state budget crisis.

Stimulating economic growth, providing affordable housing, developing a community arts center and preserving the rolling hillsides that frame the north end of Ventura are also issues in the race. But current council members said the major issue would be balancing the budget in the face of a weak economy and huge deficits in Sacramento.

"No. 1 is the state budget crisis," said outgoing Councilman Jim Friedman when asked to identify the top three issues facing the city.

"No. 2 is the state budget crisis, and No. 3 is the state budget crisis, because, quite frankly, everything after that pales in comparison," he said. "And if the voters do not elect people who are both business-savvy and smart with money, the city is going to have some difficult times."

Incumbent Carl Morehouse, 51, a county planner, and six challengers are vying for his council seat and two others being vacated by Friedman and Mayor Ray DiGuilio, both who decided not to seek reelection. The other contenders are planning expert Bill Fulton, banker Ed Summers, businessman Mike Osborn, writer Christy Weir, attorney Bernard Lehrer and community activist Brian Lee Rencher.

Most of the candidates said stimulating city revenue, building affordable housing and enhancing the arts to boost tourism were top priorities. Most also pledged to shield public safety agencies from the budget ax should the city fall on hard times.

Ventura is not in dire financial shape. But it is one of the region's oldest cities, which means its roads, sewers and water lines need upgrading. According to a recent budget analysis, city expenses are increasing faster than revenue as a result of slow business activity and significant increases in retirement, workers' compensation and other costs.

The report states that the city does not have enough revenue to continue a backlog of deferred maintenance in streets, landscaping and other areas.

"The challenge," said Thomas Gardner, the city's administrative services director, "is how do we pace our expenditures to meet our slow revenue growth."

Morehouse, a councilman for four years, said he would put pressure on state lawmakers to shield Ventura from further cuts. He would also encourage residents to spend their money locally to funnel sales tax revenue into city coffers.

Osborn, 54, a small-business owner and service manager at a local car dealership, said the city needs to aggressively recruit companies to settle in Ventura, and streamline the regulation and permit process to become more business-friendly.

Other candidates said the city should work more closely with the arts community and visitors bureau to promote Ventura as a coastal gem.

Weir, 50, a freelance writer and editor, said the city could do more to educate people in Southern California that Ventura is a tourist destination desirable for its beaches and its historic downtown. She also supports the creation of a cultural arts center and public art projects, but stressed that members of the arts community are not looking for a handout.

"What they need from the council is positive support in saying we will help you find grants, we will help you get approvals of land and zoning, without saying, 'here's $2 million,' " said Weir, who led the drive to raise money to buy the Grant Park cross, which the city sold to avoid a lawsuit over separation of church and state.

Fulton, 47, a nationally recognized urban planner and author, said the trick is not necessarily luring more visitors, but getting the ones who come "to drop way more money" so the city grows its bed- and sales-tax revenue.

"What you need to do is improve the value of the visitor experience," he said. "If you add up all of the things we have, it is a pretty impressive list: the downtown, the beach, access to the Channel Islands. If we worked at it, we could significantly increase the average price of a hotel room and still be a bargain compared to Santa Barbara."

Summers, 49, a banker and chairman of the Ventura County Economic Development Assn., would like to see better use of the state-owned fairgrounds and would aggressively pursue grants or other outside funding to pay for local improvements.

Growth remains an issue in the race, despite ballot measures that effectively remove land-use decisions from the council by preventing urban development on hillsides and farmland without voter approval.

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