Fire department is hot topic at town hall meeting

DOWNEY - A near standing-room only crowd packed the auditorium inside the Barbara J. Riley Community and Senior Center on Wednesday night for Councilman Mario Guerra's annual town hall meeting, where the sixth-year councilman delivered promising economic updates but warned against a "coup" to disband the Downey Fire Department. Guerra's forum came a week after a former city worker proposed a ballot initiative that would take away the public's right to decide whether to disband the police and fire departments and contract with L.A. County and put the decision in the hands of the City Council.

Guerra called the ballot initiative "disingenuous at best, a coup at worst."

"Folks, we have one of the best fire departments around, and we'll work hard to keep them," Guerra told the crowd.

The union representing Downey firefighters proposed a possible switch to L.A. County Fire this past summer, when the city took a fire engine out of service in south Downey, a move that saved Downey $1.8 million.

Losing the fire engine, however, increased firefighter response times by 33 seconds in the southwest quadrant of Downey and 16 seconds citywide.

Guerra said the move was necessary because 90 percent of the fire department's $16.7 million budget is allocated to salaries and benefits. "There's nowhere else to cut," he said.

Any potential savings from contracting with L.A. County Fire would be negated with a reduction in service, Guerra said, using the Downey Police Department and Norwalk's Sheriff's Station as examples.

"Downey and Norwalk are very similar in population...Norwalk pays $11 million for its sheriff's contract, we pay $29 million for our police department," Guerra said. "Norwalk is a fine city, but folks, you get what you pay for."

Guerra did say the fire engine will eventually be put back in service, although he would like to see two additional paramedic squads since the majority of fire department calls are medical related.

Regarding crime, Guerra said crime in Downey is down 15 percent almost across the board. Only aggravated assaults saw an increase of 3 percent. Even motor vehicle thefts, long a sore spot in Downey, have declined. According to Guerra, no vehicles have been stolen from Downtown Downey since last December, a result of a security company hired to patrol the downtown area.

Sales tax revenue is projected to be up 9.3 percent from last year, according a PowerPoint slide. Guerra said he and Mayor Pro Tem David Gafin make up a budget subcommittee that meets each month to ensure the city stays within its spending plan. Economic figures have perked up to the point that city workers will take only six furlough days instead of the eight they had originally agreed to, Guerra said.

"We want our city workers to know we're all in this together," he said.

The local economy will be further boosted when Downey Gateway, the food court at Firestone Boulevard and Downey Avenue, opens within the next several months. Ten new restaurants will open downtown in the next eight months, Guerra said.

Tierra Luna, the $400 million retail project replacing Downey Studios, will have high-end retailers and restaurants along the lines of PF Changs and Yardhouse, Guerra said. When complete, the former Boeing property will be "160 acres of great stuff," the councilman said.

Guerra thanked his predecessors on the city council for securing the land and ensuring its new use, which now includes the Kaiser Permanente hospital, Columbia Memorial Space Center, Discovery Sports Complex and Downey Landing. Guerra also spoke briefly about smaller projects, including

*a condominium development next to Chris 'N Pitts at Lakewood Boulevard and Gallatin Road. Condo units will be 3-4 bedrooms in size and available for purchase;

*the Walmart Neighborhood Market on Paramount Boulevard, which will be the south Downey area's only grocery store when it opens Nov. 7. Walmart received more than 4,200 job applicants and will hire between 65-100 people. It's also donating to Downey-based non-profits;

*the downtown affordable housing project known as The View. The apartment building will accept families earning between $25,000-$67,000 and will not accept Section 8 housing. "It will be the nicest apartment building in Downey," Guerra said;

*Inspiration, the city's full-size space shuttle mock-up, is currently housed inside a temporary tent while the city tries to raise money for a permanent shelter next to the space center;

Guerra touched on several other topics as well, including a veterans memorial scheduled to be unveiled outside City Hall on Nov. 12; plans to remodel Firestone Boulevard and add decorative landscaping and center medians, while removing street parking to clear up traffic (construction could start in January); and ongoing efforts to increase public art.

Scheduled to become mayor in December, Guerra also laid out several goals for the coming year, chief among them to keep the Downey Fire Department intact.

Beyond that, Guerra also endorsed a community health initiative introduced by Councilman Fernando Vasquez earlier this year. Guerra suggested community walks, with a citywide goal of walking 1 million miles in 2013.

He also plans commemorations for the 10-year anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center's 125th anniversary, Downey's 140-year anniversary since its founding in 1873, and the U.S. Army's birthday.

Responding to residents' questions, Guerra revealed more information, including that In-N-Out "is very interested in expanding in our city" and that the Beach's Market and Sambi's restaurant properties are in escrow.

Downey Nissan is outperforming the Nissan dealership in Cerritos, Guerra said, and Honda World Downey is among the top Honda dealerships in the country.

One issue without an easy answer is homelessness in Downey. A recent survey revealed there are 84 homeless students in Downey, including 14 at Downey High and 12 at Warren High.

"We have an obligation to do something, but I don't know what the answer is," Guerra said.

********** Published: October 18, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 27