Whatever the outcome of November’s election, San Diego County will have a completely new Board of Supervisors for the first time since term limits took effect.
No matter who wins in South Bay’s District 1 and East County’s District 2, the board is set to have one new Republican and one new Democrat. Whoever takes District 3, which includes Encinitas, Escondido and portions of northern San Diego, will determine which party controls the board.
For at least a generation, Republicans have been the dominant force on the board, and their guiding ethos has been fiscal conservatism. They largely sat on the sidelines, kicking the region’s bigger issues to individual cities.
A new GOP-majority board in 2021 may end up in the same spot ideologically as the current one, making tweaks around the margins rather than the reforms and broader cultural shift that Democrats are talking about. Yet its members seem acutely aware of the optics of continuing to hoard money while discussions about income inequality and racial justice dominate the discourse.
The highly contagious virus that wrecked the economy and killed hundreds of people is not the only problem demanding attention. Home prices are rising. San Diego still has considerable homeless and mental health crises. The climate won’t magically stop changing.
The city of San Diego and its suburbs, in the meantime, have been inching to the left.
At forums and debates in recent weeks, Republican contenders for both the District 2 and District 3 seats highlighted the needs of the region’s seniors and Latinos, dropping social justice language into their responses.
In a statement, Republican Supervisor Jim Desmond, who’s been pushing for the county to defy the state on the pandemic response, said his priorities remain the same, whoever wins in November. He’s not up for re-election until 2022.
“In the current COVID environment we need to protect the vulnerable, keep people safe and get businesses open and people back to work to rebuild the economy,” he wrote. “Public safety, fiscal responsibility and continuing to create thriving communities are foundational priorities moving forward.”
Like the Democrats, Republicans who are running for office this year have highlighted the county’s savings account as a top priority. But they’ve expressed an interest not in spending more of the reserves, but in building them up.
About $2.8 billion of the county’s approximately $6.4 billion budget is a pass-through for state and federal funds. Gaspar, whose campaign didn’t return multiple requests for an interview, recently told KUSI that the county’s roughly $2 billion reserves are needed as a buffer during the pandemic.
“It’s a good thing we have those reserves in place because look what happened,” she said.
The budget approved in August included an increase of $299 million, or 4.8 percent, over the previous fiscal year, and dozens more employees. The county got $334 million from the federal CARES Act, but is limited in how it can spend that funding. Going forward, the county is planning to pull several hundred million dollars from reserves to help pay for the public health response.
The county’s chief executive officer, Helen Robbins-Meyer, said it was a sound and reasonable thing to do, but she cautioned the board not to make a habit of dipping into reserves. She said discipline would be required to bring the reserves back up, but “we will adjust as necessary” as the region combats COVID-19 and begins “to address the social justice and racial equity issues facing our region.”
The county has policies in place restricting access to certain funds and requiring that a certain percentage be kept in savings, but those could be reversed.
Democrats have pushed back against the suggestion that they’re somehow behaving recklessly for wanting to spend more, not less, in times of economic distress, so that the government becomes an engine of stimulus.
“No one’s going to bankrupt the county,” Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the board’s lone Democrat, said at a Politifest forum earlier this month. “We’re going to make wise fiscal decisions.”
Nevertheless, Republican candidates have in recent weeks highlighted a few projects that might require new sources of funding. Gaspar, for instance, told the North County Chamber of Commerce that she’d like the county to create more on-site childcare for its employees.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus has highlighted a small business loan and picnic table-renting program his city started during the pandemic for companies hard up for cash and in need of outdoor space. He’s running in District 2 against former state Sen. Joel Anderson.
Keep Police Spending as Is
One area of the budget where Republicans would like to keep the spigot flowing: law enforcement.
Sheriff Bill Gore is elected, but he relies on the board to approve his funding stream. This summer, he and Fletcher got into a public spat over Gore’s attempt to outsource more of the jail’s behavioral health services. His department has racked up millions of dollars in legal claims and settlements stemming from wrongful death and medical negligence allegations, the Union-Tribune reported.
Gore wanted to privatize more of those services, which could have meant job losses at the county. Democrats also argued that health care companies beholden to investors will lead to even worse care because they’re only interested in keeping costs down.
When asked if he was open to diverting some of the sheriff’s budget to other services, Vaus scoffed.
“I don’t at all support defunding the police in any fashion,” he said. “Anything that’s going to weaken or diminish the ability for our law enforcement officers to respond would be a nonstarter for me.”
Anderson, the only Republican contender who made himself available for a phone interview, said he’d like to invest more money in police training and the county’s psychiatric emergency response team, commonly known as PERT. The mental health professionals who make up the team ride around with deputies but are not sworn or uniformed, making them less intimidating to people in crisis.
“We simply need to increase the spending in an area to get a better return,” he said.
Earlier this year, the board unanimously agreed to cut fees in its juvenile justice system and end the collection of juvenile delinquency debt. The decision was expected to reduce county revenue by $300,000 in the current fiscal year and $1.5 million in the next fiscal year, the Union-Tribune noted.
Gaspar, who co-wrote the proposal, said the lost revenue at the county was worth it, because “for many families, they are still facing significant debt as a result of their child’s incarceration, legal representation and community supervision.”
More Options for Housing and Homelessness
The county’s longest serving supervisors have traditionally chafed at “housing first,” an approach to homelessness that aims to get people off the streets and in a stable environment before tackling underlying problems.
Instead, conservative supervisors have typically made religious-sounding overtures on this subject, as though homelessness were a moral failure. They’ve talked about the need to offer “a hand up, not a handout,” and to ensure homeless people commit themselves, as a condition to home subsidies, to address the issues that may have contributed to their homelessness.
