Friday, February 12, 2010
What should be the role of county government during these tough economic times? We discuss the current state of San Diego County.
ALISON ST JOHN (Host): Today, the State of the County address this week deserves extra scrutiny bearing in mind voters have to make major decisions affecting the county board this June. Also, millions of dollars of our money is being spent on improving transportation around the region. Who’s winning, who’s losing? And what’s the deal with San Diego City’s Ethics Commission? Council members appear to be rattled and made challenges to its powers. So joining us this morning are – at the table here on the Editors Roundtable are Scott Lewis. Thanks for being with us, Scott.
SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): Thank you, Alison.
ST JOHN: Executive officer of the voiceofsandiego.org. Tom York. Tom, good morning.
TOM YORK (Contributing Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Good morning, Alison.
ST JOHN: Contributing editor for the San Diego Business Journal. And JW August, managing editor for 10News. Always great to see you, JW.
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Good morning. Good morning.
ST JOHN: Our number here at the Editors Roundtable is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-895 – sorry, 1-888-895-KPBS, and we would love to hear from you during this hour. Okay, so let’s get started with the State of the County speech. Supervisor Pam Slater-Price delivered the speech on Wednesday and it may have gotten a little bit more attention than usual, Scott, because of what’s coming up on the June ballot.
ST JOHN: Can you give us a bit of the political context this year?
LEWIS: Well, in upcoming elections we’re going to see the supervisors, we thought, might be challenged in a way that they haven’t in the past. This whole group of five supervisors that oversee the county have been in power since the mid-nineties and they are all of similar make and philosophical positions mostly and yet this county’s a pretty diverse place and so we thought maybe this would be an interesting year where that would come to a test. But perhaps the most intriguing race there was the one for Ron Roberts’ seat. Ron Roberts represents the bulk of the urban area of San Diego at the supervisors, and he was to be challenged by a number of people, I think, including, potentially, Donna Frye, the city councilwoman from San Diego, also Lori Saldana, a local Assemblywoman. But Saldana decided not to run this week. We had that news. And Donna still hasn’t indicated whether she will or not. And then we have the question of term limits. So many people frustrated with the board of supervisors and their power to remain in that position that there are a lot who are hoping to impose, for the first time, term limits on the county board. And we’ll be discussing that, I think, and there’s just been all kinds of interesting decisions there lately and I think that we’re all interested in how it’s going to play out.
ST JOHN: And, of course, Bill Horn’s also on the ballot and…
LEWIS: Bill Horn.
ST JOHN: …Dan McAllister.
LEWIS: Right, right.
ST JOHN: Let’s get back to…
LEWIS: The Assessor, too, that’s been an interesting race, so, yeah.
ST JOHN: Great. Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk about some of that. But just first, about the speech…
ST JOHN: …so Slater-Price talked about doing more with less, as all local governments are doing. She says she thinks the public demands honesty rather than more services.
ST JOHN: She highlighted some high profile projects. What was your takeaway impression of the speech?
LEWIS: I was insulted. I found that her position and her – the way she described that, that the public demands honesty, makes you wonder what – why she won’t be honest about the situation at the county. The fact is, is that they complain about not having money for public safety, for social welfare and social human services situations but they need to explain why. And there’s no more important reason as to why than the fact that in 2002, her (sic) and her four colleagues decided to retroactively give all of their employees and themselves a pension benefit increase that is, to this day, burdening the county government unlike any other debt that they can imagine. We always complain about the City of San Diego’s pension system. But the county is, this year, going to spend $230 million on its pension system in a way that it never had before. It used to only put zero, it used to not have to fund its county – its pension system at all, now it’s at $230 million. In addition to that, it has to send $87 million a year to pay off a pension obligation bond that it started at that time, too, that it doesn’t have the money to do. So our kid – if I were to have a kid right now, in 20 years they would still be paying off that debt. This is a situation that they’ve decided to prioritize, the pensions of themselves and their employees, above social and human resources and also above the public safety of the county.
ST JOHN: Okay, and the reason they used to pay nothing was because the market used to be able to yield enough to pay for their pensions but that has all changed, right?
LEWIS: Right, well, they had a system that was balanced. They had – they could put enough money into it and the market could take care of it. But the fact is, they decided to give a 50% increase. If you had a $50,000 pension benefit, in one day that turned into a $75,000 a year pension benefit and that was retroactive. Right after that happened, hundreds and hundreds of county employees retired because they had just gotten a massive giveaway. This is what the supervisors have prioritized above public safety and human services.
