2004 State of the County Address

Chairwoman Dianne Jacob
February 4, 2004
West Hills High School

Good evening. Welcome to West Hills High School in Santee. San Diego County has begun its 155th year. Tonight, I have the responsibility of reporting out to the people of this region on its current condition. And, I am excited to tell you what lies ahead.

This vibrant County is three million people strong. Our economy defied a nationwide slowdown and improved three percent last year. We are twice as productive as the State. We retained our place among the strongest economies in the nation.

We've been scorched by wildfire. Uplifted by charity. And we are resolved to rise from the ashes. We are full of pride because thousands of our own military men and women helped topple and trap Saddam Hussein.

We still sit in traffic. We still need a solution for a regional airport. And we still need a winning football team. But we've got a new ballpark, a new panda and a new governor. We contributed more signatures to get rid of our ineffective ex-governor than any other County in the State.

We are facing not one, but several, of the biggest challenges in our history. We stand at the threshold of a defining year. And your County government is ready to take on 2004.

We have just come through a decade of strict fiscal discipline. We boldly disassembled and then restructured County Government. We transformed it into an accountable, functional entity, one of the top three best-managed governments in the nation.

Now, in spite of our hard-won success, we are faced with unplanned, unprecedented difficulty. The largest fire disaster in the history of California has decimated much of our backyard. The State's colossal financial crisis will force us to cut back our services.

We are feeling the way victims of the October wildfires felt as they surveyed the ruins of their homes. "Why us? Where do we go from here?"

Let's start by reflecting on the way the people of our County helped those hardest hit by the wildfires. I've watched the truckloads of canned goods, clothes and tools roll into fire-ravaged areas. I've seen victims look at the piled high loads and start to cry. Victims tell me they cry because they are touched by the kindness of people they've never met.

The people of this region met destruction with generosity, despair with charity and stared down the scariest force in nature with the best of the human spirit. County government is going to meet the daunting challenges ahead the very same way. Out of the fires has come a new spirit of community. This year we will put that spirit to work for us.

The State budget shortfall is not our doing. It will not be our undoing either. San Diego County's budget looks nothing like the State's. We are as solid as they are weak. Where they are flat broke, we are financially sound.

Where they are weighted down by bureaucratic bloat, we've partnered with the private sector and our employees to become competitive. Where they are addicted to outlandish spending, we have controls in place. It's simple. We don't spend more than we take in.

Unchecked spending is the reason why gale force winds of change are blowing through Sacramento. It's no coincidence that those winds started right here in San Diego County.

Today, a brand new Governor has an actual plan to dig the State out of its multi-billion dollar crater of debt. The key message of Governor Schwarzenegger's plan is that the State must control its spending. He does not want to raise taxes. He wants to overhaul the budget. He wants real worker's compensation reform. And, he believes the private sector deserves a chance to compete for the delivery of public services. Finally, a Governor who speaks the same language as this Board! Yes. He may have an accent. But his long-term goal to tame State spending is music to our ears.

His short-term strategy to bring that spending in line, however, has hit a sour note. Swiping $55 million of our local property tax dollars is as ill advised now as it was a decade ago. Once again, the state wants to grab an enormous chunk of our discretionary dollars- the only money we have that's not already shackled to State-mandated programs!

We use this money for parks, libraries, Sheriff's deputies and other safety services. Once again, the State wants to steal it to pay for a mess that local taxpayers did not make.

Well, this time, our board is wiser. If the State is going to keep reaching into our cookie jar to feed its appetite for spending, we are going to strike back with a diet plan.

My colleagues and I are aggressively supporting an initiative headed for the November ballot. It lets the people decide if the State has the right to raid local property taxes. And, it keeps the State from shoving new program after new program down our throats while providing no money to pay for them. Let's put a pad lock on our local cookie jar. And, let's put Sacramento on the treadmill toward a leaner future.

Every year our County spends millions of precious local dollars paying the bill for State program after state program- programs that the State is legally obligated to fund under the California Constitution. Yesterday, we filed two lawsuits against the State for continuously dodging its responsibility to fund its own programs. The first would recover more than $30 million dollars owed to the taxpayers of this region. We've been paying the State's tab for too long. The second would give us relief from programs the State refuses to fund.

Governor Schwarzenegger has said he doesn't want to "move boxes around." He wants to "blow them up." To the Governor we say, before you light that fuse, we've got a pile of State boxes sitting here in San Diego. To the boxes we say, "Hasta la vista baby!"

This County was ground zero for the recall. We can be ground zero for State budget reform too. This year, I will personally hand a copy of the County's award-winning General Management System to the Governor. And I will tell him that San Diego County is here to help.

