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One powerful lesson of my service in the Marine Corps came early in my service, on a cold and snowy day high in the mountains at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. We had been training at high altitude for weeks, existing on pre-packaged meals. After days of continuous work in freezing temperatures, like a gift from the heavens, we saw snow trucks approaching bringing “hot chow.” When you’re wet, cold, tired and hungry, nothing lifts your spirits like a hot meal.
What happened next is something I’ll never forget. A burly gunnery sergeant yelled for us to get in line by rank. The lowest-ranking Marines were allowed to eat first; the officers ate last. The leadership took care of those whom they were responsible for before themselves. Of course, we ran out of food. The top leaders ate cold, pre-packaged meals — and never complained.
In this spirit, the County Board of Supervisors should reject their proposed 12 percent pay raise. Supervisors have received higher raises over the last eight years than the county employees who serve the public. Although our county supervisors’ pay ranks in the top half among the state’s most populace counties, our county employees’ average pay ranks in the bottom half – and this proposal does nothing to change that.
But the supervisors’ obligation is not just to the county employees, it is to the broader public they are elected to serve. The county plays a vital role in helping those in greatest need access available programs, and their efforts are falling short.
A recent KPBS report shows that poverty in San Diego County is at a record high, and just over a year ago, a report pointed out the county is one of the worst at identifying and registering needy families for the state and federal programs. San Diego County ranks ninth out of the 10 largest counties in California for ensuring families in need are enrolled in Cal Fresh, a program that helps provide basic food security. An aggressive program to maximize enrollment in CalFresh, CalWorks and Medi-CAL would not only aid families most in need, it would provide a needed boost to our local economy. We are missing out in over $700 million in state and federal assistance that could help those most in need and inject money directly into our economy.
The county has neglected to truly invest in mental health services and efforts to help reduce homelessness. While we’ve seen an explosion in the homeless population throughout San Diego, a recent grand jury report shows the availability of significant unused taxpayer funds that could be put to use aiding in the delivery of mental health services, a vital component of a comprehensive strategy to tackle homelessness.
This isn’t a question of resources; it’s one of priorities. The county currently has cash reserves three times the amount recommended by experts in government finance and has millions on hand to invest in a beautiful-yet-costly water park at its downtown facility. It’s pledged millions more to finance a new Chargers stadium. And now, the supervisors are poised to increase their own salaries. It’s a clear case of skewed priorities.
If we live by the principle of taking care of those we are sworn to serve, San Diego County has a long way to go. It’s time to invest in those families most in need: our homeless, our veterans, folks badly in need of housing and the workers who provide the very services that can lift up the least among us. If we are getting in line by rank, the line is long — and the supervisors should be at the end.
Nathan Fletcher is a Marine Corps combat veteran and former member of the California Assembly who currently serves as a professor of practice in political science at the University of California, San Diego.