ST JOHN: And Dan McAllister also, who’s running in June, also has had a couple of hefty increases, both of the past two years and, I believe, according to the paper this morning, is under a little bit of scrutiny now too. There’s…
LEWIS: Yeah, yeah. There’s – An audit was released that showed that he maybe hasn’t managed the situation of giving tax refunds as promptly and effectively as possible, yeah.
ST JOHN: JW, what would you say about the priorities that were outlined in the speech there? Did they reflect what you think the county really needs to see from the County?
AUGUST: Well, not really. Social services is at the bottom of the list all the – as usual, typical. And it’s always typical, too, I love how the – not that the state is innocent but how they blame their big brothers in Sacramento for all their problems. Their problems began to roost back home. It’s not the legislators, totally the legislators’ problems out of Sacramento. You just can’t point the finger at them. This county could be very sound financially but they’ve made some, as Scott mentioned, some very dumb decisions.
LEWIS: You look back at the way that the market had performed for their pension assets, it’s made 5.6% over the last five years. They’ve made as much from the market as possible yet they blame their problems on the market, they blame their problems on the recession, they blame their problems on the state.
LEWIS: Never once do they say what she says they have to do is, which be honest with the voters that they made a mistake, that they’re – that they have themselves to blame as well, and that we’re going to be paying off for their decisions for decades to come.
YORK: Yeah, I would say one thing about the…
ST JOHN: Tom.
YORK: …pension fund is that they’ve used high octane methods using hedge funds and other exotic type investments and those have blown up in the last couple of years and so they’ve not been able to advance on getting more money for the pension fund for getting, you know, larger returns.
ST JOHN: I would say the theme of the speech, though, was that, you know, this is hard times for everybody and all governments are having a hard time, but actually the county is looking remarkably financially healthy, which does represent a priority for them. And that was her number one priority, stay financially solvent, which, of course, is a good goal. I understand that they have a $60 million budget surplus at the moment, which means they’re – somehow have managed to keep enough money in the pot to offset (unintelligible – spoken over)…
LEWIS: Sure, they’ve balanced – they have definitely balanced what their priorities are. They just have priorities that I think that a lot of people are wondering about. For instance, why is there no fire department? Why do we have the largest gap between people who need services and people who are actually getting them? Why do we have all these questions? And if you want to run a county like that, it is balanced and if that’s the priorities that the citizens want, that’s fine. What we’re trying to do is just explain that those are the priorities that they’ve decided on.
ST JOHN: Now you mentioned what the citizens want, and…
ST JOHN: …you know, JW, one of the things about the speech was that Pam Slater-Price did a very good job of laying out all the massive responsibilities that the county has. I mean, there are a lot of them. It’s very hard to get your arms around them. How much do you think people are really aware of what the county means to their lives?
AUGUST: Well, a lot of the work is done by the county. The state mandates the county do a – has a lot of responsibility. You could spend a week over at the county and still not figure out all the things they do over there. They do have a great deal of responsibilities, a lot of things that even the City of San Diego doesn’t have. So it’s a very large bureaucracy with a great deal of responsibilities. Whether it does its work effectively remains to be seen.
ST JOHN: So, Scott, talk a little bit about, you know, what you would like to see the San Diego voter be more aware of of what they do do that affects our lives.
LEWIS: Well, that’s the thing about the county, you know, they do have a lot of responsibilities but about 80-90% of what they do is mandated by the state. They don’t have to necessarily make a lot of decisions. But what they do when they do make a decision, this is what I’m outlining, is that they decided to reward them and themselves (sic) a pension benefit that was largely giveaway because it was retroactive. It wasn’t for future, looking forward. And I think that those are the kinds of decisions that they do end up making that we do need to understand and if those are the ones that we support, then that’s fine. I think that, you know, we have to decide whether this is the level of service that we want, whether this is the level of fire protection that we want, whether this is the level of social services that we want and if it is, then good.
ST JOHN: Are those the two main areas, fire protection and social services, where you see the county perhaps falling short?
LEWIS: It’s, you know, people do have their complaints. You know, they’re – we profiled a woman who went blind because she had been denied some of the most basic healthcare services and yet the court later determined that that was a limit that the county imposed that was unlawful. I mean, these are the kinds of decisions – you know, they’re waging war on poor people and yet they’re handing themselves these massive pensions. And then, you know, I don’t care. If that’s what you want to do, go ahead, but let’s be honest about it. She’s the one that’s saying that we all have to be honest. Let’s be honest about it.
ST JOHN: And yet…
YORK: Scott, you’re starting to sound like a Republican.