Next week, I will ask my colleagues to join me to support the Governor's California Economic Recovery Plan, Propositions 57 and 58 on the March second ballot. As Californians, this is a vote to keep our State alive and on the road to recovery. It is not perfect. But, it is our only hope. We either get on the bus to a more disciplined financial future. Or, we get run over by the bus of bankruptcy and despair.

At its core, the Governor's plan includes cuts. Those cuts will run deep and wide here in San Diego County. They will be painful and people will be hurt. But we will survive. And, it will not mark the end of our prudent ways. The single most important thing we can do for the people of this region is to keep County Government financially sound. San Diegans can be confident we will achieve this. Like any family facing lean budget times, we are reordering our budget priorities. We will direct our resources to places where they have the ability to do the most good for the most people. We won't compromise vital services like public safety. And we will not turn our backs on our children.

We have a message for Sacramento: We do government better than you do. We manage people and money better than you do. Give us a stable revenue source. Give us flexibility, not rigidity, to operate programs. Above all recognize, that local government knows best how taxpayers want their dollars spent!

Public safety will remain our number one budget priority. We cannot skimp. It is that fundamental. Emergency personnel must have the tools they need to handle emergencies. If first responders are ill equipped, smaller problems quickly become bigger problems. And, right now, we cannot afford bigger problems.

The October wildfires were a cruel lesson in disaster preparedness. The flames robbed us of 16 loved ones and destroyed the cornerstone of family-life for thousands, the home. The flames also exposed a litany of inadequacies in the way our region responds to disasters. As policy makers, it is our duty to acknowledge these inadequacies and our obligation to change them.

We owe it to the firefighters who with sheer grit battled the fire. To disaster officials who spent sleepless nights trying to contain the chaos. To the thousands of volunteers, the churches and youth groups, who dropped everything to comfort victims. Shame on us as policy makers if we do not learn all we can learn from the fires!

Our immediate priority is helping people and businesses recover and tearing down any needless barriers that stand in their way. Our long-term priority is to make changes, however difficult, however controversial, to make our region safer from fire. I have set a goal for 12 months from now. This County will be able to say that we are far better prepared for wildfire than we were on that hellish night last October.

This Board was right to help fire victims clear properties of potentially deadly debris. We are keeping toxic ash and hazardous waste from finding their way into our drinking water. We were right to work without delay to control erosion. We will continue to reinforce hillsides that have been stripped of the vegetation that keeps them stable. It just might be that we have already prevented the kind of killer mudslides that struck San Bernardino County.

So far, we've committed more than $15 million dollars to help families navigate the path toward recovery. The very best people are on the job. To the thousands of County employees who rose to the occasion of the October Fires: Thank you. Some of you worked without sleep after your own homes had burned. You did not see your families for days on end. You exemplify all that good government is about. You put your own needs aside to work for the public good. We are all very grateful.

Thousands of county residents and property owners are struggling to get back to the way they were before the fires. But when it comes to fighting fire, we can never go back to the way we were. We're going to start at the roots, from the ground up. We must do a better job of managing brush. Around our homes. In our canyons. In our forests. On open space lands. Vegetation management is the most effective way to prevent another major fire.

We need to view fire as a natural force of nature. It gets rid of old growth and replenishes nutrients so that land can renew itself. State and Federal environmental rules ignore this lifecycle. Over-zealous regulations have cultivated a Back Country full of overgrown brush. Getting rid of this dangerous kindling takes years of bureaucratic paperwork... just to get started. The result is the kind of unmanaged tinderbox that exploded during the October Fires.

It could happen again tomorrow! Two-thirds of the County did not burn. Hundreds of thousands of acres still are at risk. Fire officials say it's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when. We need a healthy patchwork of brush in our Back Country. This keeps small fires from raging into Cedar-sized fires. To accomplish this: First, we fight fire with fire. We step-up controlled burning on public and private lands. Then, we maintain and build fuel breaks where needed. The one out East on Sunrise Highway was credited with saving Julian from the Pines Fire two years ago. Access roads need attention. When fire experts say they need better roads into remote areas, they're saying that people and structures are at risk. We've got to end that risk and fix those roads. They can be low-impact but they can't be neglected.

We know what to do. But onerous regulations won't let us do it. The California Environmental Quality Act and the Federal Endangered Species Act are not up to date with the science of forestry. This year, I will ask my colleagues to seek changes to those regulations. What happened in October will be our impetus for change.

