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San Diego County Supervisors Challenged


Two of the most significant races on the ballot next week are for seats on San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors. The challengers trying to unseat two long-time incumbents faced off in the KPBS studios this week. Here are some of the issues they tackled.

Two of the most significant races on the ballot next week are for seats on San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors. The challengers are trying to unseat two long-time incumbents. The candidates faced off in the KPBS studios this week.

For well over a decade, San Diego County Supervisors have routinely won reelection outright in the June primary. So it’s unusual that two seats are challenged this year.

“After 16 years of the exact same five supervisors, they’ve gotten too comfortable,” said Stephen Whitburn, who is vying to unseat Ron Roberts. “They are abusing their positions, enough is enough, it’s time for a change.”

County supervisor is a non-partisan office, but Whitburn points out all five incumbents are Republicans, and he says, as a Democrat, he’d inject a little variety on the board.

Incumbent Republican Ron Roberts pinpointed one obvious reason voters have left the Board of Supervisors unchanged for so long.

“The County has maintained a strong fiscal discipline and is running things without the upheavals that we’re seeing in other agencies,” he said. “We’re not asking anybody for a tax increase.”

In fact, Roberts did try to get a tax increase passed in 2008 -- a parcel tax that would have raised $50 million a year to improve fire protection. It failed.

The County backed out of coordinating fire services decades ago and is only now slowly building the system back up. Whitburn attacks the board for not doing more to protect public safety.

Roberts said at least he tried to do something by putting the parcel tax on the ballot.

“I wished the outcome would have been different,” he said, “but I worked to get that passed. But you didn’t raise a finger when it was on the ballot and you were running at that very same time.”

“Supervisor,” Whitburn countered, “You have had 16 years to provide adequate fire protection in San Diego County, and you have failed.”

Whitburn’s suggestion is to take $10 million from the County’s reserve fund to put professional firefighters at 18 fire stations currently staffed by volunteers.

The County’s reserve fund is extraordinarily healthy: $700 million.

So it’s not surprising the other candidate vying for a seat on the County Board also wants to use some of that money. Steve Gronke, running against incumbent Bill Horn, wants to use reserves to help mend holes in the social safety net. That includes food aid, health care, job training, and other services for people struggling economically.

“We’re not talking about welfare recipients,” Gronke said, “we’re talking about people like you and me that have lost their jobs, that have lost their homes through foreclosure. It’s us, not them. The County is not doing their job.”

But Horn is adamantly opposed to using any reserves. That’s because the County’s excellent credit rating depends on healthy reserves, so borrowing money is cheaper.

“We pay far less for money because of that credit rating,” he said. “The moment you start using that reserve to backfill programs that the State has abandoned, you start using up your General Fund, and once you do that you are on a death spiral.”

Voters often don’t really know what services the County is responsible for providing.

But many local organizations that receive individual grants from supervisors know all too well what the County does for them.

Both Whitburn and Gronke rail against what they call “slush funds” -- a million dollars a year that each supervisor gets to allocate to organizations in their district.

Gronke says people who support him privately told him they couldn’t risk doing it publicly because they’re afraid they’d lose the grant.

“It was sad,” Gronke said. “The intimidation that’s going on with that slush fund is unbelievable.”

Both Gronke and Whitburn have managed to raise only a fraction of the financial support that the incumbents have collected. Horn attributes his solid base of support to the County’s strong financial position.

“I think one of the reasons for the fiscal health of the County is that you’ve had consistent conservative leadership that has brought about the triple a bond rating,” Horn said. “I realize my opponent doesn’t think this is a big issue but it’s an extremely big issue when it comes to money, and the county government is about money.”

Voters may have concerns about the services the county government provides, but during these tough economic times, they are likely to favor candidates who don’t ask them for more money to pay for them.

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