Yet the county, under outgoing Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s lead, has been moving in directions it wouldn’t previously go. In January, the board agreed to set aside nearly $8 million on hotel and motel vouchers and boost its homeless outreach team, the Union-Tribune reported. The board also agreed to set up a storage center in East County where homeless people could keep their belongings and it identified other land for support services.
Gaspar was the only no vote, because the proposal relied on state funds that came with housing-first restrictions. At the time, she said not all communities should be expected to follow that approach.
Vaus, who Jacob endorsed as her successor, appears to agree.
“I don’t think we should limit ourselves to a single solution when it comes to tackling the challenge of homelessness,” he wrote in an email. “We will be better off as a region if we have more options for housing and services, which includes mental health and substance abuse treatment. The population that we are dealing with isn’t one size fits all, so our solutions shouldn’t be too narrow.”
The board in recent years has also been more receptive to bolstering mental health services that affect many San Diegans, not just those who are homeless.
Last year, for instance, Gaspar and Desmond worked to keep Tri-City Medical Center’s inpatient psychiatric and short-term crisis beds operational. Citing costs and regulations, the medical center suspended its inpatient behavioral health unit in 2018.
Both Vaus and Anderson expressed support for the county’s wider efforts to establish a network of walk-in crisis units and to create regional behavioral health hubs.
More Environmentalist and Transit Shade
The county’s general plan is essentially a blueprint of where housing should and shouldn’t go, primarily in rural and semi-rural areas. In recent years, however, Republicans on the Board of Supervisors have given developers special permission to build where the plan says they’re not supposed to.
Democrats have called this practice harmful, because the plan is meant to spur development near existing infrastructure and transit, and it represents, through a variety of hidden costs, including fire services, a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to developers.
Both Vaus and Anderson balked at any suggestion of a blanket ban on development in wildfire zones. Anderson, who’s from Alpine, argued that the development serves as a buffer against metro areas.
“The fact we live here,” he said, “means the fire gets put our faster.”
At a North County Chamber of Commerce forum, Gaspar blamed environmentalists for the county’s lack of housing construction, citing lawsuits over the years that have meant, in her words, thousands of units are “stuck in jail, so to speak.”
The county’s policies around climate change have been one source of contention because officials — over the objections of environmentalists and even some members of the Board of Supervisors — crafted a series of flawed climate action plans. Those plans allowed developers to offset the carbon-emissions caused by their projects through the purchase of carbon offsets in international markets, which have little oversight or accountability.
A court recently sided with the environmentalists, forcing the county to start over again.
The Republicans running for office this year are also uniformly opposed to the San Diego Association of Governments’ new $177 billion plan to revolutionize transit so that it’s more competitive with driving. The agency doesn’t have enough money to make all the road and highway improvements previously promised to voters and is now seeking another tax increase.
Conservatives have said they’re not opposed to alternative modes of transportation. Gaspar, for instance, has pointed to a stretch of I-5 that contains carpool lanes and is near train lines and bicycle lanes.
“Talk about a win for San Diego,” she said at a forum. “I’d like to see a lot more of that. Unfortunately, that’s not how our investments have been made over time.”
SANDAG executive director Hasan Ikhrata’s big plan includes more of those projects.
Two members of the Board of Supervisors also sit on the SANDAG executive board of directors. Gaspar and Desmond have been two of the leading voices of opposition to increased investments in mass transit. So is Vaus, who chairs SANDAG’s executive board.
Collectively last year, they dealt Ikhrata his first major loss since he took over the position in 2018 by tweaking his five-year budget and moving money from one roadway project on the I-5 to others in North County.
More Local Control Over the Pandemic
The public health response is one area where a new GOP-majority board may have the most immediate impact, but it’s difficult to say how that change would look in practice. Collectively, though, Republican candidates have expressed support for loosening restrictions on businesses and setting aside more open space for schools and others. Supervisor Greg Cox, who oversees the county’s pandemic response subcommittee, is termed out at the end of this year.
Gaspar has credited the county for coordinating its public health response with hospitals to ensure there were enough hospital beds and for applying for government help. But she’s also argued against more economic stimulus.
“We don’t want a lifeline,” she said at a forum. “We don’t want relief. We don’t want additional loans that are out there and food. What we want is to keep our doors open and protect our employees.”
She’s the chief financial officer at her family’s physical therapy business.
Vaus, on the other hand, has noted that only a portion of the federal CARES Act funding went to local businesses through grants. Governments will survive, he said at VOSD’s Politifest, but “you can’t say the same thing for many businesses.”
In the meantime, both Vaus and Anderson said the county should release more coronavirus data. VOSD requested epidemiological reports back in the spring and is now suing the county for failing to provide it. The closest the public gets to understanding where COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring is through updates that vaguely cite the type of setting where it took place.
Most of the Republican criticism has been leveled against the state. Far and away, Desmond has been the most high-profile of the critics.
Last month, he requested that the county stop enforcing the state’s reopening restrictions. Gaspar was expected to second the motion but she didn’t, later referring to Desmond’s effort as symbolic.
“It would not have changed a single thing for our local economy and instead would have put our businesses at increased risk of retribution from the state,” she said in a statement to NBC 7.
Vaus struck a similar tone. “Even with a board vote,” he wrote in an email, “enforcement could still be carried out by the state, local law enforcement and county officials.”
Anderson, however, said he would have seconded Desmond’s motion to force a public debate on what he sees as the state’s arbitrary approach, giving corporate chains more leeway than mom-and-pops.
The board was on the verge of suing the state last month but backed off.
Lisa Halverstadt contributed to this report.