Six Weeks Into Her Administration, Molina’s Promotion & Managerial Bona Fides Under Question

A month-and-a-half after Rachel Molina’s elevation to the position of Hesperia city manager was finalized, making her the second of the county’s current 24 municipal managers, questions are emerging about whether her skill set is adequate to the task.
Intrinsic to that question is not only the nature of the Hesperia managerial assignment – one that is considered, arguably, because of the size of Hesperia and a host of its historical, geographical and jurisdictional aspects to be the most challenging such job in the county – but the unseemly circumstance that precipitated her positioning to promote into the city manager’s post.
At present, Hesperia, at 73.209 square miles, is, among San Bernardino County’s 24 cities and incorporated towns, its third largest geographically, ranking behind neighboring Apple Valley and Victorville, at 77.08 square miles and 74.01 square miles, respectively. More than its sheer size, Hesperia faces a host of difficulties.
Hesperia is dealing with multiple negative legacies, some of which came into existence with or after its 1988 incorporation and others which accompanied or were a consequence of the community’s creation.
The first such legacy is the Santa Fe railroad’s bifurcation of the city.
In the 1880s, when Jacob Nash Victor, the civil engineer overseeing the construction of the rail line between Barstow and Colton on behalf of the California Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, he laid that line through what is today Hesperia, in so doing creating the community. The township of Hesperia grew up around the rail line, rather to one side of it, and in the fullness of time, that rail line became a division in the city, a very real physical barrier.
With a slight degree of curvature and variance mostly at the north end, the rail line runs essentially on a straight line through the city south south southwest moving south or north north northwest moving north, such that it divides the city east from west. The railroad tracks can be forded only at Bear Valley Road on the city’s extreme north end, by means of the Myra McGinnis Bridge on Main Street in the central part of the city and the Ranchero Underpass at the city’s south end. Santa Fe Avenue West and Santa Fe Avenue East parallels it through much of the city. The east-west streets Sequoia, Pitache, Capri, Donert, Manzanita, Trinity, Sycamore, Alder, Birch, Catalpa, Hackberry, Eucalyptus, Lilac, Deodar, Mesa, Lemon, Mauna Loa, Mojave, Hercules, Willow, Vine, Live Oak, Pine, Cajon, Chestnut, Smoke Tree, Spruce, Juniper and Yucca, 29 all of which lie between Bear Valley Road and Main Street, are divided east from west along the railroad tracks. Walnut, Orange, Olive, Sultana, Muscatel, Lime, Palm, Elm, Joshua, Sage, Cactus, Allthorn, Mesquite, Bodart, Ash, Mission, Fremontia, Fir, Adelia, Larch and Rodeo streets and El Centro Road lying between Main Street and Ranchero are all prevented from meeting one another east and west of the railroad tracks. In this way, Hesperia is a city that is largely divided from itself, such that going from the east of the city to the west or vice versa often entails a commuting delay. Overcoming this problem is expensive, as the most recent fix to the dilemma, consisting of the Ranchero Underpass completed and opened in 2013, cost $27 million in 2006 dollars.
Thus, the entity that might be credited with being most responsible for creating Hesperia – the Santa Fe Railroad – is equally responsible for saddling Hesperia with an intractable problem, a physical and geographical division that it has yet, despite the best minds available to it during its prehistory and its 35 years as a city, been unable to solve. While certainly this is not a problem of Molina’s creation nor one which can be laid at her feet, she is at this stage the one individual personally responsible for seeking a solution. As it stands, the railroad is not amenable to allowing grade crossings at any of the 51 prospective spots where traffic might move from the east side of the city to the west or vice-versa, and Molina has not taken the initiative to begin that dialogue.
A second and perhaps even more daunting legacy is that of Penn Phillips, the father of modern Hesperia.
Born Marion Penn Phillips on June 13, 1887 in Parsons, Kansas, in the 1920s he became involved in real estate speculation and promotion, undertaking the development of Clear Lake Highland, and completed Frazier Mountain Park near Bakersfield in 1924, and a development known as the Avocado Farms near Vista in 1926. He developed large tracts in the Las Vegas basin in 1927, the development of 5,800 lots and 18,000 acres of land in the area around Coos Bay, Oregon between 1929 and 1933, and had built, in association with former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey the famed Hotel Del Pacifico in Ensenada Mexico in 1931. From 1929 to 1932 he bought and sold more than 60,000 acres of undeveloped land in the Colorado River basin.
