5/22/20: Beaches, Businesses, Budgets and Benevolence

“Duality is always secretly unity.”
– Alan Watts

In this ninth week of our coronavirus reality, I’m often of two minds. I don’t know about you, but for me, every day things seem to get simultaneously better and worse. 

I find myself alternately alarmed and reassured, oscillating between two poles, from “What is the worst-case scenario for Encinitas and how can we guard against it?” to “Things are already looking up, and we’ll come through this a more resilient community.”

As your mayor who aspires to effective leadership, I realize that both considerations are necessary.

Sifting through the rapidly evolving regulatory changes and data presented by the state and county, these conclusions are clear:

  • The economy is quickly re-opening: Governor Gavin Newsom’s office approved our county’s accelerated plan for “Stage 2” reopening, which allows dining inside of restaurants and shopping inside of stores, with certain restrictions. Many local businesses will benefit. But we also might see a second wave of infections, depending on how well we collectively implement the anti-contagion protocols like cleaning, facial coverings and distancing. More information on re-opening from the county is here: What’s allowed, Not Allowed in Restaurants, Stores
     
  • Workers are suffering: Both the City of Encinitas and the county hit an unemployment rate of 30%. That means there are more than half a million people in this county who are unemployed. An additional 22,800 jobs were lost between May 2 and May 9. Here’s the employment data from SANDAG, including a chart showing the county’s hardest hit areas. These are real people without work and the effects on their lives becomes more dire every day. 

Wednesday night we held a marathon City Council meeting over Zoom that lasted 8.5 hours, ending at 11:30 p.m., including more than four hours of emailed public comment being read out loud on topics as varied as our city’s proposal to ban flavored vaping products targeted at youth, to the city’s reduced forecast for our budget, and of highest interest, the City Council’s 12-month approval of the continuation of the Safe Parking program for those experiencing homelessness in Encinitas and North County.

As you might imagine, there’s quite a lot to tell you about.

Help for local businesses, and city budget updates

In Encinitas, our vital local businesses are a key part of what defines us as a city. The City Council approved a range of regulatory changes to help businesses during this time, including streamlining the approval of interior changes to accommodate social distancing, waiving permits, and deferring fees. We’re also moving toward allowing businesses to use sidewalks or parking spaces so they have more room to operate successfully.

This Encinitas Advocate article provides more information, along with news about the phased re-opening of city park parking lots (still no beach parking yet). And here’s the city staff report from the meeting.

Next Wednesday afternoon, we’re having a special city council meeting to review the Capital Improvement Budget (CIP) and other budgetary matters heading into the next fiscal year. We also just received notice that the city will be receiving $1.1 million in CARES Act money, passed on from the county. We very much appreciate this and it is needed. One approved use is economic development, meaning funds to help our local businesses. 

Thank you to our county supervisors for distributing money directly to San Diego County’s 17 cities that are under 500,000 in population. The county and the health department have been doing a great job during this crisis. They provide timely information, advocate for our collective interests, work to protect public health and are a cohesive and credible entity. 

At our budget presentation, the chart above shows that in the third quarter ending on March 31 the coronavirus effect was modest. We still generated more revenue than the third quarter in the previous fiscal year.

However, the city’s finance director told us that we should expect to see an effect in our sales and transient occupancy tax (hotel tax) in the fourth quarter, which ends June 30. We approved a net general fund reduction of $2.7 million for the fiscal year to account for this predicted drop. The general fund operating budget for the year was balanced before this reduction, and it remains balanced, even after factoring in the decline in revenue. If you crave details, the staff report is here.

A tsunami of beach activity

Encinitas beaches continue to be a major draw, especially Moonlight Beach. The figures shown above comparing this year to last year during the same time period demonstrate the unusually high usage of our local treasure. The city is working with other coastal cities to determine when to officially allow household groups to sit and lie on the beach, moving beyond the current limitation of active exercising only. 

Here’s a short video showing lifeguards towing a tower into place at Moonlight Beach the other day in anticipation of a very busy Memorial Day Weekend. So that’s how they do it!

Safe Parking Lot unanimously renewed

The highest profile topic at our City Council meeting was the check-in, after three months of data, on the city’s approval of the homeless Safe Parking Program, designed to provide a safe place for people who have lost their home but still have a car to stay overnight.

There were passionate arguments for and against this effort to help prevent further homelessness in Encinitas. After assessing the facts, the City Council unanimously voted to extend the project’s contract for 12 months.

The Safe Parking lot is nestled in the center of the Leichtag Foundation’s 67-acre agricultural property in Encinitas.

