Point person leaves fair sale

COSTA MESA — Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana) has decided not to stand by Costa Mesa City Hall's attempt to purchase the Orange County Fairgrounds and is asking the governor to drop the sale altogether.

The statement comes as a blow to sale supporters, as Solorio has become the point person in the Assembly on the issue and was expected to carry or support legislation that would enact the city's deal. Another politician could pick up the legislation without his support, but no one has stepped up yet.

Solorio said in a prepared statement released Tuesday that he made many suggestions to help address the fate of the 80 full-time state employees who work at the fairgrounds and has provided ways to strengthen the governance provisions in the deal.

But, he added, not enough has been done to allow him to support the deal.

"The city has responded to these ideas, but as it stands now, there is still a gap in how far they will go and what I think would be minimum concessions to enable me and others to defend the proposal in the Legislature," he said.

Costa Mesa is working with Facilities Management West, a Newport Beach-based real estate company, to operate and finance the $96-million purchase from the state. The purchase, which has been riddled with disagreements and challenges from both the community and the private company, cannot be finalized without the Legislature's approval.

The deadline to submit legislation to finalize the sale of the 150-acre property ended on Aug. 31 with the formal end of the legislative session. However, a chance to submit legislation and attach it to a budget bill remained until Tuesday when Solorio issued his statement.

As part of his suggestions, Solorio also asked the city to remove a tax loophole that would cap the tax currently paid by long-term lease holders on state properties to allow the city to receive rent payments from Facilities Management, asserting that this could take money away from schools statewide.

"Since the Legislature is working on budget bills now, there is still time for Costa Mesa to pursue legislation to purchase the fairgrounds," Solorio said. "However, I can't defend their current proposal or justify why the state should allow them to make so much money from property that belongs to all Californians."

A possessory tax, as oppose to property tax, is money paid by long term lease holders of state-owned properties. The city is asking that the state caps out the possessory tax currently paid by lease holders of the fairgrounds, such as the OC Market Place, so that Facilities Management can pay the city rent for operating the property, Solorio said.

The agreement between Costa Mesa and Facilities Management allows the city to make $235 million over the life of the 55-year lease.

Solorio said he doesn't mind the city making money, but it must go toward public services, such as police and fire protection, maintenance and infrastructure, rather than going toward other general fund expenditures or employee salaries.

"I tried in good faith to work on some ways to address outstanding concerns, but now that they have second thoughts about ways to address those concerns, I think I'll watch on the sideline to see how the issue progresses," Solorio said. "And I'm encouraging the governor to stop the sale all together and we will continue to fight that fight."

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