Incumbent Craig Vejvoda is facing three challengers for Tulare City Council District 5: Suzanna Aguilera-Marrero, Margee Fallert, and Greg Nunley.
According to the challengers, the biggest issue facing Vejvoda’s 12-year incumbency is the lack of residential and commercial development. Fallert and Nunley both expressed a deep dissatisfaction with rate of development in Tulare. Vejvoda’s philosophy is to put out the red carpet and not the red tape. He conceded though that, “we could do better.”
Aguilera-Marrero was not available for a detailed interview but said in an email her focus, if elected, would be, “public safety, access to health care, education, economic growth, infrastructure and strategizing how the city will prioritize, fund, manage and monitor each.”
Vejvoda’s two main priorities for the next four years are public safety and economic development. He said those have always been his number one and two priorities since taking office 12 years ago. “Public safety is always first and foremost on everyone’s mind and it’s something we do a good job at with the city council.”
Vejvoda’s priority concerning economic development is to bring in new businesses that will create jobs and encourage Tulareans to shop local. One community need he sees is recruiting a major grocery chain. He would like to see a store such as Savemart come to town to give residents a better choice when shopping for groceries and to keep them from grocery shopping in Visalia.
Tulare’s main source of income is sales tax, said Vejvoda, so the city council retained a company called Retail Strategies as a business recruiting partner. Vejvoda explained that Retail Strategies works like a match maker between businesses and cities, matching their demographics, traffic and available buildings to prospective businesses. The ultimate goal of hiring the company is to bring new retail to Tulare.
The city signed a three-year, $100,000 contract with Retail Strategies that represents about one third of its business development budget.
Fallert and Nunley felt that Tulare’s economic development has been stagnant for years.
Fallert, former Tulare Deputy Manager, said that, “When you look at where Tulare is sitting in terms of growth in comparison to Porterville, Visalia and Hanford, we have fallen behind the curve.” Greg Nunley, a real estate developer, said that “I want to be very vocal and very pro-growth.” When told that other city council members want to roll out the red carpet to business he said, “That is solely untruthful. There is no red carpet.”
Nunley challenged anyone to name one new business that has opened in Tulare in the last five years. He only knows of one and that is a carwash.
Fallert’s main goal if elected is to see a turnaround in the planning department. She said that Tulare laid off its planning staff about two years ago and outsourced the city’s planners to a Visalia firm. Fallert pointed out that, ironically, the layoffs did not happen during the recession but during the recovery.
Smaller communities such as Farmersville, Delano and Sanger have their own planning departments and provide full city services to developers said Fallert. That is something she wants to see in Tulare. She says the residents deserve better and have paid for it because Tulare is one of the highest taxed communities in California.
Nunley said that the Valley is in a building boom right now but nothing is going on in Tulare. “We are going to miss our window of opportunity.”
Because Tulare contracts out its planning services there are very restrictive counter hours available to builders who might show up from out of town. Nunely said if a developer comes in to look at pulling building permits they will leave empty handed. “The curtain is pulled down and business is closed for the city,” Nunley said.
Nunley had a conversation with a current councilmember who didn’t seem to understand the connection between residential and commercial development. The councilmember was stuck on the fact that residential properties only represent 1% of the tax base revenue in terms of property taxes. Nunley tried to explain that if Tulare wants more commercial development then it needs more rooftops. While the increase in property taxes for new residential might be minimal, new homes bring new shoppers and raises the sales tax base. More shoppers also make the city look attractive to outside businesses.
“If you don’t have community growth you are not going to get more businesses. Smart growth, consistent growth, means more places to shop and eat so people don’t have to go to Visalia for these things,” he said.
“If we don’t grow it will affect property values and then people will want to move away.”
Nunley was born and raised in Tulare and said he is sick of seeing people leave for other cities for lack of opportunities. He reiterated what Fallert said about Hanford, Porterville and Delano. “They are doing 100% better than we are.”
Nunley said that Tulare’s falling behind is because of a lack of leadership. He said it’s not the city staff’s fault, which he thinks does a good job. He blames the city council and the last city manager, Don Dorman for Tulare’s stagnant development. Dorman retired earlier this year and was replaced by interim city manager Paul Melikian.
Vice-Mayor Carlton Jones agreed with Nunley ,saying, “I celebrate Dorman leaving. He wasn’t a good fit for Tulare.”
Fallert was put on administrative leave while serving as Deputy City Manager under Dorman. She says the reason was because of personal differences on which way the city should go. “I worked under five different city managers over the last 25 years and I have a lot of good things to say about them. But this last manager was interesting.”
She said she received the best mentoring under former Tulare City Manager Kevin Northcraft, who she felt did an excellent job. She said he was prudent with city funds, overseeing the new library and city hall. She was excited about the fact that Northcraft is currently running for Tulare Regional Health Center Board.
Nunley expressed the same skepticism about Tulare’s water system problems as Jones. Jones was the lone city council member to vote against the water rate increase because he said the fire suppression test required for cities showed the system was excellent. Nunley tested the water pressure himself for 30 days and found that the pressure never dipped under 55 pounds.
Nunely has heard that Tulare has a water infrastructure problem that is so bad the city must restrict growth. He questioned if that is true. “Then why did they let it get that bad?”
Nunley doesn’t necessarily believe that is completely true, though.
His theory is that the city attorney gave the council bad advice on pursuing a legal fight in connecting Matheny Tract, a rural subdivision, to Tulare’s water system. The development was ultimately connected to Tulare’s system and everything has been fine, Nunley said. “Tulare lost that battle and obviously the advice they got was wrong. I think the water problem is hocus pocus.”
Candidates bring different backgrounds to the table
All of the candidates are life-long residents of Tulare County, with Vejvoda arriving as a second-grader to Tulare’s grade school from the Mid-West. His father was a teacher in Nebraska while California was experiencing a shortage of teachers. Recruiters would show up after a blizzard and show seasoned teachers pictures of California beaches. The Vejvoda family moved soon after and his father taught at Tulare Union High School.
Vejvoda started with the company Bankers Life as a financial advisor and has been there for 33 years. He is the vice-chair of Tulare County Association of Governments and past president and current board member of the Economic Development Corporation of Tulare County. He is also on the board for the California League of Cities representing the 38 cities that make up the Central Valley.
Serving on the city council is just an extension of his public service. He is a volunteer every year at the World Ag-Expo, and is past chair of Relay for Life. He is also a member of Kiwanis and the Rotary Club. “It’s part of what I do. I want to leave a place better than I found it.”
Fallart has 25 years working in public service. She started at the Tulare Public Works Department, focusing mainly on economic development. Then she was promoted to Public Works director, where she negotiated work contracts for city employees. “It will be interesting to be on the other side of the table,” she said. She retired last February as the Deputy City Manager. She graduated from Fresno State with an Ag Business degree and married right out of college
Aguilera-Marrero was born and raised in Porterville and has lived in Tulare the last 15 years. She was unable to be interviewed but said in an email, “I have served and been chairs/presidents on Associations, Organizations, Clubs, Boards, Committees for youth, church, community, state and federal level. I want to help and serve the growth of Tulare youth, families, and community with public safety, education and economy. I have the courage with desire to advocate for the good if our youth, families and community.”
Aguilera-Marrero said she would be the best choice for city council because, “I will serve you, I will listen to your needs, I will advocate for your fair share of city resources, I will represent with honesty, credibility and integrity.”
Nunley’s background is in architecture, construction and development. He has built several subdivisions in Tulare County. He was born in Tulare hospital and has six children with his wife, Michelle, who is the principal of Tulare Union high school.