On Nov. 28th, students and community members filed into the Orton Center to hear Mayor Paul Foster speak as the first in a new series sponsored by University of Redlands Greek Life called the Greek Speaker Series. Foster spoke to the university community about his background and his most recent public works projects, and concluded with a Q & A session.
Mayor Foster was introduced by Interfraternity Council President, Gabriel Quezada, who spoke briefly about the mayor’s service to the Redlands community.
“Paul Foster began his service in the Redlands community serving on the Redlands City Council in 2010, and being elected mayor in 2015,” Quezada said. “During his tenure among other things he oversaw the development and operations of the SCPMG [Southern California Permanente Medical Group] in the Rancho Cucamonga Medical Office, Loma Linda Medical Office, and lastly Redlands.”
After Quezada’s introduction, Foster took the stage and addressed his goals for the event.
“I have felt that it’s my job since becoming mayor to get out into the community once a year and give kind of a report card on where the city is at,” Foster said.
However he first elaborated on his career in public service and beyond.
“I moved here a little over thirty years ago, my wife and I, and became involved in a number of community activities [like] the Historic and Scenic Preservation Commission, in which I served as chair,” Foster said. “Eventually I became president of the Chamber of Commerce [and] the chairman of the Planning Commission.”
Before Foster began his service to the community he received his masters in Human Resources from the University of Redlands and worked for 34 years with the Kaiser Permanente health care system. This year, he celebrates his one-year retirement, alongside his wife who retires in December.
The presentation prepared for the evening was the same one presented at the 2017 State of the City Lunch in June. The presentation was accompanied by a short video produced to address this year’s theme for the State of the City Address: “With vision, a people prosper.” Foster stepped back to show the video to the University community, and afterwards identified one of the two actors in the video as Doctor Larry Burgess, husband to Vice President of External Affairs at the U of R Char Burgess. Foster lauded Doctor Burgess as “probably without exception the person most well-versed in the history of our community.”
After addressing his background in public service, Foster began covering the achievements of the city’s municipal government in 2017, the first of which was the completion of a new General Plan.
“The General Plan is a land-use document, and it drives how a city develops for a very long period of time – 25 to 30 years,” Foster explained. “This is a two million dollar investment … We live in this document every single day. Every development, every developer that comes to town, anyone who wants to work for the city has got to take a look at this General Plan. It says what is important to the people of Redlands.”
Roughly 40 different citizens from around the city representing various facets of the community contributed to the composing of this new plan, which comes at a critical juncture for the city.
“We are within ten to fifteen years of what we call ‘build-out,’” Foster said.” Which means that every piece of land in the city of Redlands that can be developed – that isn’t for open-space and parks – will be developed.”
The city will officially adopt the new plan mid-December.
Foster went on to speak about a variety of newly completed projects, including the opening of the Redlands Packing District, which was developed by the owners of the Redlands-based mapping technology company Esri – Jack and Nora Dangermond. Developments like these have been in response to the growing number of Esri candidates leaving for competitors in Silicon Valley, as they provide many of the amenities they’re looking for.
“[Esri candidates] want higher density, multi-family, upscale apartments and condominiums,” Foster explained. “They want to be within walking distance of their employment. They want to have bike-trails. They want to have open-spaces available to them. And one of the things [Jack] heard was ‘there’s no Sprout’s or Whole Foods in Redlands.’ What does a man like Jack do when he hears that? He builds it himself!”
Foster says that the Dangermonds’ investment was in large part because Jack was born and raised in Redlands.
“[Jack] and his family believe that an investment in their hometown is more important than just an investment for Esri,” Foster said. “They both drive the same outcomes. He owns a great many other properties in the downtown area where he’s going to continue to build these types of projects to attract the quality of employees he’s looking for.”
Other works Foster mentioned included the renovation of the gateways to the I-10 freeway, the Redlands Mall, and Hillside Memorial Park, and the adaptive reuse of the Mutual Orange Distribution [MOD] building into a farm-to-table restaurant. There are plans to include a Super Walmart and restaurants at the Redlands Crossing Project. The Krikorian theater has transferred ownership and will be renovated to provide an upscale dining experience while audiences watch the newest releases. The historic Santa Fe Depot has been bought by Jack Dangermond, and will be used as part of a transit stop for the Redlands railroad project, as it was initially intended. Another transit stop and transit village will be constructed at the U of R as well. A plan to expand downtown parking is in the works, and land has been acquired for the construction of a new police station.
Foster also outlined the plans to improve the aging infrastructure of the 129 year old city.
“A city’s first obligation is to provide a safe community in which to live,” Foster said. “A healthy water system, a sewage disposal system, appropriate refuse pick-up. All of those things are part of providing a safe community, and they are the first tier of city services that are important. One of the things that the city had let go during difficult economic times was addressing all of these infrastructure issues.”
