La Palma, California –
When things get tough, it’s often the little guys that get hurt the worst. And after the recession, Orange County’s smallest city is in the midst of some very big belt-tightening.
Welcome to La Palma, all 1.8 square miles of it.
Since the recession, the city cut nearly 20 percent of its workforce, to 52 employees from 64.
The changes included reducing the police force to 27 from 32 over six years and more recently implementing more layoffs, combining several civilian departments and eliminating two directors. In July, the City Council created a citizens Financial Sustainability Committee to oversee operations and investigate additional efficiencies.
That’s not all. The city is considering suspending its signature event, La Palma Days, a festival the city points out is also known as the “official Veterans Day parade of Orange County.”
La Palma Days is firmly on the calendar for Nov. 14. But this year is special. The city celebrates its 60th anniversary of incorporation and its 50th anniversary of changing the town’s name from Dairyland to La Palma.
Yes, it would be a shame to suspend the event after such an auspicious year. But revenues are down; pension and other expenses are up. And in establishing the finance committee, the council warned: “The types of measures beyond those already enacted and planned may impact the character and traditions of the city.”
But don’t mistake small for weak. Fiercely independent, La Palma has plenty of pride and more than a few surprises. Money Magazine in 2011, 2013 and 2015 named the city one of the best places to live.
DIVERSITY OF CULTURES
The face of Orange County is changing quickly. Guess which O.C. city has the largest percentage of Asian residents? I would pick Garden Grove or Westminster, maybe Irvine.
Of course, the answer is … La Palma. With an Asian demographic of 48.1 percent, according to the U.S. census, La Palma noses out Westminster. While small at nearly 16,000 residents, La Palma also has the highest percentage of African Americans – 5.2 percent – of any Orange County city.
Cruising La Palma is a treat. Within a few blocks, you can find restaurants specializing in Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean cuisines.
City Manager Ellen Volmert is at the wheel as school lets out and mentions that nearly 20 percent of La Palma is Korean. She reports that city officials visit Korea and are in the early stages of developing more permanent connections.
We pass an area where new houses are proposed. Mind you, the development is nothing like what we see in Irvine, Tustin, Lake Forest or Yorba Linda, where thousands of homes are under construction. In La Palma, on what was a small strawberry farm, seven homes are expected.
Still, it’s a good sign. Register columnist Jonathan Lansner reported in July that La Palma was an especially hot housing market, with homes selling within 33.4 days. He noted low home prices likely were part of the reason; in July, La Palma had a median price of $560,000.
Volmert turns onto Dallas Drive. It looks like a typical cul de sac. But visit this area during the holiday season and be prepared for traffic jams. Christmas decorations cover lawns, holiday lights glow.
The city manager beams. It is that kind of neighborliness that makes living in the smallest city special.
To help increase revenue, La Palma has several projects in the works. Each is modest, the kind you’d expect from a city that was designed as a bedroom community and still prides itself for its “small-town character.”
One project involves allowing La Palma to erect several commercial billboards along the 91 freeway. Sure we’re not talking big money, but we are talking six figures. And every little bit quickly adds up.
Another project is Centerpointe, the city’s mixed commercial development north of the 91. Centerpointe dates to the early 1980s and has been updated several times.
It offers hotels, restaurants and office space including La Quinta Inn, Kaiser Permanente, A’Roma Ristorante, Samsung Chemical, CJ Foods.
FIVE SCHOOL DISTRICTS
Because of a quirk in history, there is at least one weird thing about La Palma – a city you can walk across in a half-hour. It’s served by five school districts: Anaheim Union, Centralia, Cypress, Fullerton and Buena Park.
Understand, when those districts were fashioned in the late 1800s, the area was cow country. With far more cows than kids, no one paid attention to the mishmash of school districts.
As I leave the city, I visit John F. Kennedy High. The school opened less than a year after Kennedy was assassinated and became one of the first schools named after our 35th president.
Emblazoned on one wall is Kennedy’s famous inaugural statement: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
In an age of Facebook and Twitter, the quote would probably take the country by storm for 15 minutes. And then disappear. Yet it remains as vital a call as the day it was made more than a half-century ago.
It is a national call carried on the broad shoulders of one very small city.
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