Who’s Supervising San Diego?
An Envision San Diego Special
Friday, June 4, 2010
SAN DIEGO JOANNE FARYON (KPBS News): Sir, do you know your County Board of Supervisors?
MAN #1 IN DINER: No I do not.
MAN #2 IN DINER: No. I don't get into politics.
FARYON: Do you know who your supervisor is?
MAN #3 IN DINER: I’m sorry. I don’t have a clue.
MAN #1 ON STREET: The county supervisor… What is a county supervisor’s role?
MAN #2 ON STREET: I don’t know.
FARYON: Greg Cox? Have you heard of him before?
WOMAN ON STREET: Um, no.
MAN ON STREET: County supervisor…
FARYON: Ron Roberts? Do you recognize that?
MAN ON STREET: Um…
MAN ON STREET: Yes, but I didn’t think he was elected.
FARYON: Do you know what the county government does?
(noise of clock ticking)
WOMAN ON STREET: No.
MAN ON STREET: I don't know.
FARYON: Hello Everyone, I’m Joanne Faryon. Welcome to this Envision special, “Who’s Supervising San Diego?” They control a $5 billion budget and make decisions about your safety and your health. They are the County Board of Supervisors. There are five of them, all elected; all have been in office for at least 15 years. They oversee services that range from prosecuting criminals to feeding the poor. They have been praised for their ability to balance their budget and amass more then a billion dollars in reserves. But they’ve also been criticized for neglecting their responsibility to the county’s poor and most vulnerable citizens. Despite the scope of their job and the size of their budget, the board isn’t often scrutinized. They have at times been called the Invisible Government. Tonight, we take a closer look at who’s in charge at the county, what they stand for, and how they spend your money.
(brass band playing)
Special Feature Who's Supervising San Diego?
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors controls a $5 billion budget and makes decisions affecting your health and safety. They oversee services that range from prosecuting criminals to feeding the poor. Learn about your supervisor’s priorities and how the group spends your money.
BILL HORN (San Diego County Supervisor): We humble ourself and come to you. And repent of our sins and come to you humbly, Lord, that you would direct our paths and strengthen our arms and…
FARYON: This is Supervisor Bill Horn.
HORN: Lord we strive at the county to produce safe neighborhoods.
FARYON: He’s a successful citrus and avocado rancher.
HORN: In your son’s name we pray this.
FARYON: And apartment building owner. He used to run his own construction company. He won his first election to the Board of Supervisors 16 years ago.
HORN: I didn’t quite know what supervisors did but it couldn’t have been any harder than running my three hundred man construction company.
(noise of car driving off)
RON ROBERTS (San Diego County Supervisor): If everything goes right I’ll get to be home by 9:30.
FARYON: Ron Roberts has also been a supervisor for 16 years. He’s an architect and a former San Diego city council member.
ROBERTS: I think I can do far more that to me is personally satisfying in working with people than I could at any other level of government.
PAM SLATER-PRICE (San Diego County Supervisor): OK. Now we have a motion to second to approve the consent calendar estimate…
FARYON: Pam Slater-Price is a former teacher and mayor of Encinitas.
SLATER-PRICE: Because I go out in public on a regular basis, large different diverse audiences, and usually I get compliments and thank-yous.
FARYON: She was first elected as supervisor 18 years ago. Dianne Jacob is also a former teacher and school board member. She has been a supervisor for 18 years.
DIANNE JACOB (San Diego County Supervisor): Since I’ve been on the board, yes, it was fix the finances first and foremost.
FARYON: The newbie on the board is Greg Cox, he joined the supervisors 15 years ago - another teacher and former mayor of Chula Vista.
GREG COX (San Diego County Supervisor): I’ve found the electorate over the years to be incredibly smart. They know when somebody is doing a good job.
FARYON: Three teachers, an architect and a rancher. Together they are the longest serving board of California’s ten largest counties. All five are Republicans, all white; all are between 60 and 70 years old. And they are all graduates of San Diego State University.
ROBERTS: Well this was about – well it says winter of ’96 so that’s about two years after.
