The County of San Diego Is So Huge – where do we start? the money or the scandals?

by on March 4, 2009 · 6 comments

in Economy, Election, Environment, Health, Media, Organizing, San Diego

Second in a Series

In my first post of this series on San Diego County government, I gave an overview of the County itself and then a brief look at the governmental machine. Because of the sheer size and magnitude of its operations and reach, it can be very overwhelming when one looks at our County’s political apparatus.  Because our county is huge, the government shell over it has to be huge too.  And we’ve got to understand this shell.

As we know, the County deals with everything from law enforcement, property taxes, planning and land use to health services and elections … and much more. When you get down to it, that’s really quite a breadth of services.  And it’s all run by the Board of Supervisors – and there’s also an independent District Attorney, a Sheriff, the Tax Collector and a County Assessor.

As was pointed out earlier, there’s a couple of important things to keep in mind during this examination: County government operates nearly in the dark – through either an ignorance and confusion by the residents of the County, or by a manipulation in how the County is perceived,  or because of a lack of in-depth media coverage of the goings-on in the Admin Building on Harbor Drive, or a combo of all of the above.

Results of County of San Diego Supervisor Districts 1, 2, and 3, June Primary 2008

Further, the politicians who are elected to run the big show do not reflect the County itself: they’re all-white, and they’re an all-Republican cabal of conservatives, out of touch, unrepresentative of the citizens, and untouchable politically. Nobody can challenge them. The big 5 have each been in their thrones for an average of 15 years, an arena where term limits dare not tread.

This needs to change. I don’t mean simply instituting term limits at the County, or of backing a single progressive candidate for a supervisor’s seat.  It’s not clear whether term limits help or hinder government – look at the City of San Diego. Plus the problem at the County is much more complex than what s single candidate can fix. But a progressive on the Board would certainly help. Many have heard the rumor that City Councilmember Donna Frye is considering a run for Ron Robert’s seat on the Board. That would be great.

But I’m talking more of a frontal assault on the institution. But more on that later. First, if you want to change something, you have to understand it, know it, study it. That’s what we’re doing here.

So Many Issues – So Little Time

The County is so big and there’s always so much going on. And there’s all kinds of issues and scandals swirling around this or that Supervisor or department or policy. It is overwhelming. Where to begin?

There’s the County monies, the budget, the discretionary funds, the recent arrest for fraud of two officers of the hedge fund managing millions for the county’s retirement system, other pension problems; there’s the scandalous kick-backs to supervisors in either campaign donations or international trips, there’s the food stamp controversy, the medical marijuana fight, the scandal over California  Children’s Services, problems with County Medical Services, outsourcing services, the lingering distrust within the County over recently-defeated Prop A, there’s budgetary grandstanding by the District Attorney, there’s residual fire issues smoldering from the Great Fires of 2003 and 2007, the closing of the adult County Honor Camps … the list could  go on and on.  Plus, there’s the scandals we don’t even know about. Like the big-time perks that law enforcement personnel get for home garaging.  See, it is overwhelming.

Let’s begin by looking at the money.

County Budget

It was just less than a month ago – on February 11th – that Chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors Dianne Jacob described hard times ahead in her State of the County address.  She gave her speech at the Communication Arts Center at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon. I know you went. Anyhow, in case you missed it, the Union-Tribune reported that she said:

“Let me be clear, what lies ahead is treacherous. But the good news is county government is in a far better position than most to navigate these rough waters. We will draw from our legacy of strict fiscal discipline to illuminate the ominous days before us.”

If this is all County residents have to look forward to – the “legacy of strict fiscal discipline” – we’re all in trouble.  In practice, the County has operated regardless of the poor and disadvantaged citizens under its jurisdiction.  Critics have accused the County of neglecting the bottom of society under its care due to a deliberate policy shift back in the 1990s. Somewhere around 1996 the Board decided to enhance efficiency over the delivery of services. This has led the County ever since to reward department heads and their staffs not for the quality of service to County residents but for how much of its resources could be stored and saved.

For example, we may speculate, the department heads who were able to keep the numbers of food stamp recepients down and keep the County Medical Service rolls depleted must have been rewarded.

At any rate, Jacob went on to call for outsourcing of certain health and social services, fire-resistant mandatory landscaping, and big-time changes to the county pension system, such as raising the employee retirement age or their contributions to the retirement fund.

During her comments about the pension, Jacob added fuel to an already ignited controversy, when she said:

... Wall Street has delivered a jaw-dropping blow to our pension fund.

With a 30 percent decline, we have fared better than most. Still, our $2.5 billion loss is staggering.

Even if the market bounces back, the required contribution by the County is expected to triple over the next five years.

Always on top of this issue, we refer to Scott Lewis of Voice of San Diego who concluded:

If Jacob is correct that the county’s contribution to its pension system will be triple what it is now, that means taxpayers will have to invest up to $700 million a year. Add this to the tens of millions the county still pays each year to retire the loans it took off to bail out the pension fund, and you have an investment into the pension fund larger than the current budgets of the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office combined. That’s talking thousands of officers and prosecutors. This doesn’t even include the hundreds of millions of dollars that employees themselves are investing in the mammoth hole.

