Health, business top priorities

Mayor Racquel Vasquez running for reelection in Lemon Grove. She is the first African-American female mayor in the city of Lemon Grove and San Diego County. She said that right now, Lemon Grove is experiencing a situation compared to no other. A huge deficit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on local businesses.

“I say that because we have the safety and well-being of people at stake here, but also, racial issues bubbling up daily and then the collapse of our economy. That is a heavy load to lift,” she said.

Vasquez said it is challenging to ensure that the city stays the course with a vision while protecting each other.

“Dealing with COVID is a challenge for each and every one of us,” she said. “I think the most important thing is that we continue to care about the health and well-being of each other.”

Vasquez’s vision came from the voters of Lemon Grove and over the years they have stated they want a safe, business-friendly city with a small-town charm that offers art, culture and recreational opportunities for everyone to enjoy.

She said taking that into consideration, during her first term, the city tried to touch every single area on a meager budget. “We have made some significant strides, but there is so much more to do,” she said.

The Democrat said that Lemon Grove has demonstrated that even through the pandemic, it can still do business. At the beginning of the pandemic, she said the projected budget shortfall was $1.8 million and now it is $1.5 million.

“We continue to follow the guidelines set by state and county health agencies, but also, we are able to continue to do business. And that is our goal,” she said.

Vasquez said that disincorporation is not the answer and that she wants Lemon Grove to grow and prosper as a city. Her vision is to support the people, but also the founders of the city. She said there are ways to ensure that the budget is sound and move forward with projects and programs that benefit people today and their children of tomorrow.

Vasquez said there is highly qualified staff working tirelessly to attract new business to the city, and even though it sits in the midst of COVID, it currently has 272 storefronts and home-based business permits on file, with new businesses coming soon.

“The impacts that we are all feeling from COVID is significant,” she said. “We set aside $650,000 in CARES Act funds in grants for small businesses to help them sustain their operations. It covered the cost of COVID required upgrades, with 73 businesses receiving grants ranging from $5,000 to $10,000.”

Vasquez said 33% of the people in Lemon Grove are not working and the last thing they need to worry about is food on the table. With a food distribution every Saturday since April, to date it has provided over 3,000 carloads of food.

Vasquez said the City has made major strides forward.

“Looking at those accomplishments, it makes me proud that citizens came forward to support the vision, but also a group of elected leaders have dedicated their time ensuring that we do our very best with the money that we have,” she said.

Lemon Grove’s annual budget is $14.7 million and nearly 80% is spent on public safety. Vasquez said that they have looked at creative ways to work on the deficit.

She said when she came into office, she had an independent audit done, which revealed several accounts that were misrepresented, staff being paid out of gas tax and sewer fees and revealed a deficit that had been hidden for 20 years.

“We fixed all of that,” she said. “At that time, the credit score for the city was a BBB-. That means that the city cannot bond or get a loan.”

Vasquez said the budget system in place is understandable now by the average person and that the city’s credit score is now BBB+, and positions the city as a financially viable city. And if the structural deficit can be fixed the city could get to a score of A-. “We would have money to start making improvements in the city and that is what truly matters. Things that people can touch and feel and see,” she said.

Vasquez said Lemon Grove is dealing with a long-term structural deficit that did not happen in four years and it is something that needs to be addressed.

“We can do this because other cities surrounding Lemon Grove have done it and it is proven and effective,” she said. “That is how La Mesa, El Cajon, National City and Chula Vista have been able to balance their budgets. We can do the same. We deserve better and we just have to step up, hold hands in unity to support the vision of our future.”