Supervisor Bill Horn and I have taken a step to end confusing brush-clearing rules for homeowners. We trust that fire officials working with property owners know best what distances need to be cleared to protect lives and property. From now on, when a fire official gives an order to clear, this County will not stand in the way. State and Federal officials need to do the same!

Supervisor Ron Roberts was ahead of the curve when he came to us two years ago touting the benefits of a regional fire-fighting helicopter. Aerial resources like tankers and choppers are the proven partners of fire crews on the ground. Together, they are the one-two punch that knocks out fire.

As the County explores a regional fleet, we must work in unison with firefighting and law enforcement professionals at every level to get the most out of existing resources, local State, Federal and military. And, any additional investment we make must be an informed and sensible one.

During disasters, officials need a functional radio system to communicate. Ours is incomplete and overburdened. During the October fires, its Southern network was busy 35,000 times. Its Eastern network was busy more than 64,000 times. Vice Chairwoman Pam Slater and I have called for an evaluation of the system. We will examine all viable technologies this year to find out if science has created a better solution.

Many communities felt they received little notification as the wildfires advanced. So the County is developing more seamless ways to get people out of danger zones. We will help communities create specialized evacuation and notification plans- plans based on the geography and needs of each community.

Supervisor Greg Cox is exploring Reverse 911. If you have an emergency, you call 911. If there's a disaster you don't know about, Reverse 911 calls you. It gives instructions and saves lives.

Brush management and better communication and notification are key pieces of a larger puzzle that this Board is putting together. Another big piece of the puzzle is the creation of a regional firefighting entity. Unfortunately, it is a piece that is broken up and fractured into tiny little pieces of its own.

This region has a dissimilar mishmash of 64 fire departments putting out our fires. Some are financially flush. Some hold bake sales to make ends meet. Some have top-of-the-line equipment. Some have antique trucks.

Indiscriminate wildfire doesn't know when it's crossing over from one department's territory to the next. We've all seen how quickly one community's spot-fire can become a regional inferno. It's time to change this haphazard way of protecting lives and property from fire.

Already, the region's top firefighting minds have spoken. The Fire Chiefs Association and the Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services support a countywide fire entity. A recent review of unincorporated area fire departments confirms what we already know. Our region lacks continuity and our region lacks resources. We are all alone as the only large county in the State that doesn't have a countywide firefighting entity.

The first step is to take the most splintered area in the region and make it whole. There are 35 individual fire departments in the unincorporated area of this County. That's 35 separate voices trying to talk over one another to be heard. They should be brought together to be more efficient and save money. They should be combining their purchasing power to buy equipment and resources. It's an economic principle: There is strength in numbers. Fire departments should be combining that strength to bring in the funding they so desperately need. With one united voice, they will be louder and stronger.

Some don't agree. They say: Why should we care about the under-funded fire department miles away? I say: You have to care. You've seen the consequences of the status quo. I will be asking my colleagues to place a measure on the November ballot. It will let the people of the unincorporated areas tell us if they want to bring fire departments together. Or, if they are content with the way things are now.

From there, we can join with the other cities in our region to complete our puzzle and form an eventual Joint Powers Authority. We will be safer from fire when we coordinate, not separate, our skills, our knowledge and our resources.

Many people across the region are still angry about the initial response to the fire. Disturbing questions have been asked too many times by too many people to ignore. Including this question: Did top-level officials make flawed decisions that kept homes from being saved? Because multiple communities have been obliterated by a disaster that's trumped every disaster before it, we are all entitled to answers. I am committed to getting those answers. Those answers will guide us as we make changes to ensure that what happened last October never happens again.

Many people are waiting for the update to the County's comprehensive and community-based General Plan. GPA 2020- as it is commonly known- will serve as a long-term blueprint for growth in our unincorporated areas. But GPA 2020 is caught in the crosshairs of the disingenuous Rural Lands Initiative, Proposition. A.

Prop. A on the March ballot would rip land-use planning out of the hands of communities and stuff it into a one-size-fits-all ballot box. It would pull the plug on five long years of community cooperation. And derail what's been a time-consuming and costly public process. Our Board set up the painstaking GPA 2020 process to maximize input from communities. We felt that any plan designed for communities ought to be designed by communities. Prop. A on the other hand, was drafted by two people behind closed doors with no public input and no environmental reviews.

GPA 2020's goal is to help our rural communities preserve their own unique character. Prop. A on the other hand, thwarts the desire of rural residents to shape their own communities. It doesn't even give GPA 2020 a chance to succeed or a chance to fail.

There are 26 all-volunteer Community Planning Groups in the unincorporated areas of this County. The unpaid members of these groups logged hundreds of hours to plan the future of their own hometowns.

