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What Fiscal Crisis? Money Flows Freely in Commerce

Times Staff Writer

When Georgina and Tony Escalera moved back to Commerce 10 years ago, they knew one thing: It’s a place of plenty when it comes to city-provided perks.

Their three children attended preschool for free. The family pays nothing for trash service. While they added a second story to their home, the city sent them $22,000 in home-improvement rebate checks.

For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 26, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Mayor’s name -- An article in Sunday’s Section A about perks provided to residents of Commerce by the municipality misstated the mayor’s name as Jesus Cisneros. His name is Jesus M. Cervantes.

And when the family needs a break, they head to Camp Commerce, the city’s mountain retreat at Lake Arrowhead, where a weekend trip costs less than $10.

“If I was to go to another city, I wouldn’t have the same luxuries that I have now,” said Tony, who expects another rebate check after completing a family room addition.

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These are bleak days for most California municipalities awaiting the fallout from the state’s fiscal crisis, with residents worried about cuts in everything from library hours to youth programs. But a few cities, graced with special circumstances, remain flush.

In the quarry-pocked city of Irwindale, children go to Disneyland for free. In Cerritos, known for its huge automobile mall, senior citizens are offered free dental screenings, among many city perks.

In Commerce, a working-class city of 13,000 in the heart of industrial Los Angeles, its card club revenue keeps residents cashing in their civic chips. Even if there’s a drastic drop in state funding, the city’s number-crunchers anticipate no service cutbacks or layoffs in the city’s 400-strong work force. But the perks do come with a price.

Many homes lie within earshot of a freeway or rail line. Long-haul trucks sit idling in tree-lined neighborhoods, and residents sometimes shut their windows to keep out fumes and dirt. Only 7% of Commerce, which stretches from East Los Angeles to suburban Downey, is residential. The rest is taken over by vast industrial and cargo-handling tracts.Few cities, however, can keep spreading the municipal wealth with Commerce’s gusto. And all it takes to gorge on the goodies is a $5 residency card.

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Mayor Jesus Cisneros expects the usual ribbing from other officials at conferences: “When I mention I’m from Commerce, it’s ‘Oh, Commerce, the city with all the benefits and all the money.’ ”

Residents can swim, do aerobics and work out for free at the massive Aquatorium complex, which has three pools -- one Olympic-sized -- and a fitness center brimming with new equipment such as those at many private health clubs.

Most youth sports leagues -- including baseball, boxing and soccer -- are free, as are twice-a-week preschool classes and daily day-camp programs that last five weeks in the summer. Bus rides around town also come with no charge.

Senior citizens enjoy a remodeled community center, where they take free classes in ceramics and cooking, and receive free health screening. Even pets are treated well: Rabies shots cost nothing.

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The financial pain of home repairs and expansions is eased by subsidies of up to 40% or $15,000, depending on income levels. Senior citizens who can’t mow their lawns get their yards taken care of at no charge.

And then there is Camp Commerce, two hours away. A pine-shaded compound with seven A-frame cabins and a lodge with a stone fireplace, the 2.2-acre resort stays full through much of the summer and many winter weekends.

For a $6 fee, residents get transportation to and from the camp, three meals a day and bunk-bed accommodations. A staff naturalist is on site to guide hikers. Shuttles take shoppers to Lake Arrowhead Village.

“If other people find out, everybody is going to want to move to Commerce,” Araceli Rivas joked while sunning herself beside the resort’s 30-foot pool.

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They couldn’t even if they wanted to. Most residents in this predominantly Latino community, where the median income is $34,000, don’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s common to find three generations of the same family living within blocks of one another.

And because homes are often passed from parents to children, relatively few properties hit the market. Currently, only two are listed for sale, said real estate agent Charles R. Calderon, adding that pitching Commerce as a good place to live is easy.

“When I tell my friends what Commerce has, they think I’m pulling their leg,” said Calderon, who recently sold a home as soon as he put up the “For Sale” sign. “They say, ‘You must be crazy.’ ”

Rivas, who was joined by Georgina Escalera and neighbors for last weekend’s women’s fitness weekend, says only Hollywood celluloid comes close to replicating their small-town wonders.

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“This is the best place to raise your kids,” said Rivas, a mother of five. “Everybody knows each other. It’s like [the sitcom bar] Cheers, but without the alcohol. It’s unbelievable.”

The abundance of freebies came by way of a shrewd strategy.

When the city’s founding fathers mapped out the six-square-mile city in the late 1950s, they included vast tracts of industrial land at the county’s cargo transit crossroads. “Commerce means business” became the city’s slogan, and tax revenue -- mostly from manufacturing and distribution operations -- poured in. The Commerce Casino opened in 1983, clinching the city’s financial well-being.

Today, the tax revenue from the casino provides 40% of the $33-million budget, a jackpot extraordinarily disproportionate for a city of 13,000. Nearby South Gate, with 100,000 residents, has a $28-million budget. The one threat to the municipal treasury is the proliferation of Indian casinos. Although Commerce’s casino is one of the most successful of California’s 110 card clubs, officials say further gains by tribal gambling could wipe out profits.

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This tax-revenue machine of the city has, for the most part, run smoothly. Except for a few corruption investigations decades ago -- one of which claimed three officials who held illegal ownership interests in the casino -- Commerce has been free of scandals.

Also, the transition from white to Latino rule in the late 1970s occurred without the upheaval that plagued neighboring communities. Most of Commerce’s mid-century houses are small and, with their postage-stamp lots and manicured lawns, have a Levittown, N.Y., sameness about them. The cookie-cutter homes, kept up with the help of fix-up incentives, have aged gracefully.

Streets have been spruced up, with houses featuring new paint jobs, garage doors or landscaping touches, courtesy of a $500-per-residence neighborhood improvement program.

Tony Escalera and his wife, Georgina, a billing clerk, estimate that the complimentary programs have saved them tens of thousands of dollars. They were raised in Commerce and then left the community briefly after marrying. But nothing measured up to their hometown. “We looked everywhere, and we came back to where we grew up,” Georgina said. “We’ve got it made.”

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