In response, city leadership has implemented a street rehabilitation program that according to Foster will have rebuilt about 80 percent of the city’s roads by the end of 2019. This program is coordinated with replacement of the city’s water system – long overdue as Foster informed the audience that the average pipe in Redlands is 75 years old. Since 2007, 60 miles of water pipes have been replaced. In addition, every water reservoir in the city of Redlands has been recently rehabilitated.
However, the project has caused much discontent in the community with the rising water rates implemented in order to finance the replacement of these pipes. Foster explained this decision, assuring a positive outcome.
“When that pipe replacement is done in the next couple of years, it will be good for the next twenty or thirty,” Foster explained. “Then we have a revenue stream that will allow these pipes to be replaced without increasing water rates. The same thing is true for the street program.”
Foster then moved on to the municipal government’s plans for next year and beyond.
“I felt it was absolutely essential that we had a female replacement,” Foster said. “We needed that diversity of the council.”
The council will face vital issues in the coming year, foremost of which is pension funding falling on California municipal governments.
“Any of you that have family in the government or school systems understand that the retirement system is not funded adequately,” Foster explained. “The reason is they overestimated how much they were going to make on the stock market prior to the Great Recession. When the recession took place the stock market tanked and they lost a ton of money. Well guess who they’ve come to and said ‘You have to make it up?’ They’ve come to the cities.”
Foster explained that some of the surrounding cities like Monrovia are in danger of bankruptcy because of their inability to cover these shortfalls. However, Foster had good news for the community.
“I’m very very proud to tell you that just last month the city manager, our finance manager and myself worked very hard, and we are able to cover all of our pension shortfalls for the next five years with current revenue streams,” Foster said.
Not only are pensions covered for the near future, but many workers will see an increase in pay as well.
“With the conclusion of labor negotiations, we will be able to give every single employee over a three year period a nine percent increase [in salary],” Foster said. “There are no other communities in this county that I know of who have been able to accomplish that.”
The good news was followed by another pressing issue for the city – homelessness and transience.
“The good citizens of the state of California voted for the propositions that created the early release programs,” Foster explained. “As such, all prisoners that were not career criminals or violent criminals were dumped back into the state. When you see all those people out there, that’s a large part of why you see them.”
Foster explained that the majority of these people are currently being helped by the Redlands community.
“80 percent of the homeless in the city of Redlands will accept help from our police officers, and we now have a psychologist that works with our homeless team when they’re out,” Foster said. “[The 80 percent] will accept help through transitional housing, assistance, whatever it might be. The remaining twenty percent are the ones we have problems with.”
Foster describes this 20 percent consist of three subgroups – “professional panhandlers,” those who are mentally ill without institutions or support systems to help them, and those who are permanently drug dependant.
Foster contests that the first subgroup are taking advantage of the citizens of Redlands.
“On those occasions when our officers will arrest one of them, they will have anywhere between four hundred and seven hundred dollars on them that in one day they got from the good citizens of the city of Redlands,” Foster said. “And they’ll get back into their nice car, and they’ll drive away. They do not have a problem.”
Foster asked that the citizens of Redlands stop giving the homeless population money, which is “contributing to the problem.”
In the Q&A session held at the end of Foster’s presentation, a question was raised by Kamal Bilal, president of the Associated Students of the University of Redlands, about the other two subgroups, asking why the city is spending their money on projects like street renovations before the mental health of the city’s homeless population.
“The citizens of this community that are taxpayers expect certain things to be done first, and what I’ve described to you is what they expect to be done first,” Foster explained. “If there was a lot of extra money left at the end of the day maybe we could look at some of those things … it’s a difficult choice to make. We are not a social service agency.”
Foster also expressed uncertainty about how to satisfy the dichotomy of the constituents he serves.
“The issue of homelessness for example is causing two big emotional groups to collide,” Foster said. “It’s the group I think you represent – those that would like us to deal with those types of issues. They are represented by our faith-based organizations. Those that want to care for and reach out to that population. And then there are the other people – the business owners, the residents that keep getting accosted by this population, our police officers who are just feeling frustrated. The two are on totally different agendas, and my colleagues and I are in the middle. I don’t know how we’re going to keep them from colliding.”
Foster made clear that the municipal government is grappling with the issue, but has yet to come up with any real solution that satisfies both sides of his constituency.
Lastly, Foster ended his presentation addressing the impact of rising online holiday shopping on the city.
“Nationally, the rate of online purchases has gone up about thirteen percent,” Foster explained. “Its due to go up annually by four to six percent every year. Remember that a city only makes its revenue from property tax and sales tax. So as sales tax goes down from all of you nice young people out there pressing those little buttons [online], it hurts us. It hurts our ability to continue to deliver services that all of you depend on.”
Foster reminded his audience to frequent downtown businesses and elsewhere in the city “to the greatest extent they can” to do their holiday shopping, before he sat down to field questions from the audience.
Mayor Foster’s term ends at the end of 2018. Elections will be held in November, and he is considering running for reelection next Fall.
photos courtesy of Halie West, Redlands Bulldog photo editor