With Vernon’s financial problems close to being fully resolved, the city can now look toward the future, says the city’s Independent Reform Monitor in his latest report.
The semi-annual report compiled by Former State Attorney John Van De Kamp details Vernon’s progress on good governance reform measures intended to turnaround the industrial city following past accusations of wrong doing by city officials being paid “outlandish salaries.”
The city has since made changes in its staff, budget and good neighbor policy in order to address requirements set forth by Sen. Kevin De Leon who brokered the deal that helped the city fend off the disincorporation campaign waged by Assembly Speaker John Perez, said Van De Kamp. “The City of Vernon was in essence given time to clean up its act,” Van De Kamp remarked in his report.
“The important thing is [the city] has dealt with the ethical issues,” he said. “The city is now well run and the people in charge have strong ethical backgrounds.”
Van De Kamp writes that in the past 6 months, “great progress has been made in putting the City in the mainstream,” going so far as to commend the council’s willingness to engage in some personal sacrifice by cutting their own pay. Acting on Van de Kamps’ recommendation, members of the city council will begin the new fiscal year with a salary of just under $25,000; about half the amount two members of the council receive last year.
Vernon’s began the 2013-2014 fiscal year by balancing its $336.6 million budget. More importantly, Vernon’s Finance Director William Fox told EGP, the city’s General Fund deficit decreased from over $5.6 million last year to $834,598 in its current budget.
Budget cuts and an early retirement program are projected to save the city $1.8 million, but the biggest economic boost is expected to come from three voter approved tax measures estimated to generate $8 million a year for the next 10 years.
“This is what the city needed, the budget this year has put the city on pretty solid footing,” Van De Kamp told EGP. “Now they can look into the future and look at the long-term plan for the city.”
That long term plan includes taking a literal look at issues such as street maintenance, graffiti and litter control, landscape improvements and improving mobility, Van De Kamp suggests in his report.
“We need to make the city more attractive and welcoming to the community,” he said.
With a population of 115, and only 70 registered voters, some state officials claim Vernon’s small electorate has led to corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability. Responding to those criticisms, the city council has approved a development deal to build 45 more residential units by mid 2015.
“The housing project will help the city by increasing the number of residents and nearly doubling the voter population,” Van de Kamp said. “By doing so, the city opens the door to potential qualified candidates that will help run the city in the future.”
In 2011, the city council approved a plan to put $5 million a year for the next 10 years into a Community Benefit Fund to “help mitigate the decades of noxious air released from Vernon” into nearby cities, but has so far failed to set aside the full amount: $2 million has been allocated in the current budget, with $1 million going for a separate $10 million fund to help pay for recreational facilities in Boyle Heights and Huntington Park.
Van De Kamp told EGP that despite the city’s hope to contribute more to the funds, the reality of the budget did not allow it. They will have to figure out how to do better in the future, he said.
Vernon has long been criticized for the pollution emanating from within its borders, and accused of being indifferent to the impact on surrounding cities and neighborhoods.
The brief closure earlier this year of Exide Technologies —accused of releasing dangerous levels of toxins in and around the city — not only affected the business, but the city’s image as well, Van De Kamp said.
“[Exide] left the city with a black eye but the only thing left to do is to move forward,” he said.
The city is also facing a lawsuit filed by former city administrator Bruce V. Malkenhorst, who was receiving over half a million dollars a year from the CaLPERS state retirement system after being employed by Vernon for over 30 years. CaLPERS, however, in 2012 reviewed Malkenhorst’s pension, ultimately deciding in 2012 to substantially reduce his benefit based on the rules in effect at the time of his employment. Despite being convicted of misappropriation of public funds while receiving a salary of over $900,000, Malkenhorst is suing Vernon to get his pension restored.
One of the most important issues that remain to be dealt with is the lack of discussion and questioning by council members during council meetings, said Van De Kamp. He said he has addressed the issue in past reports and during council meetings, but not until recently have the councilmembers begun to take a more active role.
“[Change] is going to take a while,” Van De Kamp said. “Vernon is not like any other city.”
EGP asked to speak with council members about the Independent Monitor’s report, but
Vernon spokesperson Fred MacFarlane told EGP that the council is still reviewing the report, and council members will not comment on it until they have had the opportunity to fully review it’s findings and recommendations.