Election 2018: Mission Viejo City Council candidates share their priorities and thoughts on local issues

Election 2018: Mission Viejo City Council candidates share their priorities and thoughts on local issues

Voters will go to the polls Nov. 6 to pick who will represent them on the City Council.

Ahead of the election, all candidates were invited to share information about themselves and answer questions about their priorities and local concerns for this voter guide. In each city, all were asked the same questions and given the same word count for their answers.

In Mission Viejo, five are vying for three seats on the City Council.

Wendy Bucknum, incumbent, vice president of business development for Associa Professional Community Management (WendyBucknum.com)

Mahmoud El-Farra, marketing intern for First National Capital (elfarra4mv@gmail.com)

Greg Raths, incumbent, retired and president of Patriots and Paws board (gregraths.com)

Question 1: What are your top two priorities if elected?

Wendy Bucknum: The safety of our community, both residents and businesses, is my first priority, and our public safety town halls that I have hosted over the past two years increasing two-way communication on state laws having impacts on our community as well as the preventive measures we have in place are well recieved. The second priority is my focus on the economic viability of our city by ensuring we have sound planning policies in place as well as maintaining our city’s infrastructure and facilities.

Mahmoud El-Farra: There is much I would want to change, especially in regards to transparency, our economy, environment, public safety, and more. If I had to choose two it would be moving towards 100 percent renewable energy and improving public safety. Community Choice Energy will lower electric utility rates substantially for residents all while getting it from renewable energy. For public safety, I want to make sure our schools are safe, reduce petty crimes, and minimize wildfires.

Michael McConnell: My first priority is to lower crime. In 2009 Mission Viejo was ranked the second safest city in the entire country, but in 2017 Mission Viejo was only ranked 19th safest city in the state. More resources and community policing will help make Mission Viejo safer. My second priority is public health. I will work to increase access to mental health services and addiction resources to ensure that all residents can lead healthy, productive lives.

Greg Raths: Safety and security of Mission Viejo residents is my top concern. I back our local law enforcement and security programs to keep our citizens safe and secure.Second, I believe our roads must be well maintained, our slopes properly groomed, and our shopping centers kept clean and presentable to patrons.

Ed Sachs: Remaining fiscally strong and financially prudent while building economic development that will work to offset sales tax and gas tax revenue drops. I also founded Secure OC Schools, and providing the resources and funds to help fill the security gaps in our local schools goes to improving the safety and security of our school children. SecureocSchools.com for more information.

Question 2: How should the city balance paying off debts, such as pension liabilities, and building reserves with meeting residents’ needs? Should it involve finding new revenue or trimming the budget?

Wendy Bucknum: I would support trimming the budget versus taxing our residents. However, the economic priority I stated above is important to ensure our reserves and fiscal health as well as resident services are maintained.

Mahmoud El-Farra: Managing the budget requires complex solutions from many perspectives. Finding new sources of revenue is critical and can be accomplished in various ways, such as economic revitalization projects. With that being said, there are aspects of the budget that need review and can be trimmed to make sure taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently and effectively.

Michael McConnell: Mission Viejo’s general fund currently enjoys a surplus of millions of dollars. So we are able to pay off our debts and fund our pension liabilities, while simultaneously building our reserves. However, we must make sure that the budget is as streamlined as possible to ensure that we maintain a surplus. We must also invest our surplus dollars in the most cost-effective ways possible to meet the needs of all of our citizens.

Greg Raths: Mission Viejo has maintained a balanced budget for the four years I have been in office, with a healthy reserve. Our employees’ medical benefits are 100 percent funded and our pension liability is a healthy 80.5 percent funded. I will work to get that number to an even better percentage of 85 percent. We have a grueling budget review every two years prioritizing tax revenue.

Ed Sachs: Mission Viejo is close to the 85 percent funded rate I consider enough to pay future retirees. Paying to 100 percent is unnecessary as the funds are not disbursed at one moment in time. Having employees contribute to their own pension has also seen positive results. We have a balanced budget with no debt, but we face declining revenues in sales tax and gasoline tax. In addition, the cost of outsourcing police services continues to grow primarily due to labor cost increases. Online sales are hurting our city by some $400,000 annually when sales tax is paid at the distribution point and not at the point of receipt. We must find new local retail, primarily restaurant and entertainment, that will offset those losses. Large box retail has gone online. Working on economic development is essential if we wish to maintain the level of services and programs currently in the city. Otherwise, cutting costs and programs are what you are left with.

Question 3: What should the city’s role be in encouraging the development of low-income housing units? Would you support a mandate or an incentive of some kind?

Wendy Bucknum: Our city has consistently and thoughtfully worked with nonprofit partners such as Families Forward, Jamboree Housing and other developers to provide low income housing and I believe incentives versus mandates are the appropriate way as we move forward with the housing issues we face as a region.