FARYON: No surprise they’ve been dubbed five of a kind. Almost in unison, they stand firm on their number one priority as a county government.
COX: My priorities are still public safety.
SLATER-PRICE: The public safety is our number one priority.
ROBERTS: Public safety is the highest priority
HORN: Public safety.
JACOB: My number one priority has always been public safety.
FARYON: The supervisors don’t just pay lip service to public safety; it’s where they spend most of their money – on the district attorney and sheriff’s offices. When this board took over more than 15 years ago, the county was on the brink of bankruptcy. Today they have a Triple A credit rating and more than a billion dollars in the bank. They also take pride in running county government like a business. They reduced the size of the county workforce by 10 percent in the past five years. At a time when other local governments can’t balance their books, this board is in the middle of a building boom.
FARYON: They’ve recently built two new libraries, a new Medical Examiners Building, and they’re now constructing a $500 million county operations building. And they’re paying cash for many of the projects. They’ve been recognized across the country as one of the best-managed governments – winning dozens of awards. But the supervisor’s financial success comes with a cost – many argue this board fails to provide the most basic services to the poor and most vulnerable. They cut spending to services for kids and victims of domestic abuse. They have the worst record in the country for providing food stamps, and provide limited funds for the county’s indigent and homeless. They’re proposing to cut 600 more jobs this year and reduce funding to social services for the third year in a row.
GLEN SPARROW (Prof. Emeritus SDSU): Apparently their constituents have no problem with this as we can see by the fact that they continue to re-elect them. And they continue to be, quote, stingy in the way that they spend money for social services in this county. But it seems to me that it has been a formula that has worked well for them. And I think they would argue, probably, "We are representing our people. Lookit, I just won by 75 percent of the vote."
FARYON: Tonight, we’ll examine this board’s priorities by how they spend your money. And we’ll take a closer look at who’s been representing you for nearly two decades.
TODD GLORIA (Councilmember, City of San Diego): Well I think that when people look at the composition of the board of supervisors they are surprised by the very homogeneous nature of the board where you have all Republicans, all San Diego State grads, and all Caucasian. And then you look perhaps at the San Diego city council where we’re far more diverse. You know, we have three women, three people of color, two gay men, six Democrats, two Republicans. It’s more heterogeneous and I think therefore creates for a more healthy dialogue in terms of points of view, perspectives, life experiences that are all brought to the table when decisions are being made.
FARYON: County government’s responsibilities range from sheltering stray dogs to providing sheriff’s deputies in the unincorporated areas. They provide health care to kids and protect us from fire. Counties were formed by the state constitution 150 years ago – there are now 58 counties in California. Originally charged with law enforcement and maintaining roads, the role of county government expanded after the Great Depression and the New Deal.
ANNOUNCER FROM 1930s: Thousands of Americans are here to share the birth of a new era in national affairs.
SPARROW: With the coming of the new deal and the development of the welfare state in the United States, counties, especially in the west, began to take on that role of running what we then call welfare programs. And eventually in the '60s health programs as well.
SLATER-PRICE: Philosophically, I disagree with those office holders who believe the public demands more programs. But our state government continues to throw money at all problems in the hopes of solving every societal issue known to mankind. They are draining the taxpayers - and our state - dry.
FARYON: So what's a county government to do when the state demands those programs be implemented whether you like them or not? That just may be the billion-dollar question.
FARYON: The County operates a $5 billion budget. The federal and state governments decide how 80 percent of that budget is spent because the county is a clearinghouse for government-mandated programs – things such as food stamps and child protection services. Federal and state taxes pay for most of these programs. About 20 percent, or $1 billion, is controlled by the Board of Supervisors. Most of that money comes from your local property taxes. This money can be used for any purpose that is a legal expenditure of county funds. With this billion dollars, the board can establish its priorities. The county spends more than half its budget – more than half of its billion dollar pie - on public safety. That includes the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office, and probation services. Budget documents show the Board of Supervisors has increased funding to public safety departments for the past two years and plans to continue that trend next year. By contrast, the county has consistently reduced its share to social services. That’s the department that provides programs for the poor and the sick. The county has even cut funding to programs for kids at risk and victims of domestic abuse.
