Council rivals face city issues

Six candidates for Madera City Council districts 1, 3 and 5 discussed issues such as downtown development, deficits, salaries, homelessness, and blight at a public forum Monday.

Incumbents Cece Gallegos, Will Oliver, and Charles Rigby sat beside aspiring council members Steve Salter, Steve Montes and Santos Garcia for 90 minutes of audience questions in a nearly full VFW Post 1981 Hall.

A third of the questions concerned downtown, from attracting young people there to plans for an arts center and taking over Yosemite Avenue from Caltrans. All but Salter had many ideas for the area.

Garcia proposed lighting, street beautification, and Internet access for downtown. Oliver and Garcia suggested making the civic arts center a multi-use facility for both government and public arts. Gallegos wants public input and involvement in downtown efforts as well as long range planning.

Montes said downtown services and amenities were needed as well as support of and from areas around downtown. Rigby would like to see the city partner with the county Economic Development Commission to create an “Opportunity Zone,” which would provide tax incentives for investment thanks to the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Salter hoped existing cleanup efforts by Love Madera and others would continue.

All candidates agree that approval for planning and engineering projects needed to be streamlined so that businesses could more easily upgrade or expand.

Montes said city employees need to be supported better, but also needed to communicate on how businesses can speed the planning process. Salter said the planning commission needed to become more business friendly, and the council should cut regulations and reduce their costs. Gallegos said work was needed to find a good city manager, and to remind city employees they work for all residents.

Santos Garcia noted that longtime business Baltimore Aircoil had been denied a request to expand and improve their sewage system. He felt some effort must be made to avoid such an outcome. “What new business is going to come to Madera,” he asked, “when we don’t support the businesses that exist here now?”

Rigby and Oliver both agreed the process needed to become more clear, consistent and efficient, and pointed to a new policy to assign a contact to work with a prospective business. “So you no longer have to be ping-ponged through departments. You have a direct point of contact,” said Oliver. The city also now mandates a development review process so a business seeking to relocate has access to the city’s decision makers who can give them quality data.

City council candidates supported and echoed public concerns about the city’s deficit budget and highly paid administrators. Gallegos admitted she “made a wrong vote in passing that budget” and wants “to make it right.” Salter and Gallegos agreed that Madera should not pay administrators the same as Fresno does. Rigby said he was grateful the deficit budget, hardly the city’s first, drew attention this year because he wants a “zero-based” budget, though he noted the city is not deficit spending by the end of each fiscal year.

Oliver said he believes adjustments are needed, such as reducing employee cash outs, but warned against demonizing city employees. Montes said the budget seems like a carnival’s shell game in which employee wages are cut while executive salaries rise. Garcia said the budget situation is why change is needed in the city council, and said interim city administrator, Steve Frazier, lacked experience. “We are going down a path to bankruptcy,” he warned.

Madera Chamber of Commerce, Madera Coalition for Community Justice and The Madera Tribune co-sponsored the evening forum. Madera Youth Leaders assisted.