To them, Prop. A is a slap in the face. Next week, Supervisor Horn and I will ask our colleagues to slap it right back. We will ask the Board to stand up for community-based planning and oppose Prop. A. And, we encourage every one in this region to do the same.

There's one type of development that this County has absolutely no control over: The intensive commercial complexes that house Indian gaming casinos. With nine Indian gaming casinos, San Diego County is the Indian gaming capital of the nation.

For tribes, gaming has become a powerful tool for social change. It's helped tribal members break free from decades of poverty and government neglect. Gaming provides jobs and attracts tourists. Shops, restaurants and entertainment on reservations add fuel to our local economy. These benefits, however, are not without a price.

The kind of development that accompanies gaming has profoundly affected people in nearby communities. And, it's had a substantial impact on this County's government. From traffic to community character, from crime to groundwater, the unintended consequences of casino development are intense. Like a majority of San Diegans I support the right of tribes to game. And while I believe that reservations are sovereign nations, I know they are not islands.

The problem is this: The County has zero leverage to mitigate the side effects of high-impact tribal development in our rural Backcountry. We cannot force tribes to improve roads or pay for law enforcement. We cannot require environmental reports.

The States of New Jersey, Louisiana, Michigan and others receive a share of Indian casino revenue to offset casino impacts. In some cases, this share is as high as 25 percent.

That's not the case here in California where zero gaming revenue goes into California's general fund. We are pleased that Governor Schwarzenegger is working with the tribes to seek the State's fair share of casino revenue. And, I will do everything I can to see that San Diego County receives its fair share.

Tribal development issues will intensify this year. Proposals for four additional Backcountry casinos are in the works. The question is: Can our region shoulder more casinos? A new idea has surfaced that will help lessen the impacts of future casinos. It is one that respects tribal gaming rights and aims to protect communities from the unbridled proliferation of casinos.

"Casino Consolidation" would take all the slot machines allotted to tribes who are proposing to build casinos, and put them on the same sites as existing casinos. It could be in the same building. It could be in a building next door. The machines will still make money. The participating tribes will still collect that money. But our Back Country will not be peppered with large-scale casino complexes-complexes that could touch off sprawl development. "Casino Consolidation" is being discussed. It has the potential to become a model plan. It is not perfect. But much better than what exists today.

No discussion about growth is complete without talking traffic. This year, voters will have the chance to extend the half-cent sales tax used to reduce traffic congestion. As the TRANSNET proposal takes shape, this Board must be vocal about a glaring distribution problem with these dollars. The overwhelming majority of us travel by car. Yet, almost half of this money is slated to go to transit projects. For years, people have been begging to spend more time with their kids than on the same jammed roadways.

I want to put the most money where the problems are. That's why I will ask my colleagues to support a more equitable distribution of this money, with a larger share going to improve local roads and highways.

The State budget crisis, the aftermath of the fires and complicated growth issues all promise to make this year our busiest on record. However, it is not the time for this County to ease up on the successes we've achieved in the last decade.

At the heart of our County's long-term plan are three goals. Make our communities safe and livable. Improve the lives of children. Protect our natural resources and promote economic development. Our Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard has helped us advance these goals in incredible, measurable ways. This year, we will continue to build on our successes.

Historically, when the national economy falters, people lose jobs and crime increases. This has not been true in our County. Our crime rate is holding steady. We still have one of lowest crime rates among America's largest urban areas.

This achievement did not simply happen. It happened because of the thousands of men and women in law enforcement. And, because of leaders like Sheriff Bill Kolender and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. One is dedicated to fighting crime. The other to punishing criminals. They're more than just tough on crime. They're smart on crime too.

Our County is the birthplace of a national model that goes after the drug-crime connection: the Methamphetamine Strike Force. For eight years, the Meth Strike Force and its hotline have targeted the one drug behind the most shocking crimes in County history. The chronic meth user who stole a military tank and drove it down a City street. The meth user who hijacked a transit bus for a terrorizing joy ride around the region. The meth-using couple who held their tiny niece in a bathtub of scalding water and ended her life.

The Meth Strike Force puts the health community and law enforcement at one table. We've limited sales of ingredients used to cook meth. We've raised awareness about the staggering number of kids living in toxic meth labs. We don't intend to stop. The Meth Stike Force is troubled by a new trend.

More than one-third of women who break the law in our County test positive for meth. Compared to other illicit drugs, meth has a choke-hold on women in our region. This year, we will work to break that choke-hold. I will join forces with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis to explore the dangerous bond between meth and female lawbreakers. We will convene a summit and develop an arsenal of calculated ways to target meth-fueled crimes by women. Meth isn't the only demon we'll crack down on this year.