During the Second World War, Phillips was executive vice-chairman of the U.S. Treasury Department War Finance Committee for Southern California and following the war he developed and sold thousands of acres in Palmdale, Lancaster, Victorville, Apple Valley, Barstow and Newberry Valley.
He was serving as the vice-president and director of Standard Federal Savings and Loan Association of Los Angeles in in the early 1950s, at which time he created the Omart Investment Company. On April 22, 1954, what was billed as the largest private land sale in Southern California in 35 years was consummated with the Omart Investment Company’s purchase of a 36-square mile tract seven miles south of Victorville, representing roughly 90 percent of the entire township of Hesperia, for $1.25 million from the Appleton Land and Water Company and the Lacey Estate, which had owned the land jointly since 1888. Phillips, as the president of Omart, signed the land transfer documents at Pioneer Title and Insurance Company in San Bernardino.
Phillips simultaneously announced his intention to spend $8.25 million through the Hesperia Land Company, a subsidiary of Omart Investment Company, to prepare the property for development, indicating 1,000 acres of the property was to be allocated to industrial development, 8,000 acres for agriculture and that 5,000 homes would be built along with a two-and-one-half mile-long-and-one-quarter-mile-wide artificial lake, and a resort section.
Involved with Phillips in the Hesperia venture were Jack Dempsey as well as Charles Allen, vice-president of E.F. Hutton and Company of New York City; Fresno-based attorney Milo E. Rowell, Nat Mendelsohn of Riverside; Philip J. Farrar of Fresno; along with Los Angeles investment brokers Dan Christy and Henry Paul Willis.
Within a week Phillips and Dempsey announce plans to renovate the Hesperia Hotel, which had been dormant since 1926.
Using the Hesperia Land Development and Hesperia Sales Corporation, which worked to promote his concept of the U-Finish Home, mass-produced housing units that were completely finished on the outside, leaving the buyer to complete the interior. He secured water rights to support this community through the newly created Mojave Water Agency, of which he was a founding member.
The formula Phillips applied in Hesperia was much like the one he used with his developments elsewhere: secure land, build homes on it, put in the minimal amount of infrastructure to make the homes habitable, bring in a population that creates the basis for a community that includes momentum for establishing some form of a jurisdictional governmental agency, sell all of the parcels acquired, take a profit and move on to the next development elsewhere.
Phillips built roads for Hesperia that were of a decidedly low standard, consisting of a mixture of desert sand used as aggregate and bitumen to create a road that was no more than one-and-a-half inches thick. The roads, when new, looked good, but under the withering desert sun and use, began to deteriorate within three to four years. The flash floods the desert is prone to further washed out the roads over the following decades, leaving many of Hesperia’s streets in poor condition, including some that eventually returned to being nothing more than dirt roads.
Phillips was equally irresponsible in the creation of the town’s water system. Though he started with the tremendous advantage of Hesperia being blessed with a world-class water supply, he squandered that asset in his head-long pursuit of a profit. Hesperia lies near the headwaters of the Mojave River, the watershed area north of the San Bernardino Mountains, a pristine and perpetually recharged water supply created by melting snow and overflowing rainwater from the heights southeast of Hesperia. The water system Phillips created for Hesperia consisted in large part of pipes cannibalized from a petroleum conveyance operation from depleted oil fields. Thus, the Hesperia Water Company, capturing water at the foot of the mountain before it rushed forward to become the Mojave River and wend out into the desert, used substandard pipes, which compromised the quality of the product provided to Hesperia for domestic use.
In this way, Phillips created what would become Hesperia’s initial infrastructure deficit. In the nearly sixty-five years since Phillips took his final leave of Hesperia, the city has struggled to overcome its inferior infrastructure foundation.
