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County Supervisor Dianne Jacob is something of a maverick for an East County Republican. While she hardly bends from her conservative principles she has a penchant for getting fierce with the very wealthy and powerful.
Her battle with Sam Zell, the real estate magnate turned newspaper mogul turned whatever he is now, was brutal. And she’s positively tarred the region’s energy and electrical monopoly, SDG&E — reflecting her constituents’ frustrations with the company’s efforts to both build a power line across the backcountry and shut off power in case of high winds that might cause fires.
She’s ending her latest rotation as chairwoman of the five-person Board of Supervisors. And the county is in a pickle. In 2002, Jacob and her fellow supervisors decided to enhance their own pensions along with those of the thousands of county employees by a factor of 50 percent. They never raised revenues accordingly and now they act surprised that they are staring down payments to their pension system that positively dwarf anything any other municipality in the region — including the city of San Diego — have ever confronted.
Add to it continuing fallout from the economic crisis, the state’s inevitable continued decline and therefore continued raiding of local funds and you have a major dilemma ahead.
Jacob will say it was market losses that caused their problems. But to gamble on the market to pay for your decisions to raise employees’ compensation that much doesn’t seem like the most conservative of strategies.
But Jacob also foresaw the massive unchecked liability to come from retiree health care costs. She worked with colleague Pam Slater Price and employee groups to cap those costs in a way the city of San Diego can only dream about. She also opposed the pension system’s ridiculous decision to once again double down on the market and pay its new investment manager a truly exorbitant rate. She at least seems to recognize that a public municipality can no longer pretend it’s some kind of preternaturally savvy investor that can outplay the pros.
I hope her colleagues come around as she appears to have. So here’s the latest in my Q&As. To catch up on what we’re doing, you can read the intro or just scroll through the blog to see who else I’ve queried.
You were pretty worried about how much money the county would have to pay toward employee pensions last year. County will have to make historically high contributions to that fund at the same time the economy still struggles to recover. Is everything OK, and why?
Answer: Everything is not okay. Significant Wall Street losses have deeply impacted our fund. We will experience a slight increase in required contributions for Fiscal Year 2010-11, but the bigger impact is expected beginning in Fiscal Year 2011-12 and beyond. The extent of the impact will be largely dependent on market performance over the next couple of years.
Without a significant turnaround of the markets to help offset the losses, the contribution rates could eventually exceed our highest contribution rates in recent history. I am concerned about the financial pressures it places on the county, as the plan sponsor, into the future and will be focused on this over the next year.
You’ve been pretty hostile to SDG&E with regard to their plans for a new power line through the backcountry and the attempt to cut off power to certain areas in the event of fire danger. What are you waiting to see from the company in 2010?
First and foremost, the utility should immediately harden its infrastructure to prevent wildfires. SDG&E needs to take some of its record profits and reinvest those dollars back into the safety of its system. This means undergrounding in high fire areas, wider spacing between wires, swapping wood poles with fireproof steel and immediately installing “recloser” switches to eliminate sparks caused by automatically recharging lines during high winds.
Other utilities have had “reclosers” in place for many years. Second, the utility has a long way to go to become more open and honest with the public. SDG&E used paid contractors to testify in favor of their shutoff plan before the CPUC. The utility impeded the CPUC investigation following the Witch Fire. The utility is not being forthcoming about details of the community councils they are setting up along the route of the proposed Sunrise Powerlink. SDG&E has acted badly in many ways on multiple occasions. I’m not sure what can be done to restore the public trust in my district, but they have a long way to go. Finally, they need to show a real commitment to solar beyond lip service. They could start right this minute by giving fair compensation to solar customers that generate surplus solar. Why is SDG&E profiting from the investment of these customers? Other states already compensate for surplus solar. As usual, SDG&E is behind the times.
If you could solve one of East County’s problems immediately, which one would it be?
Have you bought your Super Bowl tickets yet this year? Will the county provide any money toward a new football stadium?
Looking forward to buying my Super Bowl tickets. As I said before, any financing for a new football stadium must be a good deal for taxpayers.
What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?
Certainly, the state fiscal crisis will continue to demand my attention in the coming year. However, the approval of the county’s updated General Plan has critical and long-lasting implications for the region. The General Plan is the blueprint for growth for the entire unincorporated area of San Diego County. The updated plan will impact regional housing, traffic, water, energy, air, congestion and many other quality-of-life issues. This critical update will set the tone for the way our region manages its growth and resources in the decades to come. After years of community input and hundreds of meetings, the plan will come before the Board of Supervisors this year.
Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?
As far as leaders go, no one can top Phillip Rivers at the moment. I’m feeling very optimistic about Rivers making an impressive Super Bowl appearance in 2010.
What else are you looking forward to in 2010?
I optimistically predict that 2010 will be the “Year of the Sun” in San Diego. Solar energy that is. The county plans to launch its solar financing program in June 2010. Soon, more San Diegans will be able to afford rooftop solar systems by spreading the costs over 20 years on their property tax bill. San Diego is one of the sunniest spots on the globe. We should be leading the way with rooftop solar. 2010 should be the year our region plugs in to the sun. For our economy and for the planet, going solar makes sense and cents.
Rank major projects in order of priority for San Diego.
Higher Priorities: Improved Airport Infrastructure and Expanded Convention Center. These overdue projects will bring needed business to the region and stimulate the local economy.
Medium Priorities: New City Hall and New Football Stadium. The new County Operations Center under construction now is an example of local government saving money over the long-haul by investing in critical public infrastructure for the future. The same can be achieved with a new, energy efficient City Hall. A new football stadium to keep the Chargers in town is important for our region’s identity and might be an economic boost with this important caveat: if — and only if — the financing is a good deal for taxpayers.
Lower Priorities: New Central Library. New Performing Arts Center, New Wastewater Recycling Center, Expanded Mass Transit. Libraries should be decentralized and located within communities in keeping with community character. Now is simply not the time for a new performing arts center when there are adequate existing venues and, unfortunately, many aren’t self-supporting. We should not build a new wastewater recycling center until we utilize all of what we are recycling now. Similarly, we should not expand new mass transit when there’s not enough money to pay for the operations of the system we have now.
Rank local civic problems by how much they will worry you in the coming year.
At the top of my list are municipal budgets shortfalls and public safety concerns, which include fire protection, a local terrorist attack, crime, drug use and drunk drivers. Possible cutbacks to public parks and libraries are also of top concern to me.
— SCOTT LEWIS