LEWIS: I’m fine with – I’m advocating for more social services or at least the idea that we pay for what we’ve been mandated. I don’t know if that’s Republican or not but these are the priorities that they’ve decided to do. They’ve decided to hand it out to themselves and to their past employees and – and everybody took the check and went.
ST JOHN: And yet all five of our supervisors appear to be sort of Teflon-coated politically. Nothing seems to touch them. Two of them have been in for 16 years, actually, I think, more. Four of them – two of them have already served four terms, are in their fifth. Now coming up, we’ve got Ron Roberts and Bill Horn who’ve both been in for four terms, looking for a fifth. Why is this?
LEWIS: Well, you know, again, not a lot of people understand what the county does and they don’t necessarily know what the county – who their supervisor are (sic). I mean, you – if you have a problem with your street, you don’t go to your supervisor, you go to your city councilman usually. Now there are a few areas in the county to whom your only elected representatives to send these complaints is the supervisor. But in the City of San Diego, for example, you usually turn to your city councilman or a representative from the city council. And so there’s that. Also, they, without the term limits, they’ve gotten into a situation where they are able to build up massive campaign war chests. I mean, these guys and – Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price all have very large campaign war chests that they’ve built up. So if you want to run against them, you have to raise a lot of money. You know, Saldana, who wanted to run against Roberts, had only raised $17,000 by the time that she got out of that. That’s just not going to get the job done.
ST JOHN: And how much had Roberts raised?
LEWIS: You know, I don’t know how much it is but it’s in the hundreds of thousands that he has built up.
ST JOHN: I think it’s over $100,000…
ST JOHN: …in the last six months, that’s right, yeah. I mean, it does – JW, you’re nodding there. It – Would you take on a supervisor – It seems like the war chests that are built up there are pretty hard to challenge.
AUGUST: Well, it would be like running up against the wall and banging your head. And the fact – And I think they’re little ticked off about this initiative about limiting their term limits – I mean, putting the term limits on the supervisors. That’s why I think that Paul – I mean, Paul Horn…
ST JOHN: Bill Horn.
AUGUST: …he’s a musician – Yeah, Bill Horn…
ST JOHN: Yeah.
AUGUST: …did the neener-neener-neener this week about let’s spend a hundred thousand dollars and put on the ballot that you can’t have – what is – those project labor agreements…
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
AUGUST: …where only unions can bid on something. They – everybody should be able to bid. He did that, I think, because he wanted to show the unions, hey, if you’re going to do that, look what I can do to you, and probably to attract money from contractors up north, developers for his campaign run, too.
ST JOHN: And that’s something they’re going to vote on in a couple of weeks…
ST JOHN: …I understand but, you know…
AUGUST: Why spend $100,000 on that? Why don’t you just make it an ordinance and – if they want, and then if somebody wants to challenge it – I don’t get that.
ST JOHN: 888-895-5727, we’d love to hear from you. And you were just mentioning, Scott, basically that they had this neighborhood reinvestment fund, each of them has. Pam Slater-Price did mention that during her speech and she mentioned it in the context of transparency and said, you know, nobody used to know how we spent those…
ST JOHN: …two million. Each supervisor has $2 million to…
ST JOHN: …to spend.
LEWIS: Well, you know, the supervisors used to have more of a fiefdom system at the county where they each got to oversee parts of the county government. In order to get them off of that, the administrators offered them this sort of slush fund where they said, okay, now you can just give away $2 million a year to nonprofits that you think are worth it. You know, some of them use it for parks, for environmental cleanup, some of them just give it to lawn bowling leagues and, you know, dog costume parties. But the point is, is that, yeah, they do use this money and then they get to say that they – that they’re supported it (sic). So you’ll see the opera and then it’ll say, you know, thank you, Pam Slater-Price. Well, it wasn’t Pam Slater-Price that gave them the money. It was the county taxpayers. And so, yes, this helps them build up their political, you know, equity. But I think that the whole point of this should be that, look, they are blaming the state, they’re playing the victim card everywhere they can but the fact is, is that they’ve made some fundamental decisions about how they want to operate and that every time they tell you they don’t have money to do something, remind them that they simply had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, literally a billion dollars, to give away to former employees. So they did have money, they just decided to do that with it.
ST JOHN: Okay, we’ve got to take a break here. We’ll come right back. We’ve got a call on the line waiting so stay with us here on the Editors Roundtable. We’ll be right back.
