The four Ceres City Council candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot faced questions about growth, city services and leadership priorities during a 90-minute Ceres Chamber of Commerce forum staged on Tuesday evening, Oct. 6.
Incumbent City Council members Bret Durossette and Mike Kline are running for re-election and are being challenged by Don Cool and Gene Yeakley.
At the outset of the meeting, Ceres Chamber of Commerce President Renee Ledbetter said her group has formed a Political Action Committee focused on passing Measure E, an increase of the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), or the motel tax. The city imposes a five percent tax on all lodging but is seeking permission from Ceres voters to begin charging 10 percent.
Ledbetter said Ceres has one of the lowest TOTs in California. She said the 10 percent rate would put Ceres in line with rates charged in other Valley cities.
"We really encourage our voters to vote yes on Measure E," said Ledbetter. "It's very important to have that measure pass."
Jeff Lebouf was the moderator of the forum at the Ceres Community Center. The event only drew about 25 in attendance.
The candidates were first asked what responsibilities citizens have to help combat drugs and violence.
Kline said residents need to trust police "and believe action will be taken" by authorities.
Durossette said police are doing their best to combat crime but said residents need to take pride in their homes and neighborhood.
Cool said there needs to be better participation in Neighborhood Watch programs to work closer with police.
Yeakley said the community needs to be educated "how to live amongst one another" and suggested that residents come to Ceres "and just don't want to assimilate."
"We've got problems here and they're not getting better," said Yeakley, who called for more code enforcement.
All four were asked why they are running and what issues are their primary focus.
Durossette said he thought eight years on the City Council would be enough but he wants another four years. "We have got to maintain our police and our fire," said Durossette. "We haven't had layoffs. The other part is we have to increase business. We need tax dollars and so that's going to be obviously with the Mitchell Ranch (Shopping Center) coming on soon."
Bret added that he can't wait to get more people in Ceres, calling it "a great place."
Cool said he's been involved in the community for years and noted that after he left in 1990 and returned 12 years later he "wasn't happy with what I saw" in Ceres. He said he's gotten involved as a member of the Measure H Committee to oversee use of public safety tax money.
"Regardless of how much I do, I still feel like I'm on the outside looking in and I would like to be involved in process making from the inside," said Cool. "I think I could support a lot of people bringing a new fresh look to a lot of situations."
Don called for the change of outsiders' perception of Ceres, saying "it's not good." He said new code enforcement efforts are a step in the right direction in setting the stage to make Ceres more attractive for those looking to set up new businesses.
"Right now it's just really not a real nice place to attract anybody," said Cool. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Yeakley said he's tired of not having input and wants to "see some things change that I don't agree with when I come to some of these City Council meetings." He noted that few participate in meetings and civic affairs.
"Most of us who live here would like to stay ... because this is our home but people have taken over the city and turned it into something that's not what we thought it was when we got here," said Yeakley.
Kline said he wants to continue making decisions and believes that he represents the average working person in the community.
"Public safety is number one. If your citizens don't feel safe, you don't have citizens."
As a former volunteer firefighter, Kline said he can represent the fire department. He called for revamping ordinances to encourage businesses to come to Ceres.
Candidates were asked about the city's fiscal responsibilities toward economic development and how they would prioritize those efforts.
Cool admitted he didn't know much about what's been done but said he knows the city annexed a large area to the western side. "Growth is obviously a good thing but you need to make sure your infrastructure is intact before you build. You make sure you have enough police and fire before you add 600 homes."
The West Ceres Annexation of 960 acres stretches Ceres all the way past Crows Landing Road and will result in 2,325 single-family homes, 1,310 multi-family units, and 34 acres for commercial use.
"We haven't had a good infrastructure in a long time," said Yeakley. "There's been improvement and stuff, the Walmart down there - that's going to be a mess."
Regarding prospective business, Yeakley said: "After they see the condition the city's in, compared to some other cities, they might wonder: ‘Are we really going to put our money in there?'"
Kline said the city is already acting on economic development, and just ordered a General Plan update that will determine zoning for commercial. He said the West Ceres Annexation carved out commercial for Crows Landing Road with residential uses behind it.
"The city's done an excellent job in the last couple of years by hiring an economic development director," said Kline. He called Steve Hallam a "big advocate of the city" who has brought in at least three businesses. He said City Manager Toby Wells has experience in developing other cities like Livermore and Turlock.
Durossette said the city needs to capitalize on good schools, and the expanded soccer facility at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park to draw in out-of-town business. The General Plan will determine where new commercial and industrial growth will occur.