Mahmoud El-Farra: 1,300 Saddleback College students are housing or food insecure. I strongly believe that the city council should support the construction of low-income bridge housing, so that students can focus on getting an education and bettering themselves. As a Saddleback student myself, it is very important to me that we make sure our future leaders and future parents do not have to choose between an education or a roof over their heads.

Michael McConnell: The city should work to ensure that housing is affordable to everyone that works here and contributes to our community and local economy. The city should be examining all methods of making housing more affordable for everyone in Mission Viejo, particularly for our low-income workers. This may include incentives of some kind for low-income housing development, rent control measures, or boosting the local economy so that all workers are paid enough to afford local housing.

Greg Raths: Mission Viejo stands out for its low-income housing units. I will continue to see that we maintain our share of low-income units. I would support an incentive to see if we can find more available units for those who would like to choose our city as a place to live.

Ed Sachs: Planned cities like Mission Viejo have grown out to where there is little space for new housing. We do have two sites set aside for low-income housing and currently have a number of development bids on the properties. Mandates do not work and incentives likely would be shifting monies around from other areas that need funding as well. Again, reducing the regulatory demands of environmental requirements are costly and cities and developers never pay for those costs anyway as they are passed on to the consumer. Many of these costs could exceed $100,000 per property. Reduced regulation and fast track permitting would go a long way to lowering the cost of housing.

Question 4: Communities across the state are grappling with rising pension and other post-employment benefit costs. What do you think needs to be done to deal with this problem?

Wendy Bucknum: The CalPERS Investment Policies need to be modified and the yield assumptions also need to be more realistic. Further, the system needs to be stabilized so the funds will actually be there when public employees retire. This may require a tiered approach with future employees similar to what the City of Mission Viejo has already done. In addition, Mission Viejo has paid down our pension liability through a combination of investment and contributions; we are currently 84 percent funded.

Mahmoud El Farra: Ballooning pension liability cost will be the most significant budgetary crisis of the next decade, so it is crucial that both cities and the state take strong measures now. Potential solutions are for cities to voluntarily increase the minimum annual payments to reduce liability, or to devote more money now to the pay-down schedule. Whatever we do, we should not lay off teachers or public workers, and we must address this issue now.

Michael McConnell: We owe it to our public servants and first responders to ensure that they are able to live comfortably into their retirements. However, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research estimates that California’s total pension debt is $992.4 billion. So, we also have a responsibility to taxpayers to balance budgets and avoid cost overruns. By streamlining state and local budgets while making smarter investments with pension funds, we can achieve both of these goals.

Greg Raths: I would like to see government employees go to 401K programs so they can take their pension funds with them if they leave their job. Also, 401Ks bring less financial stress to government agencies’ budgets.

Ed Sachs: When I was elected in 2014, my priority was to reduce the pension liability in my city. We were 70 percent funded in 2014 and now we are at 80 percent funded. We did this with early pay down of millions of dollars and set up a trust of $3 millions exclusively for pension pay out. The trust money was loaned out at 50 basis points higher that our top performing investments. We also eliminated lifetime healthcare benefits and have required employees to pay their share of both pension and healthcare benefits.

Question 5: On the ballot this November, voters will be asked to decide on whether to repeal the recently enacted increase to the state gas tax. What is your position on the gas tax?

Wendy Bucknum: I am disaapointed that our state leaders have developed policies and utilized previously designated funding for transportation projects and then did not fund those projects that now required the institution of the additional gas tax enacted this past year. Orange County residents have supported the Measure M taxes that funded road and transportation project in Orange County as they did what they said. The state does not have that same track record. I do not support this most recent gas tax.

Mahmoud El Farra: According to an estimate by the current city council, if Prop 6 were to pass, our city would lose $2.4 million in revenue over the next 10 years. Moreover, Orange County as a whole would lose nine traffic congestion-relief programs, 29 bridge safety improvements, and 121 local road safety projects. I support investing in our transportation, our roads, and our safety.

Michael McConnell: I support the goal of the gas tax, which is to fund desperately needed infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects across the state. However, I believe that there are better ways of acquiring the funds necessary for these projects that we must explore. Instead of taxing consumers at the pump, other solutions such as taxing the oil companies themselves or trimming the state budget should be examined as ways of financing future infrastructure projects.

Greg Raths: Repeal the gas tax.

Ed Sachs: Without guarantees from Sacramento that the gas tax monies raised will be for highway infrastructure I fear this is another Charlie Brown football pull back. In addition, the gas tax is regressive in that it hurts those that can ill afford to pay higher gas prices for fuel needed to work and raise a family. Let’s stop paying for fantasy programs and use the money we have for infrastructure while we cut inefficient programs that do not work or have gone on too long. Any new spending programs must have a sunset date for renewal.