SLATER-PRICE: The reason we even have government is people wanted to bind together and protect the residents. So therefore the number one concern that our residents have is to be safe. They don’t want to feel as though when they go out onto the street their life is going to be taken in their own hands. They don’t want to fear being kidnapped or robbed or assaulted in any other way. If they’re a woman, they don’t want to fear being raped. They want to feel that they are being protected and looked after. And that is our board’s philosophy. That is our number one project.
FARYON: And where would – how would you rank health and human services in terms of board priorities?
SLATER-PRICE: Well I think health and human services is its own category. But you can't provide - if you’re giving health and human services money which comes from primarily state and federal sources not local sources then the people that are receiving those services also want to be safe.
FARYON: Cuts in the health and human services department will mean longer wait times for families applying for food stamps and public assistance payments. Demand for these programs has steadily increased since the recession began.
FARYON: So at a time when people want more service why would the county actually reduce its share, its 3.7 percent share?
ROBERTS: Part of it again goes back to priorities. The overall county budget had to get smaller. And that meant that the health and human services budget, we had some cuts in law enforcement, we had cuts across the board, I doubt if there’s a department that didn’t see some cuts.
FARYON: Although, the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office, the board actually increased their contribution to those budgets out of its general revenue. That the net county cost to those departments saw increases...
ROBERTS: Public safety is the highest priority. And if the state and the federal and property taxes are going down we don’t want to lay off deputy sheriffs. We don’t want to dismantle the programs that we’ve got.
FARYON: All areas of the budget have taken some kind of financial hit in the past few years because of the recession. There’s less money in property and sales taxes to go around. And the state’s chronic budget deficit often leaves California counties struggling to make up for lost revenues. For example, the sheriff, DA and probation offices rely on a portion of sales tax for their yearly budgets. Because of the recession those departments are short millions of dollars. The county is proposing to temporarily make up for that shortfall, also known as backfilling, using $16 million of its fund balance. That’s the money left over year-to-year once all the county’s bills have been paid. The county currently has $430 million in that fund. There are also reduced revenues in health and human services because of the declining economy and state cuts. However, the board is not temporarily backfilling that department.
SLATER- PRICE: We’re not backfilling. We don’t backfill. State and federal programs we don’t backfill. We could go broke trying.
HORN: As we distribute the money and the general funds money, which you're talking about, and how we spend it on those programs we do that within the law - the letter of the law. Now, we could be like some counties, like Los Angles, go way overboard and spend our general fund and be in the red all the time and face with a bankruptcy issue every time we turn around.
FARYON: L.A. County spends about 30 percent of its general-purpose budget on public health and assistance programs. San Diego County spends about 7 percent.
HORN: We’re joining tea partiers and other communities throughout the nation, protesting the fact that Washington is wasting our money.
FARYON: County supervisors are non-partisan positions. KPBS surveyed the ten largest counties in California: San Diego and two other county boards are comprised of all Republicans, one board is made up of all Democrats. Despite being non-partisan positions, San Diego supervisors have a policy manual spelling out a conservative approach to government. The manual contains hundreds of directives on public housing to illegal immigration, even a section on self-sufficiency.
HORN: We’d like to get people off the dole, off the, you know, public assistance. We’d rather teach people to fish, rather than give them a fish. However I’m not opposed to – I mean, you’ve worked all your life and you’ve paid your thing, and all of a sudden you find yourself unemployed I think you have a right to the food stamps. I think you have a right to the unemployment. I wish those hard times weren’t here, but at the same time I would not deny those to the public, they paid for them.
FARYON: The County has consistently had the worst record for providing food stamps, according to a survey of metropolitan areas. Long lines and a difficult application process have been cited as some of the reasons for the lack of participation. County officials say they’re working on improving the process. Supervisors are also adamant about providing services to those they believe are most deserving, investigating more cases of public assistance fraud than just about any other county in the state.
