Potholes, cracks and rough asphalt have long plagued the streets of Fullerton – an issue residents have routinely called on the city to fix.

But how did the roads in this North Orange County college town get this bad?

Mayor Fred Jung pointed to decades of neglect and misappropriation from previous city councils that didn’t prioritize infrastructure in one of OC’s oldest cities.

“What they were doing was basically band-aiding these roads, where they were never going and rehabilitating roads, they were just putting their fingers in the dam,” Jung said in a phone interview.

Councilman Bruce Whitaker echoed those sentiments.

“Over multiple decades, city councils took the easy path to deferred maintenance, and reduced repair of our infrastructure in order to balance year to year budgets,” he said in a phone interview.

“We have many years of not taking care of the basic infrastructure.”

Whitaker added that residents rank street repairs as one of the biggest needs in the city.

It’s a problem that has gotten so bad that city council candidates routinely campaign on fixing the streets.

In the 2022 local election, some candidates pointed to the roads and infrastructure as the biggest issue in the city in Voice of OC’s candidate questionnaire’s last year.

Whitaker said that even when he ran for reelection in 2020 that he and other candidates campaigned on making streets the highest priority. He also said it has been a top priority for him since he was first mayor in 2013.

“Three of us who made that a real strong campaign pledge were elected, but I’ve been disappointed that we’ve had some council members falling out in terms of putting the city’s money where their mouth was,” Whittaker said.

In 2018-19, Fullerton council members budgeted $5.2 million to street repairs and in 2019-20 they allocated over $5.3 million for those repairs.

In 2020-21, Fullerton council members earmarked $4.2 million on street repairs and in 2021-22 they allocated $6 million on those repairs.

The city allocated over $11.8 million to fix roads this fiscal year, according to the 2022-23 adopted city budget.

They were able to do so thanks to the help of additional one-time COVID bailout dollars.

Fullerton received nearly $33 million as part of their share of the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), a federal bailout bill that sent $350 billion dollars to state, county, local, territorial and tribal governments to help address the financial impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They have allocated about $13 million of that money to fixing their roads – $2.1 million in 2021-22 fiscal year, $5.5 million in 2022-23 fiscal year and another $5.5 million for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

Whitaker said he tried to get 75% of the ARPA money to be used on street repairs but did not have enough support from his colleagues.

In August, they unanimously approved repairs for several different streets in the central and eastern part of the city for the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Repairs are expected to take place on sections of Bradford Avenue, Highland Avenue, Pomona Avenue, Morelia Avenue, Knepp Avenue, Rolling Hills Drive as well as the Serrano-Yermo-Via Caliente area.

[Read: Some Fullerton Streets Get Long Awaited Repairs]

Some of the ARPA money was used to address the revenue losses city coffers faced due to the pandemic.

And the city could face financial troubles, which would prevent more roads from being repaired.

The city was ranked 15th among the top 20 cities most likely to have financial problems in California according to the state auditor’s office.

It’s the worst ranking in Orange County.

Fullerton’s budget has been in a freefall since the start of the pandemic and in December 2021 council members were forced to cut spending by 2.5%, keep some city positions vacant and steer $12 million in COVID bailout money to backfill lost revenue.

[Read: Fullerton City Council Cuts Spending, Uses Federal Bailout Money to Backfill Lost Revenue]

“You’ve got council members and advocates in the public that want to have their cake and eat it too. That’s not how good government works. There are sacrifices that have to be made. Because the pot in terms of the general fund is finite,” Jung said.

In October, the council decided to keep their own fire department as opposed to joining the Orange County Fire Authority to save money. 

‘We Have to Do That’

Questions remain on how the city will address repair roads after the COVID money is spent as the city struggles financially.

“What we have to do on upcoming budgets is prioritize and determine that no one else is going to step in and fix the streets for us – we have to do that,” Whittaker said.

“I would favor using existing budgets and funds and redirecting to the higher priority, which is street replacement and repair.”

Jung said council members need to show residents they can manage the city’s budget before floating the idea of a road tax or bond measure. 

“You have to first prove to the residents that you’re a good steward – that you can be trusted … And that’s what we’ve been doing for the past year,” he said. 

“Once you’ve done that, you can make the argument and make the case to the voters and our residents that something else is necessary.” 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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