When Hesperia became a city in 1988, it was poorly served by the incorporation committee that had succeeded in obtaining that milestone, hard-nosed bargaining by county representatives and other competing entities and partially as a consequence of the shortsightedness, lack of sophistication and haste on the part of those participating in the process on Hesperia’s behalf. The property tax allocation formula for local governments in San Bernardino County is a complicated one under which there is no uniformity city to city. Previous to Hesperia’s incorporation in 1988, when the county directly provided many of the services to the community along with the previously existing Hesperia Recreation and Park District, the Hesperia Fire District and the Hesperia Water District, that formula was somewhat less arcane. Upon incorporation, city officials failed to broker a very favorable split of property taxes with the county.
Like many of the cities that incorporated after the passage of Proposition 13, Hesperia was given a less-than-generous allotment of the diminishing property tax stream. This was a particularly harsh circumstance for Hesperia, which at 73 square miles, had over 473 miles of roads, many of them neglected and deteriorating.
The city was allotted a mere 1.59 percent of the property tax revenue – $1.59 of every $100 collected. That was the second smallest allotment of any of the cities in the county at that time and it is now the paltriest property tax share of any of the county’s current incorporated cities. At present, the county of San Bernardino keeps 14.23 cents of every property tax dollar collected in Hesperia. Indeed, in Hesperia there is a fifteen way split of property tax. The other thirteen beneficiaries of the property tax rolls are the Hesperia Unified School District, which is given 29.5 percent; another 21.41 percent goes to the Education Revenue Augmentation Fund, most of which comes back to the school district; the Hesperia Fire Protection District pulls in 15.3 percent, nearly ten times what the city receives; The Victor Valley Community College District claims 6.4 percent; the Hesperia Recreation and Park District is given 4.3 percent. The county’s flood control district claims 2.2 percent for operations and 0.09 percent for administration; the county library system takes 1.38 percent; the Hesperia Water District is provided 1.03 percent; Community Services Area 60, which lies at the city’s periphery, is entitled to 0.99 percent; the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools accroaches 0.97 percent; the Mojave Water Agency abducts 0.50%; and the Mojave Desert Resource Conservation District nabs 0.02 percent.
Hesperia was not the only city in the county which formerly found itself shortchanged with regard to the division of property tax. Chino Hills, which incorporated in 1991; Apple Valley, which like Hesperia incorporated in 1988; Highland, which incorporated in 1987; Victorville, which incorporated in 1962; Rancho Cucamonga, which incorporated in 1977; Fontana, which incorporated in 1952; and Adelanto, which incorporated in 1970 found themselves in similar circumstances, with Victorville at that time being allotted no return in property tax at all. In no case were any of those cities formerly experiencing more than a 5.2 percent return of property tax collected within their respective borders. In 2003, the county agreed to allot all of those cities 7 percent of the property tax on any land annexed into those cities after that point. Also, several of the cities, individually and collectively pursued litigation and legislation sponsored by local state lawmakers aimed at upping those cities’ property tax revenue.
Hesperia participated in those efforts. The first legislative effort in this regard, Assembly Bill 1057, failed on the Senate floor in 1999. Subsequently, then-Assemblyman Phil Wyman introduced Assembly Bill 1378, which was designed to give Hesperia a larger share of property taxes collected by the county, such that Hesperia at that time stood to be the recipient of $2 million more per year if Assembly Bill 1378 passed. But the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose AB 1378 and a key member of the board, former Assemblyman and then Chairman of the Board Fred Aguiar lobbied in Sacramento against it. Wyman than dropped the legislative try, saying “I killed the bill because we’d rather do it together at the local level.”
Hesperia officials abandoned the legislative approach and pulled out of litigation it was engaged in as a co-plaintiff with other cities after assurances were provided that then-Hesperia Mayor Jim Lindley would be able to use his entré with his then-political ally, then-supervisor Bill Postmus, to amicably negotiate with the county an increase in Hesperia’s share of the property tax return. That came to naught, however, when there was a falling out between Postmus and Lindley, whereupon Postmus ceased his intercession on behalf of the City of Progress.
For Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, and Fontana, the litigative/legislative approach succeeded and by 2006, those cities saw an increase in their end of the formula for property tax splits.
Victorville saw its share of property tax pass-through upped from zero to 4.72 percent, with 6 percent going to its fire district and 5 percent going to its park district.
Apple Valley was granted 9.4 percent of the property taxes its residents pay and another 9.2 percent was handed over to the town’s fire district.
The city of Rancho Cucamonga now gets 5.11 percent and its fire district is provided with 12.48 percent.