A brief description of the program: No drugs, alcohol or smoking are allowed; participants need to have an operable car and on-site case workers help them to better their circumstances and get back into housing. The program allows participants a place to park their car safely overnight to sleep so that they don’t receive tickets, get harassed or are otherwise in danger at night. Plus they have a place to use the bathroom, wash their hands, charge their phones and have some human contact. With places like the libraries, YMCA and senior center currently shut down, there are even fewer places for people who are temporarily displaced. 
 
Looking at three months of data, we know that there was no increase in crime caused by the parking lot. The Sheriff’s captain said at the City Council meeting that the first three months of crime data had been closely analyzed and that there was no correlation of any type between the participants in the parking program and area crime. This Encinitas Advocate article accurately summarizes the Sheriff’s comments:

“[A]n extensive review by the department’s analysts showed that the parking lot had ‘zero impact’ on the crime statistics, [Sheriff’s Department Capt. Herb] Taft said. In fact, he added, it’s the lot opponents who have been causing problems by trespassing and trying to antagonize the lot operators and users. ‘That’s where we’ve had the issues; it’s not with the people using the service,’ he said.”

To that point, we shouldn’t have to be reminded how important it is to respect the privacy and dignity of all people. 

The city’s staff report on the Safe Parking program is here, with the Sheriff’s crime statistics on the last three pages. 

Here are some interesting stats from the Safe Parking program’s first three months:

  • A total of 39 individual people were served — 36 adults and three children.
     
  • 14 of them had a zip code that was last in Encinitas, and the remainder were all from North County. There were no participants in the program from other places – either out of area or other parts of the county.
     
  • The program had 13 positive exits – four to permanent housing and seven to family reunification.
     
  • More than half of those staying in the parking lot are 55 years old or older. This lot helps seniors in our community.
     
  • And 24 of them were homeless less than one year. We are helping people get back into housing before they fall into street homelessness.  

A couple of real-life stories from the Safe Parking lot: One young woman lost her recently acquired telemarketing job and couldn’t pay rent. She started staying in the lot, but didn’t tell anyone, including her parents who sent her money for a plane ticket to come home and live with them when the coronavirus outbreak hit. No one in her life, not even her parents, knew she was living out of her car.

Another participant used his rent money to pay for his mom’s funeral and lost his eligibility for other government assistance. 

People have asked what the participants do during the day, since the lot is for nighttime use only. About 20% of the participants are working, and about 40% were recently laid off. According to the service provider, as quoted in our staff report, “Clients who are not working spend their time during the day organizing storage units, running errands to maintain their cars, visiting children who live with ex-spouses, taking walks, resting, and/or grocery shopping.” 

From my perspective, this program is homeless prevention – a true safety net. When people can’t pay their rent but still own a car, they can get help to get back into housing before they lose the car and end up on the street. 

It’s worth noting that this program is available because of the tremendous good work of Jewish Family Service, a social service organization that runs three other Safe Parking programs in San Diego County and helps many other disadvantaged groups of people. They are a highly respected, professional and credible organization doing yeoman’s work in this county.

The other organization that deserves recognition is the Leichtag Foundation, which owns the 67-acre property where this parking lot is being hosted. Both organizations have weathered tremendous criticism and been subjected to multiple conspiracy accusations for their honorable commitment to help this vulnerable group. They should be commended and appreciated by all compassionate Encinitans.

I’m also grateful for the many supporters of the Safe Parking program who made their full-throated backing known at our City Council meeting. According to the Encinitas Advocate article, 78% of the more than 100 public comments read into the record at the meeting expressed support. This sounds about right to me. 

I recognize the very real fears of those strongly opposed to the lot. The gist of their argument seems to be that this lot is a “magnet” for undesirables – criminals, drug addicts, or mentally ill people. I’m hopeful that the data provided after three months will assuage those fears. The city has not been overrun with out-of-town homeless drug addicts because of this modest parking lot. 

It’s clear this is a potent issue when the City Council’s support of this program inspired both my opponent for mayor and a city council opponent. Elections are the way that we resolve values disputes; that’s a good thing. I’m proud of our city’s compassionate values, with many residents who stand up and speak up about doing the right thing.

How we’re addressing homelessness

Homelessness is clearly a societal problem larger than Encinitas. And the Safe Parking lot serving no more than 25 cars is admittedly only a small piece of the puzzle. Like climate change, homelessness is not going away and it’s a problem we will continue work on.

No one wants to see our fellow human beings panhandling and sleeping on the streets. We need more ways to help, not fewer.

And unfortunately, I foresee the problem getting worse. At this very moment, landlords are operating under a moratorium on rental evictions. When that lifts and some tenants can’t afford the back rent they owe, we will see more people without homes.

To help address the problem in a more comprehensive way, we are creating a homeless action plan to consider with clear eyes what is practical and possible for the City of Encinitas to do.

