Q&A: Hollister mayor talks rally, parks, roads, sewer smell, economy

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez waves to the crowd as he rides down San Benito Street during the Veterans Day Parade Nov. 11.

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez recently sat down with the Free Lance for an interview about the future of the city.
Note: This story is included in the annual Pride section, which has local features and photos, included in Friday’s edition of the newspaper.
Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez recently sat down with the Free Lance for an interview about the future of the city. Here is the full Q&A:
Free Lance
Reviving the Hollister motorcycle rally has been a signature of yours since you were elected. What are your feelings on this year’s set-up and the future of the event?
Velazquez
I’m happy we have a new promoter. I think it’s going to provide better results. This guy, I believe, understands more of the promotion, not just locally but internationally. That’s really what we were lacking the last few years, is making sure the public knew about it, not only here, but around the country, around the world. I think we’re going to go good from this point on. We’re should have a more positive result.
Free Lance
Going forward, what are you envisioning for the event?
Velazquez
I think it’s just going to keep growing. It’s going to be more international. We’re trying to make sure there’s more press coverage throughout the country, throughout the world, and more activities. This year they’ll bring the (Vietnam) wall in. It’s going in the right direction.
Free Lance
How important do you see the rally as far as the city’s culture and economy?
Velazquez
I think it’s very important. There was some talk recently about promoting our community for a certain event, and I explained to people that we have an event that brings in at least 50,000 people, that every community in the country would want to have. It’s a big deal for us.
Free Lance
You’ve been a big supporter of improving the parks. Why is this a good investment for the community and its families?
Velazquez
I think parks are part of the community. For so many years we’ve had these parks where the grass is dying, the equipment is failing. They weren’t fun to use. So why have a park if your kids and family can’t use it. It’s part of a community. You need to make sure it’s taken care of and families have a place to go. It’s part of a core of a community. We went back and looked at it and said let’s start fixing them up now. These are some of the foundational issues we wanted to fix in the community. Why do you live in a community? You want to enjoy your community. That was an obvious thing to start with. If we have park impact fees, why aren’t we using them?
Free Lance
And the playgrounds in particular. Why was that the right way to go?
Velazquez
Well the equipment was old. A lot of them were breaking down. They were dangerous. Kids weren’t using them anymore.
Free Lance
Early on when you came along, there was road maintenance and the city talked about a sidewalk repair program. Where are things now with general road maintenance and what level of work do you expect to see in the next couple years?
Velazquez
The sidewalk program is still coming through. The state is finally getting to the point where they’re approving the funding so we can use it. The roads are the next major project we have to do within the community, and it’s more of a five-year plan we’re putting together. And the idea being that, rather than ignore the roads, we have to address the issue. But to address that issue we have to balance the budget from within the city, and also make sure there’s funding from that point on to take care of the roads, so we never put ourselves back in the same position. So that’s what we’re working on. This year, we should have an idea what it’s going to cost us to do the entire city.
Free Lance
How big of a challenge is that?
Velazquez
Your budget should be based on the needs of the community, not on special needs of certain people. I don’t understand how it got to a certain point. It is being figured in now.
Free Lance
Where do you stand on the level of priority for Highway 25 getting expanded?
Velazquez
Highway 25 is a challenging project because we received the numbers from Caltrans of upwards of $300 million. How do we fund that? How do we fund the perfect highway? We can’t realistically, so we have to step back and look at how we redesign the widening of the road instead of building a new highway. Something that’s more affordable, more realistic, something we can get done in the next 20 years.
Free Lance
Do you see it taking that long?
Velazquez
I’d like it to be less than that. But it’s a county-city-community issue and everybody has to understand we all have to participate to make that happen. It just doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a very expensive project. I believe we have to take care of the roads in the city first and then put a focus onto it. We’re talking about Highway 25, the widening, but we’re also talking about rail service and bus service. So we’re trying to figure out what works that’s most affordable so we can get some of the commuters on public transit instead of using the highway.
Free Lance
On the economy, what do you see as the direction of the local economy and what are some signs of improvement you see?
Velazquez
Things are picking up. I know it’s hard for some people to see that. But you do see as Ace Hardware moved over, people are shifting around. We’re talking to a few people that want to move into the community. There is a lot more interest from larger retailers. And we’re looking at how do we create a shopping center within the city? So we’re having some early discussions on that.
Free Lance
What will the downtown and west side plans do for the city?
Velazquez
I think the downtown probably has the most impact, because if you can change the downtown from a freeway, from what it is right now, people have a tendency to use it as a thoroughfare as opposed to a shopping center or retail area, changing that part of it brings in more foot traffic. More foot traffic brings in more restaurants, more retail space, more people. It feeds on itself, so downtown is a priority.
Free Lance
And the west side?
Velazquez
The west side is moving along. It’s more of a funding issue right now. As we understand where at financially, we can start picking off those projects.
Free Lance
You’ve been a supporter of the floating islands concept at the industrial sewer plant. Why is it a good idea and how do you balance the cost with concerns over its validity?
Velazquez
With anything different or anything new, there’s always a fear of it not working. If you look at the concept, it’s not new. It’s actually been used for centuries. It’s a very simple process. It’s just introducing bacteria that eats away at the sludge and filters the system. The cost of it is minor. It’s very minimal as opposed to operating it without using this type of system. Right now that industrial pond will cost us about $800,000 a year to run, whereas this system would cost us about $100,000 a year to run. If it worked, we could introduce the same concept at the domestic plant, which would save use easily half a million dollars over there. Now we’re looking at savings of over $1 million a year. So why wouldn’t we try it? That’s a big, big number.
Free Lance
What’s your feeling on eliminating the smell issue?
Velazquez
Honestly, the problem is going to happen this year because we did not move on it as we should have. I won’t put the fault on anybody but we have to be more aggressive on what we’re trying to do in the community rather than wait it out until the last minute. … It’s a problem that’s been there for much too long and we’re going to experience it another year.
Free Lance
Curtailing homelessness has been a priority in the past year. How has your perspective of homelessness changed since taking office?
Velazquez
It’s changed in the way that, as one of the homeless people that came to me, somebody I’ve known 10 years, and said, ‘Now you’re the mayor and now I can tell the people I know the mayor.’ It made me realize my role is to find a solution, not to just pass it off to somebody else. So that’s what we’ve been working on, finding a permanent solution that addresses the problem at costs that actually save us money.
Free Lance
What types of services can residents expect five years from now?
Velazquez
The plan is to end homelessness in San Benito County in the next five years. That includes going through the shelter, providing them job training, getting them back into the workforce rather than just leaving them along the rivers. The key to it is really some of the medical attention they need. It’s not too complicated. The process is, give somebody some help they need so they can take the right steps to get moving forward in their own lives.
Free Lance
How would you grade yourself as it pertains to the budget and the 1% Measure E sales tax set to sunset in 2018?
Velazquez
The budget has been an issue. My stance on the budget is I want to balance the budget. I do not like hearing excuses on why we cannot balance the budget. I’m hoping this year the council will agree with me. The budget should be balanced. That will allow us to use some of the other funds to do the improvements we need to do in the community. So this is a very important year for us to move forward on that budget. I just think it’s critically important that we all understand that and we stop making excuses for it.

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