Political Analysis: County Address
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’ve just heard a number of opinions on the state of San Diego County when it comes to social services. Tonight, we’ll hear an assessment on the county’s entire status. San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Pam Slater-Price will deliver the annual State of the County address. The impact of the national recession and the state's money problems continue to hurt San Diego. In addition, the county has its own troubles, including wildfire protection and declining property tax revenues. We don't know exactly what Supervisor Slater-Price will say tonight but KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner is here to tell us the topics she thinks tonight's speech should include. Good – Welcome, Gloria.
GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Well, I would have to be some kind of prognosticator to do it accurately because all we got from her was a press release a few weeks ago that said she’s going to focus on job development, public safety, the challenges of the year ahead, and set out her agenda.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, well…
PENNER: That was it.
CAVANAUGH: …that’s pretty bare bones. But San Diego’s unemployment rate is 10.1% so jobs is a pretty good place to start. What’s the unemployment situation currently in the county?
PENNER: Well, 10.1% says that so far this year, we’ve lost 50,000 jobs and the total number of jobless is…
CAVANAUGH: In 2009?
PENNER: …yes—is 164,800. Alan Gin, he’s an economics professor at USD, he says that 52,000 more people are out of work this year than last, which is going to be the biggest one-year loss of jobs on record…
PENNER: …for the county and they really don’t expect much of a rebound until midway point of 2010, this year, hopefully. Before that, they expect it to – he expects the unemployment rate to hit 11% and that when the rebound or the recovery starts, he expects it to be slow and although we won’t be bleeding jobs, it’s going to take years, we’re talking years, to fully rebound.
CAVANAUGH: Well, the county is also losing money to the state because the state has such budget problems. It’s losing money also because our own property values are going down.
CAVANAUGH: So could we hear any ideas about increasing revenues in this State of the County address?
PENNER: Yeah, I’d love it if Pam Slater-Price had taken a look at the report that came in from a seminar that took place at SDSU last April from the School of Public Administration. They had some really great ideas. They suggested increasing the county’s Transient Occupancy Tax—it’s known as the hotel room tax—because it’s only 9% and even the cities of Chula Vista and El Cajon charge 10%. The City of San Diego, 10 and a half percent, and in Fresno County, it’s 12%, 14% in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. They also suggest that the county could consider raising its sales tax rate by adding a local sales tax or imposing some new fees on business licenses, on parking meters in some unincorporated areas. So those are suggestions, really, to increase the revenues to the county.
CAVANAUGH: There’s even a suggestion on how the county might be able to help keep property values from falling.
PENNER: Yeah, I thought it was very inventive. They talk about parks because parks are popular and they raise property values wherever they are. They’re suggesting that the county buy land from foreclosed properties to build community parks because abutting or affronting a park increases a house’s property value by 20%, so that would raise the property values in San Diego County and then when property taxes are paid, they’d be paid at a higher level. They also suggest delaying tax reassessments for ten years from the time of the improvement of a house to encourage homeowners to remodel or maintain their below median average home value properties and that would not only help the neighborhoods keep current but also avoid dilapidation. So those are a couple of really good suggestions. And those improvements could include things that we’re pushing anyway like environmentally friendly appliances, solar panels and water friendly landscapes.
CAVANAUGH: Well, as we said, we don’t know what’s going to be in the speech, the State of the County speech, tonight but one of the things Pam Slater-Price is going to address is public safety. And, of course, our big issue with public safety is wildfire.
CAVANAUGH: So what ideas are around about how San Diego County can improve wildfire protection?
PENNER: A very thorough analysis came out of the National University System Institute for Policy Research and I think that when you talk about recommendations, you really have to talk about shortcomings. For example, San Diego County spends a great deal less on fire protection and emergency services than LA County and Orange County, per capita. And it’s one of the only counties, San Diego is, in California without a county or regional fire department. So that’s sort of a major recommendation. Since 2006, the budgeted positions in fire departments in San Diego County have actually decreased, so this is all part of it. And 302 recommendations were made after the Cedar and the Witch Fires; many of them have not been implemented. And that mostly has to do with increasing staffing or investing in additional equipment or additional training. That has not yet been carried out.
CAVANAUGH: Since so much of the idea of what’s going to be in this State of the County speech is a blank, what else would you like to see the speech address?
PENNER: Well, let’s see, where do we start? I guess we really should start with the idea of transparency and accountability. The county, for many years now, has been accused of being very self-protective, that they live in their own worlds and they put up walls. And then we’ve had recent reports about a newly released audit that shows that the San Diego County Treasurer/Tax Collector’s office improperly withheld about $8 million in overpayments and repeatedly failed to fix problems in how the office is run. Now that audit was completed last March but it wasn’t made public until the end of this January and that’s only because a California Public Records Act request was filed by the San Diego Union-Tribune. There were at least two other independent audits dating way back to 2005 that identified similar problems in the office. I mean, things like records altered and deleted without explanation, computer systems not properly secured. I mean, this is our tax money that we’re talking about. And here’s the worst: the auditor said office staffers and information technology contractor Northrop Grumman refused to turn over some records and denied that other documents existed although they were discovered later. You talk about transparency and accountability, I mean, that’s what we have to look at.