"We need that tax base and we need new businesses here," commented Bret.
Areas to develop
When asked what the top geographic areas the city needs to concentrate on for economic growth, answers were varied. Yeakley said Service Road has room for industrial development. Kline mentioned Service/Mitchell and Morgan/Whitmore and Crowslanding/Whitmore and even downtown for development. Durossette suggested the West Ceres Annexation will be primed for development years down the road but he wants to see vacant Hatch Road stores filled. He also wants to see Mitchell Ranch develop. Cool said Mitchell Ranch will happen to bring in "things we don't have" in Ceres but he wants to see downtown which he said "is in rough shape." Don also wants to see blight abated in Hatch and Mitchell shopping centers, modeling them after the Richland Shopping Center.
The question was then asked: "How will you best represent the business community?"
Kline said he's been approachable and visible as a councilman and is their "voice" in city matters.
"The biggest thing you have to do is interact with them to find out what their needs are," said Kline. He also mentioned making the city ready for shovel-ready site development.
Durossette said he always shops in Ceres, attends Chamber mixers and is highly visible.
"It's being able to be connected to people within Ceres and I think I have done a terrific job at that," he said.
Cool said he hopes Ceres "does everything they can to get whatever breaks it can give to encourage business within Ceres, whether it be a tax break or whatever it be."
Yeakley said socializing with business people is an answer, and hinted he would help show what Ceres has to prospective businesses.
When asked about any legislation they desire to see passed or changed, Durossette said he wants to see state legislation that would allow cities to go to district council elections without voter approval. He said the city must disband at large elections or possibly face a lawsuit by minority groups.
Yeakley didn't offer up ideas.
Kline said he wants to see legislation that would allow cities to pay contractor prevailing wages on public projects based on Valley labor costs, not the Bay Area. "Our cost of living is more in line with Fresno," said Kline. "Instead of paying a $60 an hour prevailing wage, we might be down into about a $42 an hour prevailing wage."
Measure E spending
The two incumbents were asked where they want to see new tax dollars spent from Measure E, if it passes.
Durossette said he could see the additional $70,000 to $90,000 annually with police and fire or give out grants to kick start businesses. Kline said he would like to see the money used to promote Ceres, such as getting the word out about Ceres being able to host state cups with the expanded soccer facility to draw in out-of-town shopping dollars.
Interest in council
Candidates were asked to talk about their interest in serving on the council and to talk about civic, community or governmental organization experience.
Cool noted that he is interested in bringing a fresh perspective to the council and noted that he worked in industrial maintenance for 35 years where he interacted with lots of corporate decision makers. He also said he has been up keyed into city issues in the past 10 years.
"I just want some say," said Yeakley. "I'm tired of being out there, sitting there and not having some feedback of my own to where I can actually see it develop into a change."
Gene said he has no government experience but he said he's seen how others live throughout parts of the world.
"I want to see a change to where more people be involved with the city and they will like where they live," said Yeakley. "But ... like I said before, there's a lot of people who live there, they don't like law enforcement, they don't want any contact, they come from somewhere else - I'm not going to say where - but they do come from other parts of the world and they don't assimilate."
Kline said he wants to be "a part of the solution, not a part of the problem."
He said he hears the concerns of many residents and is diligent about pursuing solutions. Kline mentioned his five years as a volunteer fireman, time as a Ceres Youth Baseball coach, was a part of Ceres Dolphins and was president of the Ceres High Boosters Club.
Durossette said he has been teaching at CHS since 1994 and coaching since 1989. He has served eight years on the City Council and said he has the support of police and fire unions, Latino Community Roundtable and state Senator Anthony Cannella. "I'm energized to do it," said Bret, who is president of the Ceres Lions Club.
Top concerns for Ceres
All four stressed that public safety is their top concern. Yeakley added code enforcement. Kline listed blight as a concern, including the Hatch Road shopping district, as well as the need to address homelessness. Durossette said he wants the city to end the practice of dipping into Measure H taxes. Cool wants to see the police force beefed up, blight attacked and traffic flow on Mitchell Road improved.
A question was lobbed about feelings on housing balance. Kline said apartments and duplexes are necessary but noted location and management are important. Durossette said the General Plan update will identify the best places to put future apartments, condos or duplexes. Cool said he didn't appreciate how apartments were mixed with single-family tracts in years past but said he is troubled that so many multiple families are living in single-family homes and counted 17 cars for two houses in is neighborhood. Yeakley said Ceres doesn't need any additional housing for the lower class and said "we have serious problems with low-income people here."