A deal was brokered with the city of Chino Hills such that it continues to get a 3.9 percent return on property tax paid for property that was previously within the city and ten percent of taxes from new development. The city of Chino Hills’ fire district also receives 15.15 percent of the property tax paid by Chino Hills residents.
In Fontana, the city receives a 3.8 percent property tax return, while its fire department is granted an 18.55 percent return.
The city of Highland is given 24.4 percent of the property tax collected within city limits.
Adelanto and Hesperia remain as the forlorn stepchildren of the county when it comes to the distribution of property tax. It receives 1.75 percent of the property tax the residents living within its city limits pay.
The infrastructure deficit Phillips saddled Hesperia with was compounded by a series of decisions made by the fledgling city council shortly after the city was incorporated in 1988 and the councils that succeeded the first. Looking southward at the upwardly mobile population of Rancho Cucamonga, a city which had incorporated a mere eleven years before in 1977, the newly formed city council, led by mayor Bruce Kitchen and councilmembers George Beardsly, Mike Lampignano, Percy Bakker and M. Val Shearer, lured Rancho Cucamonga Deputy City Manager Robert Rizzo to town to serve as the city’s first city manager. Deluded into thinking that cityhood would instantly transform their city into an economically dynamic hotbed of upscale developmennt similar to Rancho Cucamonga, the city council empowered Rizzo to cut deals with developers to convince them to begin building aggressively and soon. Rizzo took the council’s somewhat naive instructions too literally, pushing his planning staff to approve projects as proposed by developers, entailing projects with sketchy or inadequate infrastructure, both in the immediate vicinity of the neighborhoods which were springing up as well as throughout the city in general. In some cases, Rizzo, to meet payroll, diverted bond money intended for the provision of infrastructure into the general fund, where it was eaten up by the day-to-day expenses of running the city. In time, many of the landowners inveigled into the assessment districts created to debt service those bonds lost those properties in tax foreclosures as the promised increases in the value of their properties failed to materialize because the infrastructure those bonds were supposed to pay for was never built. Correspondingly, the sales tax producing development that was to accompany the improvements to those properties in question never materialized, depriving the city of revenue that could have been converted into infrastructure improvements.
And Rizzo was manipulative and dishonest, exploiting the very city council members who hired him, enabled him and directed him to develop the city at any cost. During the 1990 election, he arranged with developmental interests to get scores of residents in Orange County to write $99 checks in blank and entrust them to him. He then distributed those checks to the candidates up for election in the city council race that he deemed to be most accommodating of the pro-development agenda, including Percy Bakker, M. Val Shearer and planning commission member Donna Roland. In this way, Rizzo was seeking to obtain leverage over those to whom he was answerable. No one on the council objected until press accounts in early 1992 revealed what had occurred. Even then, the council sought to minimize the transgression. But public outrage over the corruption of the electoral and governmental process forced the council’s hand and in April 1992, Rizzo left the city.
Some 18 years later, Rizzo’s corrupt manipulations of the elected city officials who hired him came home to roost when a series of legal, financial, managerial and governmental transgressions he had engaged in as city manager with the City of Bell came to light and he was arrested, criminally charged, convicted and is now serving a 12-year sentence in state prison.
Rizzo was replaced by D.J. Collins, who for years had been the general manager of the Hesperia Water District. Under Collins, the water district in short order was subsumed by the city. Collins made little headway in dealing with the city’s infrastructure problems, and though he succeeded in diverting some of the money available from the city’s water operations to shore up the city’s inadequate road system, he and the council were strongly criticized for having broken a commitment to strictly devote water revenues to maintaining the city’s water system. Collin’s administration was severely challenged by “the revolt of the Young Turks” in the fire department, which came about when many of the fire department’s personnel, most of whom were close to a generation younger than Collins, objected to the city overriding efforts by the fire marshal to strictly enforce the state and municipal fire code with regard to new development as City Hall sought to liberalize regulations and encourage building.
Collins would be succeeded by a succession of relatively short-lived city managers – David Berger, Steve Dukett, David Bentz and Steve West. Following West’s departure, the city council temporarily elevated assistant city manager Rod Foster to the city manager’s position…
The entire article is available in the August 4 edition of the San Bernardino County Sentinel.

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