There are nearly 4,500 registered sex offenders lurking in our communities. Statistically, these predators are highly likely to repeat their sinister acts again and again. If I had my way, these predators would be jailed for life. Unfortunately, the law doesn't allow it.

Until then, the County has been building its own jail- a tall, strong invisible jail to keep these convicted predators away from our kids. This year, we're going to put more bars on this jail. At my request, this Board launched the State's very first Regional Sex Offender Internet Pin Map. Parents can now view the approximate locations of registered sex offenders living at any spot in the region. We must do more.

Megan's Law gives parents the right to access detailed information about convicted sex offenders released into our neighborhoods. The U.S. Supreme Court says parents are entitled to view this information over the Internet. The State of California however is light-years behind! Moms and dads in some 40 States are busy using this powerful tool to keep their kids away from predators.

California's database is incomplete and not on-line! This year, I will relentlessly badger State officials to change State law. And I will ask my colleagues to join with me. We want all detailed information about registered sex offenders posted on the Internet- just like other states.

I will not rest until every parent and every grandparent can call up this information from their very own home computer.

In addition, we want people caught with child pornography to be charged with felonies- not misdemeanors. And, we will keep pushing the State to bar sex offenders from living near schools and daycare centers.

Strip clubs have a legal right to operate. There's no way around that. But when they move into a community, crime goes up and property values go down. Arrests and assaults increase. At my urging, this Board re-wrote our adult entertainment ordinance. We banished clubs from residential areas and exiled them to industrial zones. We also barred direct tipping and lap dancing.

This County now has the most restrictive laws in the nation. We plan to keep it that way. There is a legal challenge to our ordinance. I want to commend my colleagues for continuing the fight against lenient rules for strip clubs. In doing so, we are shielding all of our communities from blight and protecting our kids.

Keeping this region safe is a necessity. So is keeping our kids healthy and strong. Despite our tough budget times, we must continue to improve the lives of children. A powerful way to do that is to get our kids' hearts pumping.

Young people with healthy hobbies like sports are more likely to do well in school. They are more likely to go to college and far less likely to get in trouble with the law. When we build ballfields, skate parks or riding and hiking trails, we are doing more than just giving kids a place to spend the afternoon. We are giving kids a chance to develop self-confidence. We're teaching them teamwork and social skills. And, we're insulating them from obesity and diabetes. We're giving entire families safe places to spend meaningful time together.

This County encourages families to experience the wide-open spaces of our unincorporated areas. Our conservation plan sets aside meaningful land so that generations to come will stay connected to nature. Our goal to preserve 100,000 acres is 88 percent complete and years ahead of schedule.

The evolution of the public library marches on too. This year, we are planning to design, build or expand libraries in twelve different communities from Imperial Beach to Julian. Our libraries are the public gateway to the world, alive with the Internet, community discussion rooms and writing clinics. I like to think of the child in Descanso who walks into the library empty-handed and walks out with the greatest writers in history tucked under his arm.

There is good news on the horizon for another special place that changes lives: Edgemoor Hospital in Santee. Sometimes we forget. Maybe we chose not to think about it. We share this community with people who suffer from severe disabilities and the cruelest of medical conditions. For them, a small nod or a simple blink is a miracle. These special souls are often turned away from care facilities.

When they've exhausted all their options, they are welcomed by the compassionate staff at Edgemoor. Four years ago, I told you the facility was antiquated. I said it does not do justice to the kindness that goes on inside its old walls. This year, we intend to break ground on a brand new Edgemoor, right here in Santee. When it opens in 2006, it will be a working testament to our commitment to care for the weakest of our neighbors.

I want to commend my colleagues for their commitment to this project. Past boards just talked about a solution. We did something about it. That says a lot about the collective character of this Board.

The year ahead is riddled with uncertainty. The State budget will hurt. Changes related to the fires will take backbone. And, it will be a monumental task to manage our finances and still protect our kids. The leadership of this Board is about to be put to its ultimate test.

I am confident that we are ready. We will not cross our fingers and let Sacramento decide our fate. We will fight to preserve what's rightfully ours. We will not cower from controversial issues like the bringing together of disjointed fire departments. We will stand by our General Plan 2020 and defend the process to ensure fairness to people in the unincorporated area. And we will continue our legacy of compassion by investing in our kids and places like Edgemoor.

If this year is to be our ultimate challenge, then the right people are in the right place at the right time. At this moment, thousands of October Fire victims are making hard decisions and working with others to emerge stronger than they were before the fires. Let them be our inspiration this year.