ST JOHN: And you’re back with a feisty roundtable of editors here on KPBS. I’m Alison St John in for Gloria Penner. And Scott Lewis of voiceofsandiego.org is here, Tom York, contributing editor for the San Diego Business Journal, and JW August of 10News. And we’re talking here about the county, the state of the county, there was an address earlier this week and there’s elections coming up in June, and we have on the line Nancy from Point Loma. Thanks for calling us, Nancy.
NANCY (Caller, Point Loma): …and one of – I think the board of supervisors all need to be replaced. The media, locally, has done enough coverage showing that we’ve had an appalling result in the social services getting to the people that it’s been determined could, should, certainly qualify. But this board of supervisors has no clue because they’re on a total different plane moneywise than the people in San Diego.
ST JOHN: So, Nancy, the supervisors are responsible for a lot of different things. Is it the social services aspect that really touches you the most?
NANCY: Yes, it is because – Well, supposedly we’re losing $100 million in federal money because they are not doing – getting the benefits processed for the food stamp people because they believe in putting the money more into fraudulent activities. We are the only county that requires CalWORKS applicants to have investigators come into their home…
ST JOHN: You…
NANCY: …the only county. And…
ST JOHN: You mean preventing fraudulent activities supposedly.
LEWIS: Right, yeah.
ST JOHN: Yeah.
NANCY: …that’s all they think about. They assume that anyone walking in for food stamps or CalWORKS are doing it fraudulently. So let’s put them to the test and make them wait and come back and forth and – before we give them any benefit.
ST JOHN: Okay, so, Nancy, thank you for the call. I think one of the issues is, you know, that taxpayers are pleased by the fact that the county hasn’t raised taxes because one of the questions is just supposing social services, for example, does require, you know, more contribution? Are voters willing to see their taxes go up? I think that’s one of the things the supervisors are betting on is that they’ve managed to hold down, you know…
ST JOHN: …any kind of extra income. JW?
AUGUST: Yeah, but that’s because they made those choices. Why do they have to raise taxes?
LEWIS: Yeah, again…
AUGUST: I don’t believe that.
LEWIS: …if they want to raise taxes. They’re going to say, well, we don’t want to raise taxes to give away to poor people and, you know, with their dole-out but, you know, if they’re panhandling for us. The fact is, is that they could also make the argument they’d have to raise taxes to pay for the simple decisions that they made to incur these longterm liabilities.
ST JOHN: We have Tom from Alpine on the phone. Tom, thanks for calling us. Go ahead.
TOM (Caller, Alpine): Yes, I wanted to say that I thank you for letting me get on the line today. I understand the issues of the – of having too much war chest of funds for the supervisors but, on the other hand, we really like the support that Dianne Jacob gives to the east county issues such as wildfire prevention and control and the Powerlink problem. So how do we – if we were to limit the terms of our supervisors, how would we be able to continue to get excellent service from somebody like Dianne Jacob when…
ST JOHN: Great question, Tom. I think that you’re expressing a lot of people’s question. Scott, why don’t you take that?
LEWIS: Well, I think that’s a great point. You know, Dianne is one of those supervisors that represents a lot of people directly, that when they have problems or whatever, they have to turn to her and she is – she’s proven to be somebody that likes to take on the powerful, likes to take on issues that fire up her constituencies, and she’s going to remain powerful there. And I think there’s more than just the war chest or whatever that hurts people running against her, it’s the fact that she’s very popular out there, there’s no question. I guess the point is, is that especially out there you can understand why maybe she wasn’t – she hasn’t been challenged in any serious way. I guess the question is, is, you know, how is it that we still have this particular makeup of demographics on the county supervisors when there’s such a diverse community out there, both politically, demographically and in any other way. And I think that’s – And, you know, some people say term limits – I don’t personally believe that terms limits are the answer. I think that – I think that you put people in a situation where they’re only doing this for the short term and they make the kinds of decisions that you would make when you know you don’t have to answer for them in a few years. And I think that one of the ideal situations we have right now is that these county supervisors have to answer for the decisions that they made earlier in the decade and that’s what we’re trying to do.
ST JOHN: And perhaps if you had some more powerful, strong candidates who were good candidates running and challenging them…
ST JOHN: …there might be a difference situation for people like Tom who wants to know who’s going to take over.
LEWIS: Right. Eventually – I mean, if you are strong enough and you can inspire enough people, you can do whatever you need to be done. And for everybody who says it’s too hard to get something like that done, there’s a lot of people who have seen the impossible and made it happen, and I would inspire them, I would ask them to try to inspire their friends and followers to get something done.