Beaumont Pt. 2: Back From Civic Scandal, IE City Doubles Down On Dealing With Growth
The population of the city of Beaumont has nearly quadrupled over the past two decades. That prompted KVCR listener Mario Gonzalez to ask us: with all the people moving to Beaumont, what are the plans to build more schools and infrastructure to keep up? In Part 1 of our series, we reported on Beaumont's plans to build more schools. In part 2, we're looking at plans to build more infrastructure in the aftermath of a major public corruption scandal. KVCR Reporter Danielle Fox has the story.
Mario Gonzalez moved to Beaumont three years ago. He’d heard about the affordable homes and highly-rated schools. But one thing he didn’t know was that the city was just emerging from a massive public corruption scandal.
“I know there’s a lot of people wondering what’s happening just because you know with the local government, there’s still that cloud of scandal in the past,” he said.
In December 2017, four former Beaumont officials pleaded guilty to public corruption charges, including embezzlement, misappropriation of public funds, and conflict of interest. The investigation that nabbed the officials alleged that they diverted $43 million from the regional transportation program, the Western Riverside Council of Governments (WR-COG), between 2003 and 2009. Tied up in the scandal was practically a whole city bureaucracy — the former City Manager, the past Finance Director, previous Planning Director, ex-Economic Development Director, and the list goes on.
Municipal governments in Riverside County pool their Transportation Uniform Mitigation Fee (TUMF) money to fund regional infrastructure projects, like roads and bridges. But instead of handing money over to the regional program as required by law, Beaumont officials held onto the TUMF money and used it on projects in the city, awarding work to their own companies. Eventually, WR-COG, the group that oversees the TUMF money, sued the city for not paying its dues.
Learning about all this prompted Gonzalez to ask The Inland a question — KVCR’s community reporting project. He wanted to know, as more and more people move to Beaumont, how is infrastructure going to keep up, especially given the corruption scandal that shook the city.
Infrastructure overlooked in cloud of corruption
Beaumont City councilman and former mayor Mike Lara said the aftermath of the scandal significantly tapped out the city’s resources, stifling the pace of new infrastructure projects.
“We had a $64 million settlement that was hanging over the city. We had numerous other lawsuits that were hanging over the city. We’ve been investigated by the F.B.I, the State Auditor Controller. We’ve been investigated by the Security Exchange Commission, so these were all pulling on our resources both financial and staffing wise in directions outside of looking at and focusing on the infrastructure,” he said.
Beaumont Mayor Nancy Carroll said keeping up with infrastructure was tough after the city was nearly insolvent back in 2015. But she said that now, things are changing.
“What we’re doing now is we have gone full bore on trying to ramp up the infrastructure and catch up as much as we can,” she said.
Beaumont’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan
In 2017, City Council approved a five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for Beaumont to improve and build new roads, and expand the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Carroll said a lot of the traffic improvements will be connections to the 10.
“If you string along the 10, almost all of these are just connectors to where people need to have better access,” she said. “They drive it to their jobs, they cut across the city, they need to take their kids to school. We need to keep all of these access points off the 10 as sufficient and as up to snuff as possible.”
Expanding Beaumont’s wastewater plant is also long overdue. Councilman Lara said when he first got on council in 2014, the plant was already at 75 percent capacity, which is the maximum capacity you can be at before the State Water Quality Control Board starts to ask what’s up.
“Right now the sewer capacity of our wastewater treatment plant is at 4 million gallons. So we’re at 75 percent of that already, and so this new expansion will increase that capacity to 6 million gallons,” Lara said. “And one of the things this council asked staff to do was to plan ahead for future infrastructure, so all the underground infrastructure for the sewer plant is designed at 8 million gallons.”
If you build it, how do you pay for it?
To cover the costs, the city is getting funding from a variety of sources, including sales taxes, the gas tax, developer impact fees, special assessments (CFD), and the city’s general fund. The wastewater treatment plant project will be solely supported by sewer fees, the wastewater rates customers pay on their bi-monthly sewer bill.
In the financial breakdown of projects, developer fees cover roughly 24 percent of the total estimated cost. Some Beaumont community members feel overloaded by the tax contributions they’re putting towards all of the infrastructure.
“Why should we be saddled with all the costs for all the people moving in? In other words, why is this area growing so fast and taking all the resources from those of us that have been here because the developers are off the hook,” said Judy Bingham.
She’s a longtime Beaumont resident who tried calling attention to the city’s botched finances for years, insisting that people look into what former City Manager Alan Kapanicas was doing. Today, she said she’s frustrated that community members are paying for infrastructure all over again — infrastructure that was supposed to have been built years ago when the corrupt city officials were in charge.
“But here’s the problem, [the people] were paying those taxes thinking that was going to pay for the infrastructure. That’s the problem in this town. They paid their taxes, but the infrastructure never got built,” she said.
What Bingham’s referring to is how financial bonds played a role in enriching the Beaumont officials charged with corruption. What happened exactly gets deep into some financial weeds. But the gist of it is when Beaumont was growing during the 90s and late 2000s, infrastructure needed to be built, so the city issued bonds to pay for the improvements. With many of the disgraced officials running city government, bonds were issued and then the men would field out consulting work to their own companies.
Bingham said she feels like current city officials are trying to develop their way out of debt, which isn’t helping the community.
“They are trying to develop this whole area and you know, you’ve got to have 20 years of a water supply in order to keep up with the growth. We’re in overdraft,” she said.
Though infrastructure has had a hard time keeping up with the rapid growth, Councilman Lara said he’s confident that Beaumont is turning a corner and thinking critically about development.
“It’s not just allowing developers to build for the sake of building, but making sure that they do smart development and we look at infrastructure as a part of that,” he said.
A new resident’s take on where Beaumont is headed
Depending on who you ask in the city of Beaumont, you’ll get a wide range of reactions when asking about how infrastructure is keeping up with influx. So I reached back out to Gonzalez, The Inland question-asker, to hear his perspective as a relatively new Beaumont resident.
He was excited to hear about the Capital Improvement Plan, and as for the rapid development in town, he said he doesn’t mind it. Though learning about how the past corruption scandal has impacted infrastructure is frustrating.
“I’m not opposed to new development coming in. To me, I think it will be really good for the town and also it’s going to provide jobs, too,” he said. “It’s a little disheartening to know that the past corruption is affecting residents now but it is refreshing to hear that Mr. Lara and Nancy Carroll seem like they’re putting the city back on track, and not just taking future development into account but also trying to fix what’s already existing.
But he sees where residents like Bingham are coming from, and he’s glad that there are people in town trying to hold local government accountable.
Gonzalez said, next on his list: taking everything we discussed back to his neighbors. First to share what he learned about how all the rapid growth is impacting Beaumont, and then to grow community power to help improve the situation.
This series was inspired by KVCR listener Mario Gonzalez, who asked our community reporting project, The Inland, a question.
If you have a question about the Inland Empire, ask The Inland. You ask, we put your questions up for a vote, the public decides which topic we should investigate, and then we go out and report back with answers.