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Chula Vista mayoral candidates on budget deficit, bringing university to South Bay

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Chula Vista will have a new mayor for the first time since 2014. Whoever is elected will have to address the city’s structural budget deficit and try to bring a four-year university to the South Bay.

The city’s structural budget deficit has become a top issue in the mayoral race, but the six candidates running for mayor have different ideas on how to address it.

The city’s Department of Finance projects a growing deficit, from $1.5 million in the 2024 fiscal year to $5.8 million in 2027 and up to $10.7 million in 2030.

All six candidates agree that Chula Vista needs to stop being a bedroom community and bring more businesses to the South Bay.

“We’re a city that has a drainage of sales tax every day when people drive up north to San Diego for their jobs,” said Ammar Campa-Najjar, who ran two unsuccessful Congressional races in East County before running for mayor of Chula Vista. “We’re simply not spending where we live and we simply don’t have enough amenities to attract people from outside the city to spend, shop and play here.”

Attracting businesses

The candidates say Chula Vista has prioritized residential development over commercial, delayed processing business permits, and hasn’t lobbied hard enough for federal funding.

Rudy Ramirez, a City Councilman from 2006 to 2015 and current mayoral candidate, said Chula Vista has not done enough to attract businesses.

Part of the problem, he said, is that Chula Vista’s available land is not development-ready. Businesses would have to invest in lengthy and costly infrastructure upgrades, like grading the land, before opening.

“I would invest in getting this land shovel ready,” he said. “Right now, if an employer wants to come to Chula Vista, the city is telling them that they’re four years out before they can start operating. They don’t want to hear that. They go somewhere else.”

Ramirez would like to use federal money from the American Rescue Plan to build out business-friendly infrastructure. He also vowed to make the permitting process “25% faster within two years.”

Get general information about the election, news coverage, an interactive ballot guide, and results on election day.

City Councilman and mayoral candidate John McCann said part of the problem with the permitting process is that there is no option to pay or apply online.

“If you were to apply for a permit, whether it be a business or a building permit, you would have to go down physically to the city,” he said. “If there is an issue where you have to pay an additional fee or update the permit, you have to go to the city.”

McCann said he’s leading an effort to move the process online.

“I believe it should be done within the next year or two,” he said.

Zaneta Encarnacion, who is currently a special assistant to Southwestern College’s president, said the city’s permitting process just takes too long, “three years to process a permit.”

As mayor, she’d like to be a lot more proactive when it comes to luring businesses to Chula Vista. That includes being in constant communication with commercial real estate brokers and employers throughout the region.

“We can be much more proactive at identifying who are the likely work centers or employers who can come down to Chula Vista,” she said. “Let’s go talk to them and find out what they need to make that decision, we need to be doing it two years out from when we know their lease is going to be up.”

Campa-Najjar said Mayor Mary Salas has repeatedly left federal and state funding on the table by not submitting funding requests on time.

“I’ve heard our current mayor has gone to meetings and asked for earmarks past the deadline,” he said. “And it is just unnerving to hear that. That’s millions of dollars on the table. And instead of getting those earmarks, we have to raise local taxes or just live with the deficit.”

He would like to hire a small team of grant writers to ensure Chula Vista gets as much federal money as possible.
City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Jill Galvez said the city is facing market pressures that are outside its control.

“Right now, what we are facing is high inflation so what we are seeing is the cost of energy go up significantly,” she said. “We’ve also seen the cost of gas increase, which impacts our fleet of over 700 vehicles.”

The candidates agreed that big projects like the billion-dollar Chula Vista Bayfront development will bring a much needed boost, particularly to the western part of the city.

However, even with the millions in revenue projected from the Bayfront, it won’t be enough to correct the city’s financial situation. Especially after Measure P, a 10-year sales tax that generates $25 million a year for infrastructure projects, expires in 2027.

“The Bayfront will be great, by then it will be generating a lot more revenue for the city,” Encarnacion said. “But it’s not going to be enough.”

A university in Chula Vista

All of the candidates KPBS interviewed said the city should be doing more to bring a four-year university to the South Bay.

Politicians in Chula Vista have been promising a four-year university for decades. The city set aside 400-acres of land for a “University and Innovation District,” officials have lobbied California State University administrators and even offered a $1 lease to a small private university.

But so far, no one has actually moved in.

Campa-Najjar believes Chula Vista’s lackluster leadership is scaring away potential investors. He referenced the recent trash scandal as an example of the city’s lack of competent political leadership.

“I think it’s a lack of confidence in our city,” he said. “I mean, we have a city where our leadership has not been able to deal with our deficits, has not been able to take out the trash. So investors look at our city and say, ‘you can’t take out the trash, how are you going to build a university or a Bayfront?’”

Ramirez believes city officials have not focused enough on the “innovation” part of the “University and Innovation District.”

“I think they’ve been approaching it in the wrong way,” he said. “First hoping that a UC system or a state system would decide to come down and decide to settle in Chula Vista. I think early on we knew that wasn’t likely to happen.”

He’d like to bring research companies in industries like biotechnology and aerospace to the area. Those industries, Ramriez said, have invested millions into facilities in the North County.

Encarnacion helped build out a university center within Southwestern College. The center is a hub where seven different universities can set up shop and offer Southwestern College students four-year degrees.

Southwestern originally looked into setting up the hub in the University and Innovation District, but decided it was faster and more affordable to have it on their campus.

“With all due respect to the city, we kind of saw that we had to take the reins of academic program planning because we are the experts and our students here in South County can’t wait for the city to find a university to come and do it,” she said.

As mayor, Encarnacion said she would use her experience at Southwestern to help bring academic institutions to Chula Vista.

That starts with looking at what Chula Vista’s future jobs will be and what degrees are required to fill those jobs. Then, the city would figure out what schools offer those degrees and what programs can’t take any more students. Then Chula Vista can demonstrate a need and offer space for specific programs, she said.

Galvez said the city should identify potential donors and start an endowment program. She said she has already reached out to philanthropists who might want to have their names on buildings in the University and Innovation District.

“Past councils have invested millions of dollars on studies studying what people want,” she said. “I think the number one thing that we need to focus on that hasn’t been done is actually creating an endowment. Because all great universities were started with vision and leadership for an academic program.”

McCann said the city has historically not invested in infrastructure on the site. Building costs are expensive because the land is not shovel-ready. It’s been an issue for decades but has never been addressed, he said.

“We need to be able to negotiate with all of the stakeholders on how we will be able to put in that infrastructure,” he said. “I remember in the 90s they said, ‘hey where's the infrastructure?’ Then in the 2000s they still said, ‘hey, where’s the infrastructure?’”

McCann also said the COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress the city had been making with local institutions.

The sixth candidate, retired Army Major Spencer Cash said he'd only answer KPBS' questions if the reporter told him about a recent time he did something for the greater good on his personal time. The reporter declined, so Cash declined an interview.

According to his website, Cash believes Chula Vista should ditch the university idea and transform the land into a “Technical and Trade School District.”

He envisions a district with 50 educational institutions training students from both sides of the border to create a pool of certified skilled laborers in the South Bay. That, in turn, will attract employers to Chula Vista.

Election Day is June 7 and you can already drop off your ballots.

The top two vote-getters will face off in November.

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Corrected: May 19, 2022 at 8:55 AM PDT
This story incorrectly stated that all mayoral candidates support bringing a four year university to Chula Vista. It has been updated.