Question 6: The high cost of housing in California has spurred increased interest in rent control. On the ballot this November is Proposition 10, which would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act. What are your thoughts on rent control?

Wendy Bucknum: Rent control is not the answer to housing shortages, housing is. I do not support Proposition 10.

Mahmoud El Farra: As rents increase, senior citizens on fixed incomes are forced to spend less on necessities such as food and medicine. Not only that, but young people in the housing market are also severely disadvantaged and often leave for areas with lower costs of living. I support rent control to protect our senior citizens, families, and first-time homeowners.

Michael McConnell: Rising housing costs in California have made it very difficult for people like me who were born and raised here to remain living in the communities we call home. Repealing the Costa-Hawkins Act may have unintended consequences, such as stymieing housing development projects. Therefore, I believe that the Costa-Hawkins Act should instead be amended to allow cities some freedom to explore rent control measures as one part of the solution to California’s housing crisis.

Greg Raths: I am not in favor of rent control. Let the free market decide rent.

Ed Sachs: Rent control is a good way to guarantee a new home building slow/shut down. The marketplace will dictate pricing for buying or renting a home. Artificial assists are short term and exacerbate the issue they portend to solve down the road. Eliminating many of the CEQA and SB32 environmental requirements will cause higher housing prices. Allowing local government the control to manage housing/zoning without interruption from Sacramento will open up a building boom in the city, the county and the state.

Question 7: Proposition 64 authorizes the legalization of marijuana, while granting local jurisdictions the authority to approve or deny certain marijuana-related businesses. What are your thoughts on marijuana legalization to date and what do you think of your own community’s policies on marijuana?

Wendy Bucknum: I have concerns with the legalization of recreational marijuana and the impact it has on our youth and the safety of our community. I believe the public safety concerns far out weigh the revenues that can benefit our community. We do not allow cultivation, dispensing, testing or distribution in our city.

Mahmoud El Farra: I support the legalization of marijuana for three reasons. First, legalization frees up time and resources from processing low-level offenses, allowing police to better deal with more pressing, violent criminals. Secondly, legalization allows the state to pose strict regulations on marijuana to make it safer from those who use it. Lastly, it creates a new source of revenue for the state, since it now receives taxes in a market that already existed before legalization.

Michael McConnell: Prop. 64 passed with support from across the ideological spectrum. Allowing some recreational marijuana businesses to operate will generate business and property tax revenue that would otherwise be lost. Cities like Mission Viejo should strictly supervise local marijuana businesses in order to keep our communities safe and clean. If we do not allow regulated marijuana business to operate legally, we run the risk of forcing the market underground and driving up crime in our communities.

Greg Raths: I do not believe marijuana should of been made legal in CA. I believe it is a gateway drug to more serious illegal drug abuse. I do favor medicinal use of marijuana that is closely controlled. I am not in favor of marijuana dispensaries in my city.

Ed Sachs: In Mission Viejo we are not allowing any marijuana business. Communities are looking at the revenue and not the collateral damage that comes with allowing legalization. Not to mention the impact and growth of fentanyl in our communities.

Question 8: Senate Bill 54 limits the role of state and local law enforcement in enforcing federal immigration laws. The law has drawn legal challenges from some localities which want the flexibility to work with the federal government. What do you think of SB54?

Wendy Bucknum: Our City listened to our residents who do not support a sanctuary city status and voted unanimously to communicate our position to the governor.

Mahmoud El Farra: My city is one of the few challenging the legality of SB 54, but I believe that the intentions are misguided. In reality, they are putting us at risk and letting more criminals go unpunished. Without fear of deportation, illegal immigrants are much more likely to report crime and cooperate with local police authorities, ultimately improving the safety of our community. I support the sanctuary state because I support human decency and public safety.

Michael McConnell: I believe that local governments owe it to their constituents to focus on local issues. First and foremost, local government officials should prioritize the safety of their residents above all else. We can keep crime down—particularly violent crime—by ensuring that every resident feels safe coming forward to local police to report crime. SB54 gives local police the power to engage all residents in the effort to keep our communities safe from violent crime.

Greg Raths: I am not in favor of sanctuary cities or states. I believe local law enforcement should work closely with state and federal law enforcement to reduce the criminal elements within the illegal alien communities in our state.

Ed Sachs: The City of Mission Viejo, on a 5-0 vote, allowed for the city to participate in an amicus to the DOJ lawsuit against the State and SB54. Legal immigration is a wonderful societal benefit. Illegally crossing our border entering our country and then given refuge to people that commit crimes in our communities first hurts other immigrants that are entering the country the right way, and suppress wages to the poorest among us. The economics will not pencil. Cities and county’s must work with local law enforcement as well as federal agencies to keep our communities safe especially in immigrant communities where gangs and criminals prey.

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Jack Herman