CAVANAUGH: So you’d like to see transparency/accountability addressed in the speech.
PENNER: I would.
CAVANAUGH: What about development or traffic issues around the county? How is the board of supervisors handling those issues?
PENNER: Well, of course, a lot of that has to do with SANDAG, which is kind of in charge of transportation but let me choose the latest controversial development. It’s called Stonegate at Merriam Mountain. Opponents say that every day traffic worsens in the county and that this project will add more than 35,000 daily trips to roads and freeways, especially impacting Interstate 15 and State Route 78, and we know what it’s like out there especially at rush hour. The background on this is it was a controversial housing development, more than 2600 homes and commercial buildings on about 2300 acres of land. It’s north of Deer Springs Road and it’s just west of Interstate 15 and north of Escondido. The Golden Door Spa…
PENNER: …is very much opposed to that. Now what happened was that there was a vote on this. It was taken and Pam Slater-Price and Dianne Jacob voted against the project but Greg Cox and Bill Horn voted for it. So you had a 2-to-2 split and that meant that it was a tie. Ron Roberts was at a meeting in Sacramento. He then came back and said he wanted to vote on the project which, as I said, was tied without him. And that’s going to happen, it’s going to happen sometime I think March 24th, they’re going to have a vote. So we gotta keep our eye on that because it certainly will impact traffic.
CAVANAUGH: We spent the first part of this hour talking about how the county is handling its social service obligations. How do you think Supervisor Slater-Price will handle this issue in tonight’s State of the County address?
PENNER: I don’t think she dares to ignore it because it’s out there now in the community, thanks to all the reports from the media. I mean, there’s no way that she can ignore the fact that we’re doing so poorly trying to help our needy. She can acknowledge that there’s plenty of room to improve and that they’ve already started addressing the problem. If I were the supervisor, I’d say that we won’t tolerate a climate of disrespect and suspicion toward our unfortunate residents and we will come down hard on county employees who don’t do their best job for those who come to us for help. What do you think?
CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s – that’s powerful.
PENNER: Yeah, it is.
CAVANAUGH: And that would be powerful if that were part her speech.
PENNER: It is. It’s a culture that needs changing. And now she comes to give a major speech just after all of this has broken and is in discussion in the community.
CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the State of the County speech tonight, which will be given by San Diego County Board of Supervisors chair Pam Slater-Price. And she gave us the idea that she’s going to be talking about jobs and public safety and she also said she’s going to be talking about other challenges. So what do you think the other challenges may be that we hear about in tonight’s speech?
PENNER: Well, I think another challenge is one that has surfaced considerably over the past many years. Some people call it a slush fund, other people call it discretionary funds. And what it basically is is that each supervisor has $2 million in his or her budget that they get to spend as he or she thinks fits. And I say $2 million sort of hesitatingly because there were reports that it was up to $2.7 million. That’s considerable. Pam Slater opponents – I’m sorry, it’s not Pam’s opponents. Supervisor Ron Roberts’ opponent, because Pam Slater-Price is not up for election this year. Assemblywoman Lori Saldana said she would – she’s taking this on. She said she would like it abolished completely and put the $10 million total back in the County’s general fund for programs that benefit the whole county. And, certainly, that $10 million would go a long way to helping the poor. If she can’t get two other supervisors to join her, if she does get elected, in getting rid of the discretionary fund, Saldana said I would open it up for people who have some ideas, that the discretionary funds create a very unfair practice because they can’t document its return on the investment. Let me give you an example. I think we have time for that. In October, Pam Slater-Price gave away $50,000 for April’s opera performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” $7,500 to the California Coastal Coalition for costs related to the Headwaters to Ocean Conference. It’s going to take place in Long Beach. $5,000 went to the Escondido Rotary Foundation for it’s annual Couer de Cuisine event taking place on February 28th. And $3,500 went to the Hutchins Consort to assist with artist and equipment fees for nine free family concerts at the Encinitas Library. Now, you know, that’s all – There’s worthy causes, certainly, but one wonders considering the situation in which we now are, whether that’s the best use of that money. Of course in 2006, Slater-Price and Ron Roberts went on expensive overseas trips that were paid for by organizations that had received these discretionary grants.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me – in the minute or so we have left, Gloria, when you speak about challenges the county is facing, for a moment let’s just talk about the challenges that the supervisors are facing this year because a couple of them are up for reelection. Tell us about that.
PENNER: Well, Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, it’s their turn to face the electorate. And at this point, I explained that Ron Roberts has a challenger, Lori Saldana. The area that Ron Roberts represents, which is really the City of San Diego and environs, the demographic has changed. It used to be a Republican area and now it’s skewing Democrat and Independent. Lori Saldana is a Democrat. Ron Roberts is a Republican. And one of the criticisms of the board of supervisors is that we have, in a very diverse community, five white, Republicans representing the community and that it may be time for a change.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want everyone to know that the State of the County address will be delivered tonight. We’ve just been talking about what Gloria thinks might be in it.
PENNER: You certainly have.
CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week, thank you so much.
PENNER: You’re welcome.
CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to post a comment, please do, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.