Clearly, the County is suffering financially, like every governmental entity. It just laid off 27 workers, and has an estimated $90 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year and next.

The projected County budget for 2008 – 2009 is very close to $5.2 Billion. See for yourself where the County spends our money and from where it receives money. Check out the pie-charts below, as they are fairly self-explanatory: (I’m not going into a detailed analysis of the budget. We’re in an informational mode.) Go ahead to the County website, check out the current 2008-09 Adopted Operational Plan.

The County Pension Mess

One of the great exceptions to the general rule that San Diego media has historically ignored the County, is the online local news Voice of San Diego.  The Voice and in particular its reporter Scott Lewis have taken on the pension issue on a grand scale. Lewis has written a four-part series (which is now nearly 4 years old) on the County fund and claims it “may be putting as much of a basic financial burden on (County) operations as the city’s has,” which is very substantial, of course, but different than the City’s mess because it is “without the legal scandal and allegations of misconduct to accompany it.”  This accusation is based on the Voice’s review of San Diego County’s financial records and from interviews conducted by its staff.

In the very first of his series, written in 2005, Lewis summarized:

A massive pension enhancement for county employees in 2002 torpedoed the once surplus-heavy San Diego County Employees’ Retirement Administration. Three years after that benefit increase, the county’s $1.2 billion shortfall in its pension system continues to worsen even as officials invest far more taxpayer dollars into the fund than they did over the entire past decade.

And the costs of that investment are clear. The county, in 2001, only needed to set aside 7 cents in the pension for every dollar it paid sheriff deputies in their salary. This year, however, the county is putting 29 cents in their pensions for every dollar it pays them as a salary.
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Supporting the pensions of the county’s other employees has come with a similarly dramatic increase in cost over the same period.

But increased taxpayer contributions to the pension fund haven’t been the only part of the county’s obligations to it in recent years. County taxpayers will now have to pay off $1.19 billion in debt from pension obligation bonds — and will still be making payments on some of it for 27 years.

Fortunately for us, Lewis continues to keep his flashlight on the County Pension fund. (See his most recent post from March 2, 2009.)

On top of all this, authorities have just arrested two officers of the hedge fund WG Trading Investors LP, who were managing $78 million for the county’s retirement system. Geez!

Okay, moving on ….

The Discretionary Funds

Isn’t it great! Each supervisor – and there’s five of them – has a special slush fund of $2 Million. Each one of them. Each year.  And its all discretionary – or it has been at least up to now. So, these grant monies are doled out, not determined by the County’s needs but by the god-given right of each Supervisor to decide what and whom to support. Even during these tough times.

Since November 08, the Supes have handed out $1.5 Million in their discretionary funds. Now, remember there’s a $50 Million shortfall – right now. Plus back last November Supervisor Greg Cox declared that the special grant fund would be discontinued. Since Cox made this announcement, four of the five supes have made awards in grants.  Once again, we find the Voice of San Diego has done its homework, and reported:

Dianne Jacob earmarked $24,330 to the Northmont Elementary PTA in La Mesa to build two rock-climbing walls, a “twist-N-shout” slide and a playground.

Ron Roberts sent $90,000 to the San Diego World Trade Center, a local business organization that has sent him on six Asian trade missions since 2000.

Pam Slater-Price steered $300,000 to the San Diego Opera for a spring performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Cox directed $3,497 to the Ocean Beach Town Council for equipment rentals, supplies, marketing and venue costs for the 2008 Sandy Claws holiday beach party. The canine-themed event on Dog Beach featured a dog costume contest. Promotional materials describe it as a “tail waggin’ good time for the whole family!”

Hey, times are  tough.

Oh, and it gets better. Talk later, kids.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Larry OB March 5, 2009 at 9:36 am

The $300,000 sent to the opera, could have restored the county ocean water testing program for the next year.


avatar OB Joe March 5, 2009 at 3:55 pm

exactly. what wastes. these people don’t deserve to be in office. what the heck are the democrats doing about it? i would love to know.


avatar Frank Gormlie March 6, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Obviously Scott Lewis and the rest of the voice of san diego staff deserve a heap of praise for their continued study of the County. You might then say, well, why bother reading the OB Rag then, if the voice has all the good stuff?

Heck, then, I would respond, you should check out the voice on a daily basis, but always come back to the Rag, for where else would you find our particular slant on things, our humor, insight and wit? Huh? Huh?


avatar OB Joe March 6, 2009 at 6:32 pm

“Huh? Huh?” you forgot to add “articulation” as in where else would you find such …?


avatar nunya March 6, 2009 at 7:27 pm

I wonder if Pam Slater even knows that there are low income people in her district? People in wheelchairs who can’t bathe in their supposedly wheelchair accessible bathrooms.

‘Scuse me while I take my hand off the keyboard to manually close my mouth.


avatar Eagle Eyes March 7, 2009 at 8:32 pm

It’s about time we have term limits for elected officials of the SD County Board of Supervisors. Hey Frank, what’s the process to change the Board’s policy on infinitum terms? How about running an article and start a query?


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