From my perspective, we need the county to help Encinitas and other North County cities in order to craft meaningful solutions to homelessness. The county is the level of government that receives funding for mental health and human services programs; the city does not. But when people are living unsheltered on the streets, it’s a problem that cities and their residents deal with on a daily basis.

In the meantime, you may find it intriguing to know that the state-owned fairgrounds in Del Mar is being considered for homeless vets. Here’s the Del Mar Times article.

Encinitas among safest cities in the county

Our county continues to have a low crime rate and Encinitas continues to have an even lower crime rate. In 2019, Encinitas’ violent crime rates were less than half of the region’s rate at 1.36 per 100,000 population. Overall, violent crime in the region was the fourth lowest in the last forty years. 

The stats for each city from SANDAG are here. Here’s the full report, Forty Years of Crime in the San Diego Region: 1980-2019. SANDAG is the only local entity to analyze these statistics historically across all 18 incorporated cities and the unincorporated county. The data is used by policy makers, law enforcement and the community to track public safety over time and the effectiveness of interventions.

One worrying statistic for the region is that the number of hate crimes in 2019 was up 24% from 2018, and the number of victims was up 48 percent. The City of Encinitas had no reported hate crimes, a trend that I hope continues. 

Flavored vaping products

After hearing a recommendation from the city’s Youth Commission, the council unanimously approved drafting an ordinance to prohibit flavored vaping products, similar to what Solana Beach and the county have done. After hearing multiple public comments about traditional hookah use being a religious and cultural practice, and not prone to abuse by children, we directed an option that exempted hookahs. Here’s the agenda report from the city staff.

Back to school this Fall?

Another issue that has concerned me recently is the distance-learning situation with our local schools. Fundamentally, I believe that a school’s job is to educate kids on the school campus. It is not an equivalent education for elementary school kids to be doing online learning at home. It’s also not possible for working adults to effectively manage their children’s time and their education at home.

While businesses, sports, religious life and government are all figuring out how to reopen safely, schools should operate from the same premise. The economy can’t reopen completely until schools do.

Plus, taxpayers are paying for public education to take place in school, not at home. I understand that money is tight for schools and that distancing, hygiene and testing take money. However, many businesses and not-for-profits are facing these same realities as they figure out how to reopen. Right now, there is a contentious conversation happening between school districts and the state over money. We’ll see where that ends up. 

In one of the articles below, I describe the hybrid learning model as “lose-lose” because many working parents will need their kids to be in daycare on the days they can’t attend schools. Therefore both education and public health lose, as those kids aren’t in an optimal learning environment and they are exposed to more groups of people. The equity concerns for students from lower socio-economic environments, without access to technology or all-day parental oversight, are real.

Here are some good school-related articles on this topic from Voice of San Diego:

This Memorial Day means more 

This Memorial Day weekend, flags will fly at half-staff on Monday in honor of the selfless heroes who have lost their lives preserving our freedom over the nearly two-and-a-half centuries of our great American experiment. But this year, lowered flags from today through sunset on Sunday will also memorialize the nearly 100,000 Americans who have passed away during the current coronavirus pandemic.

In Encinitas, the number of residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 currently sits at 43. This is a cumulative number, not the number who are sick at this moment. Worldwide there are 5 million positive cases and 6,315 cases in this county. 

For those who’ve asked, the city doesn’t receive any special inside pandemic data – we get the same information as you do. I’m not provided additional information regarding who is sick, where they were when they were believed to have caught it, or whether the cases are tied to any particular event (like beachgoing or protesting). The county’s information on cases can be found here.

I’m going to end this week’s newsletter with an inspirational quote that I’ve had on my bulletin board at work for some time. When I went into City Hall this week to review and sign papers, I brought it home as a reminder that we each have a role in changing the world for the better.

“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”
– John Scharr, futurist

In service,

P.S. Saturday afternoon, Facebook Live is BAAAAAAACK!

Let’s do another Facebook Live tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon at 4 p.m. I can expand on the topics in this newsletter and answer your questions. I’d appreciate it if you’d send your questions or comments in advance by replying to this email.

After taking last Saturday off to get some chickens for our new backyard coop, I’m really looking forward to getting back to Facebook Live with you! I might even show you our new pets on the video!

P.P.S. I could use your help with my re-election campaign

If you support the work we do together to preserve our paradise in Encinitas, making a donation here to assist in my re-election campaign as your Encinitas Mayor would be very appreciated! Encinitas has a pretty low contribution limit – $250 per person or $500 per couple, so every donation helps!

And if you’d like a free yard sign delivered to your house or would like to volunteer, here’s the link to let us know.