JACOB: I went out to visit recently, and I saw some examples of the in-home supportive services program. I like to see firsthand what's going on. In a couple of situations, absolutely it was being done right. It was going to the right people. I remember a 90-year-old woman, she was absolutely delightful and her granddaughter was actually helping her out a minimal amount of hours each month, like go to the store, take her to the doctor. I mean that’s the idea. This woman was not able to do those kinds of things. But then I visited another situation where you had an individual, a male, who was probably around in his 40s who had an accident in the desert, ended up as a paraplegic. Very, very sad, however, he’s living with his girlfriend. He’s getting the in-home services program and she’s getting the check to take care of him and she could work. She was totally able to work. But because she’s able to get money from this program, there’s no incentive for her to get out there and work.
HORN: But I do think the services to the illegals in this country, especially this county and I'm more concerned about this county, is huge. That’s money I’m taking away from the taxpayers.
FARYON: So do you think that there are a number of the services the county provides, the food stamps, CalWORKS are going to illegal immigrants right now?
HORN: Yes I do. And unless they’ve – and we’ve been criticized for our fraud prevention, because we do have a big fraud unit, but we’re required by federal law to do that and I think we’re fairly diligent. But at the same time we can’t get them all. It’s huge. I don’t have the kind of safety net to stop all of that.
FARYON: The district attorney’s office investigates public assistance fraud. A spokesperson for the DA says the office does not keep record or investigate citizenship of those applying for public assistance. The board also has a policy on illegal immigration. Three of the five board members support a constitutional amendment that would prevent children born in the U.S. from becoming citizens if their parents are illegal immigrants.
(These Days theme)
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (These Days): I would like to welcome first incumbent supervisor Ron Roberts who is seeking his fifth term on the board, and good morning.
ROBERTS: Good morning, Maureen.
FARYON: Two supervisors are up for re-election this year. Ron Roberts and Bill Horn. They are being challenged by several candidates.
STEPHEN WHITBURN (Candidate for Supervisor, District 4): The county fails to provide adequate social services. San Diego County’s food stamp program has been recognized as the worst in the nation. It’s embarrassing. And I just found out yesterday that the county has begun – get this - fingerprinting and photographing senior citizens and the disabled who qualify for in-home supportive services.
SHELIA JACKSON (Candidate for Supervisor, District 4): So it’s nice to say that we are solvent but if you have a house but your kids are starving, then guess what? Your kids are not going to be successful in the future.
STEVE GRONKE (Candidate for Supervisor, District 5): Most of the county supervisors would rather not provide services to some individuals.
FARYON: Both Roberts and Horn have more than $100,000 in contributions to finance their campaigns – most of their challengers have only a few thousand dollars. And of course, they also have the power of incumbency with 16 or more years in office.
SPARROW: When they look at the ballot, golly, I recognize that, I don’t know the other three or four people. I’ll go with the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t.
(applause - Ron Roberts at senior community center)
REP FROM SENIOR COMMUNITY CENTER: Ron has made many donations…
FARYON: And then there’s the discretionary fund – dubbed by critics as a slush fund.
REP FROM SENIOR COMMUNITY CENTER: Including buying microwaves for some of you that are living in the downtown SROs…
FARYON: Every year, each supervisor has $2 million they are able to give out in grants to organizations at their discretion, subject to final board approval.
ROBERTS: What a difference!
FARYON: Along with some microwaves for seniors, Ron Roberts also bought refrigerators for this seniors' drop-in center.
SPARROW: I don’t doubt for an instant that it all goes to good causes but it’s their good cause, maybe not my good cause or your good cause. I don’t care – you know, everybody has good causes and just because they get to choose them and spend a million dollars of taxpayers’ money doesn’t mean that every good cause gets covered. It’s their choice. And let’s face it - it is a wonderful way to get yourself reelected.
FARYON: You know what your critics call this fund though, this is a way for the supervisors – and I mean you’ve heard this – they can buy votes.
ROBERTS: Go to San Pasqual Academy and share that story and ask them how many votes is Supervisor Roberts buying. OK? Talk about foster kids. Foster kids’ parents, it’s not a place to buy votes because a lot of them are in prison. You don’t buy votes… there are critics out there and they seize on any little thing.
