Stanton at bleak crossroads
The Stanton that Alma Barba remembers was just a wedge of a place in the middle of a growing county. There were the strawberry fields and orange groves she’d pass on the way to school, and the town’s well-rooted reputation as being impoverished and gang-ridden that she learned to endure.
“It was Mayberry-small, but it was horrible,” agrees Dave Shawver, who’s lived here more than 40 years and has spent the last 24 on the City Council.
Today, the gangs are mostly gone. But the poverty is real: The Orange County city is running out of money.
Beaten down by the recession and without a clear path to financial health, Stanton is among the California cities riding on the edge of insolvency, a place where anything seems possible -- even ceasing to be a city at all.
Parks have been padlocked, crossing guards laid off, after-school programs cut.
And just in case residents here have missed the news, the digital sign in front of City Hall blinks out a sober reminder: “STANTON FISCAL CRISIS.”
Stanton has been bleeding money for years. Sales tax revenue has plunged, property tax is on pace to be lower than it was eight years ago, and the city’s pot of redevelopment money was snatched away by the state. This month, when citizens here were asked to increase the city’s utility tax to provide a financial lifeline, voters rejected it, leaving civic leaders with a renewed sense of gloom and uncertainty.
At first glance, Stanton does not fit the Orange County cliche. There are no beaches, no blockbuster theme parks, no fancy restaurants, just four square miles of aging suburbia. For years, the city called itself the “Crossroads to Vacationland,” a nod to its proximity to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.
“It just looked like somewhere you would pass through,” says Barba, 59, a lifelong Stanton resident. “In the blink of an eye, you’re through it.”
By some measures, things have been looking up in Stanton. Prostitution and gang violence, once rampant, have abated. There are new condominiums and businesses.
But Shawver, who recalls the Monday morning “body bag counts,” when city leaders tallied up the weekend’s dead, is worried those gains could be lost.
The city has been pulling about $2.5 million a year from its reserves to make ends meet and at the current rate could be bankrupt in four years.
In the last two years, after-school programs have been cut, city staffers have been laid off and even the lone police station in town has closed to the public, a sign on the door offering residents a number to call if they need assistance. The city has even elected to stop paying dues to the League of California Cities, an organization that lobbies on behalf of local governments. It’s not required by law, says City Manager Carol Jacobs, and Stanton just can’t afford it.
“We’ve never really had much fat in this city,” Shawver says. “We’re getting to a point here where there’s not much left to cut.” A self-proclaimed “ultra-conservative football coach Republican,” Shawver is normally dead set against raising taxes. But in the current crisis, he sees no other option.
City officials say the next target could be the city’s contract police and fire services, nearly 80% of the budget. On the heels of Measure J’s defeat, city leaders are now considering cutting firefighters and sheriff’s deputies and eliminating the city’s only paramedic truck.
Barba says if public safety is cut, she’ll worry for her parents, who have lived in the same house for 54 years. “Who’s going to protect them?” she says.
It’s families like Barba’s that have made up the backbone of Stanton for years -- working-class people with blue-collar budgets. The neat rows of ranch-style homes are punctuated by rosebushes, American flags and the occasional stray shopping cart.
But part of the town looks worn-out and exhausted. On a Sunday afternoon, the parking lot in front of the boarded-up Autotoyz car superstore is empty, a faded sign for a departed Red Robin restaurant nearby. Only a few lonesome storefronts -- an Avis car rental and a sushi joint among them -- remain.
Which may be why the city rushed to streamline the permitting process for Field Time, a shooting range whose owner had spent a frustrating year trying to set up shop in neighboring Westminster. Shawver says he personally called the owner the day after it became clear he’d run out of patience with the neighboring city.
“We haven’t come to the city of Stanton to do anything in decades,” says Steve Cave, 65, who drove in recently from Santa Ana with his wife to use the firing range.
Thom Hansen, a 54-year-old designer, bought a new house here three years ago and calls it a “huge” mistake.
Lured by its central location and cheap housing, Hansen hoped the city’s promises of redevelopment-funded improvements would pan out. But he’s routinely awakened by car alarms and noise from a nearby bar.
Hansen voted against raising taxes, mainly because he intends to move away as soon as he can sell the house. Plus, he adds, in the aftermath of the Bell scandal, he’s not convinced the city is using its funds well. “I don’t trust government at all.”
Frederick Jay, 62, owns a perfume stand on the first floor of Stanton’s indoor swap meet, a bazaar-style market where vendors pay low rent to hawk such wares as jewelry and car stereos, and says he can’t afford another bite out of his paycheck. “Who the hell can pay these taxes?”
For City Hall, the anti-tax sentiment is frustrating. Even if the city shut down all operations except for police and fire services, City Manager Jacobs says, the town would be left with a reserve of only $1.8 million -- not enough to ward against rising costs and other uncertainties.
Steven Ngo, 39, voted for the tax. A mechanic for Long Beach Transit, he calculated it would come to about $2.50 a month for him, which he says is a reasonable sum to keep parks open and cops on the street.
“I guess they’re trying to do whatever they can,” he says as he pushes his 4-year-old daughter on a swing in Stanton Park, the largest in the city that’s still open. “The people are also the ones who are supposed to help.”
Jason Nelson, 30, has lived in neighboring Garden Grove most of his life and thinks Stanton’s best option might be to fold itself into Garden Grove or disincorporate altogether. Only two cities in California have disincorporated since 1972.
“The heart and soul of Stanton has been lost,” Nelson says. “It used to feel like a community.”
But city officials say they won’t let that happen without a fight. If deeper cuts are needed, they’ll be made, Jacobs vows.
“We can still keep this a city where people want to live,” promises Jacobs, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt with “Team Stanton” emblazoned on the chest. It’s her day off; she shouldn’t even be here.
“This place is not going down,” she says, “and it’s certainly not going down on my watch.”