Talk then focused on downtown Ceres. Durossette said a Specific Plan was drawn up for downtown but noted that it takes time and property owners willing "to make change." He said "it's important to believe in downtown but it's going to take some time."
The key to downtown, said Cool, is to create a draw to "get people excited and bring other businesses. I don't know what that is right now." He wants to see the historical buildings stay during any future revitalization.
Yeakley said if he was a prospective business owner driving down Fourth Street looking for locations "I'd be shaking my head clear down there to the other end because I wouldn't want to put a business here." He said downtown merchants are struggling and need financial help to improve the looks.
Kline noted that years ago the city led the community into a series of visioning workshops for downtown redevelopment and that he was disheartened at the lack of participation. The city needs to find funds for infrastructure to where downtown is shovel ready, Kline said, and develop renderings to how "show the business owners what the potential is."
Are they prepared?
A question was targeted at Cool and Yeakley about their understanding of what they're getting into if elected and how they have prepared for such a commitment. Cool said he routinely studies council agendas and has served on the Measure H Committee. "I am looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge to do this," said Cool.
"It's a new thing and everyone that comes in is a virgin," said Yeakley. "I'm ready to put in what I have to do to get in with all those changes."
Try something different?
Candidates were asked if there is something the city of Ceres isn't doing that would improve the quality of life and strength the local economy and what that might be.
Cool paused and only mentioned the TOT tax level, saying he hopes it passes and increases to 10 percent.
Yeakley provided a vague answer in stressing law enforcement and code enforcement both of which the city is doing.
Kline said the city could do a better job of "selling ourselves" for new business opportunities. Ceres needs to look at "what's missing" and "selling ourselves to those businesses," Kline noted.
"The last couple of years we've done a great job in selling ourselves for existing buildings but now we need to sell ourselves for growth within our boundaries that hasn't been touched yet," said Kline.
Durossette agreed with Kline and said Ceres "is a great community and there's great locations" for new businesses. He said in selling Ceres to outsiders, Ceres good points - such as good schools and longtime residents - needs to be stressed. Bret also said the city needs to streamline the permit process to "make it a little bit more friendly and easier."
Homeless & panhandling
The topic of homelessness and panhandling as a regional problem came up. Candidates were asked to addressing their concerns.
Yeakley said Ceres has talked about the problem and the need to push beggars out of town. He said the region needs to tackle it. "I don't think Ceres, right now, has the capacity or the money to house any of these people on a mass scale," said Yeakley. "I think we need some help from some other communities that's had control of it already and maybe we can implement something."
Kline said the recent Modesto summit on homelessness was a step in the right direction. "You're not going to eliminate homelessness but you can help shrink it and I think that the first thing you'd have to do is understand the individual that's homeless and what got them to be homeless and what you can do and what services you can direct them to, to get out of the circumstances they're in."
Mike added that the city has met with the business community to inform them how to assist police with resolving the problem of panhandling.
Durossette said "there's a huge misconception that panhandling and homeless are the same thing." Most panhandlers have a home but are looking for money to buy alcohol or drugs, he said. As a teacher he said he knows that some Ceres students come from homeless families and are referred to faith-based and social services.
Cool agreed that panhandlers and homeless persons are often different and said panhandlers make him avoid certain shopping areas. He said local cities need to get together and work on homelessness but noted "there's no easy solution." For the most part homeless people enjoy their lifestyle as long as they're being fed, Cool said.
On the topic of enhancing workforce development and job training in Ceres, all the candidates noted education is key. Kline suggested attracting a trade school to Ceres. Durossette said CUSD has a Manufacturing Academy to train up students into good paying trade jobs right out of high school. Cool heralded the CUSD Student Farm at Hidahl School and said education is key. Yeakley said the country must bring back trades.
Talking to employees
The last question of the evening asked candidates if they've ever spoken to city employees about their concerns and what they were.
Durossette said he has spoken to employees and most recently talked to firefighters about reinstating strikes teams to big wildland fires.
Cool said he keeps a line of communication with Councilmember Linda Ryno to encourage her on issues, and with Police Chief Brent Smith, Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes and Sgt. Joe Wren.
Yeakley said he's spoken to city employees about concerns such as cleaning up neighborhoods in west Ceres.
Kline said he has spoken to numerous city employees, such as Frank Alvarez about code enforcement, or the water and sewer division employees. He said that he visited the guys at the new Pine Street maintenance building who told him the building "was long overdue" but that they need a lift.