HORN: Well, you know I’m sure that the people getting the grant are pleased that they’re getting the grant. But whether I was supervisor or not, I don’t want to see this go away. I think this is returning to the taxpayers part of the money they're putting in that they're not getting any benefit for. I could not build libraries, like Fallbrook or Valley Center, or even the space that I lease out in Borrego Springs, or the building inside the shell of the Forrest Ranch area. Those libraries could not be built without those discretionary funds.
FARYON: KPBS surveyed the 10 largest counties in California. We found San Diego supervisors had the largest discretionary fund per capita. The supervisors voted earlier this year to cut their discretionary fund in half, to $1 million per supervisor, in the upcoming fiscal year. But it’s a temporary cut – budget documents show the fund returns to the full amount the year after. An interesting thing happened while conducting interviews with all five supervisors. I asked them about whether social services were a priority, given the board has consistently decreased spending in those departments. Three of them responded with the same anecdote.
HORN: We have public health nurses that, you know, people come in and see the public health nurse, maybe they’ve gotten pregnant or they have… whatever the issue might be. A couple years ago we streamlined the whole system.
COX: We provided all of our public health nurses with basically home computers.
ROBERTS: So they wouldn’t come back to their offices and then go back out.
COX: By doing that we have eliminated the need to hire additional public health nurses.
HORN: It’s streamlined the whole process.
ROBERTS: They may have doubled their performance.
FARYON: It’s a coincidence that raises a question about whether the lack of diversity on the board is a true reflection of the make-up of the County.
FARYON: When you hear that a county like San Diego has five white Republican supervisors, what do you think?
GREGORY FREELAND: I’m thinking that, well, this is a very Republican county that really doesn’t have other interests. It doesn’t have communities of interest that are concerned with the environment, or it doesn’t have a minority community here that’s very, very active. I’m thinking that the majority of the population must be 80 percent white. That’s what I would think. And at least 60 or 70 percent Republican.
FARYON: That’s Gregory Freeland, a political science professor at California Lutheran University who studies county government and citizen engagement.
FREELAND: There is a philosophy that goes with being a Democrat or a Republican. If one district has a homeless problem and a Republican says no we don't have the money to do this so we're not going to address it. We're not even going to bring it up at the board to come to a vote. That’s what happens. If you have one Democrat on there he can at least bargain.
FARYON: San Diego’s demographics break down like this: About half white, a third Hispanic, about one-tenth Asian and Pacific Islander, and one twentieth African American. There are also slightly more Democrats than Republicans in the County. Todd Gloria has worked for the state legislature, the County’s Health and Human Services department and now serves as a City of San Diego council member.
TODD GLORIA: If you have folks from all walks of life the opportunities to have an elected representative who’s passionate about a particular issue and therefore makes that a priority. It puts that on the agenda at that legislative body, is more likely. So you know my experience is in affordable housing and in homelessness. After I was elected, I chose to make that a priority because it’s something that my constituents care about, but it’s also something that I’ve had personal experience with.
FARYON: The board is about to embark on budget deliberations. They’re proposing to spend $145 million less this year over last, and eliminate 600 jobs. And for the first time in over a decade the Health and Human Services budget will be less than the year before.
JACOB: It’s going to be terribly, terribly difficult and painful. I mean heart-wrenching, because in some of these cases it’s going to come down to we’re not going to have any other choices.
FARYON: Setting budgets are about choices. And so are elections. All five of the supervisors have easily won in past elections.
COX: Obviously every four years they have an opportunity if they want to to choose somebody else. And I feel very blessed that so far they’ve been happy with the job that I've done.
SLATER-PRICE: I don’t really get a lot of complaints. So the complaints are coming from somewhere but I’m not sure they’re coming from our constituent base.
GLORIA: You know democracy is not an easy thing. It’s not just something that you just show up on Election Day, vote and walk away and just hope for the best. I mean democracy requires the direct action of its citizens each and every single day. Really nobody should be elected and then forgotten about. We have to as citizens hold people accountable.
FARYON: For more on your county supervisor and county government – go to our website. KPBS.org/supervisors. For KPBS and Envision San Diego, I’m Joanne Faryon. Thanks for watching.