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More hard times ahead for county

Partnerships key to future, says board chair

POSTED January 31, 2012 8:10 p.m.

When Bill O'Brien last chaired the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors – in 2007 – the county was surging with growth and “foreclosure” was a rarely-heard word.

Though times have been tough since then, the future is once again bright, O'Brien said in his 2012 State of the County address Tuesday. 

“I tell you today that I believe hope is now returning; that the promise of a new opportunity can be ignited in us, and that there is a reality of a new day that has arrived for Stanislaus County,” O'Brien said.

The approximately 40 minute speech, entitled “A New Day for Stanislaus County,” went on to draw parallels and paint differences between the Stanislaus County of 2012 and that of 2007 – the last time O'Brien delivered a State of the County address.

O'Brien admitted than in 2007 he had “no idea what was ahead” for the county, which has faced a foreclosure crisis, record setting unemployment, and failing businesses. The county government has suffered too, shedding 1,000 positions in four years.

But despite those challenges, great achievements have occurred, O'Brien said.  The Gallo Center for the Arts was completed, and the Latino Emergency Council has been formed. County health clinics qualified for federal funding, the North County Corridor project will soon break ground, and the Tuolumne River Regional Park is under construction. A plan to ship recycled wastewater to water-starved Westside farmers is also under development.

Those successes were not achieved using the same-old sorts of thinking which may have worked in 2007, O'Brien said, noting “our new day looks different.

“It's not a day of returning to the old. Rather, it's a day of change. It's not a day of finding our way back. Rather, it's a day of moving our way forward.”

That new way will see Stanislaus County continue to operate with lower tax revenues; though sales tax and property tax revenues have begun to recover, the recovery will be slow, O'Brien projected.

 

State part of problem

Despite lower revenues, the county faces additional costs which the State of California has shirked onto local government, O'Brien said.

Hundreds of unfunded mandates and new regulatory burdens go into effect each year. Even “funded” mandates usually see state contributions fail to meet costs, or are “funded” only in that counties are allowed to add new fees to balance out costs.

The few truly funded mandates often are subject to “payment deferrals,” where the state withholds millions to balance its own budget. That money is intended to be paid at a later date, but Stanislaus County is still owed millions.

“It's morally wrong and it's something none of us would do, but the state does it to us on an ongoing basis,” O'Brien said.

Those unfunded mandates come on top of Stanislaus County's “Negative Bailout” status, which sees the county pay a larger share of property tax revenues to the state than most other counties, due to a quirk in Proposition 13. More than $3 million in taxes leave the county each year due to this error – more than $60 million in total – but state legislators from other areas are in no hurry for a fix.

“It is another example of how the state can pass new laws regarding tanning beds, but is unable to fix this problem that directly impacts every resident of our county,” O'Brien said. “No one in Sacramento disputes this problem is an unintended consequence of the legislation, yet it has gone unfixed for 30 years and elected officials outside of our county have little or no interest in it.”

O'Brien also bemoaned the loss of redevelopment agencies, shut down by the state legislature. He noted past successes of the county's agency, which brought sewers to Shackleford and Bret Hart, developed storm drains in Salida, Keyes and Empire, fixed-up a water system in Crows Landing, and implemented affordable housing programs.

 

Partnerships credited for county success

Recent county successes can be traced to creative and innovative solutions to problems, O'Brien said, many of which relied on regional efforts, public-private partnerships, or the efforts of volunteers.

O'Brien cited the Modesto Regional Fire Authority – joining Stanislaus County, the City of Modesto, and the Salida Fire Protection District – as a “bold” move which will bring “significant benefit to our local community.”

The new county animal shelter – a partnership between the Cities of Modesto, Ceres, Patterson, Hughson and Waterford – is a “model for efficiency and effectiveness in government,” O'Brien said. And the facility relies on a public-private partnership, as well, providing low-income low cost spay/neuter services.

Other recent partnerships which led to success were the Family Justice Center, the mayors' agricultural preservation map, Valley Recovery Resources, and Stanislaus County's recent redistricting effort, O'Brien said.

“Unique partnerships will continue to be necessary in order to provide services for our community,” O'Brien said. “It is a difficult reality to consistently see that our community needs far exceed our government resources.”

O'Brien also lauded volunteers who helped the county succeed, despite fewer paid employees. More than 41,000 hours of community volunteer hours were logged in 2011, O'Brien said, in departments like animal services, county libraries, health clinics, and veteran services.

And in some county towns, residents have fundraised for new developments which the county could not afford. In Grayson, a park was made over; in Valley Home, a vacant lot was turned into a park.

“It is humbling to see how generous our community can be,” O'Brien said.

 

County staff credited

Some successes O'Brien attributed solely to the hard work of county staff.

A new, $24 million, 60-bed Juvenile Commitment Center was made possible by a state grant. But Stanislaus County earned that grant only because of an air-tight application; no other grants have been issued through that program.

The county has gone back in search of a second round of funding now, seeking $80 million to build a new adult jail with two 192-bed maximum security units, a 72-bed medical/mental health housing unit, and a day reporting center.

“The scope of these projects is daunting, yet the commitment, persistence, and hard work of County staff has been inspirational,” O'Brien said.

O'Brien also credited the county budget team for winning the prestigious national Government Finance Officers Association Award, for the ninth year in a row. And he recognized county employees who saved the government millions by performing an in-house software upgrade which usually requires costly consultants, and producing a new contract janitorial services agreement.

 

Challenges, opportunities lie ahead

With joblessness a top concern, O'Brien said diversifying the county economy is a top priority for the board in 2012. Though agriculture will continue to be a priority, the development of the former Crows Landing Naval Air Station into West Park, a massive business and industrial park is “essential,” O'Brien said.

And while the county tries to grow the economy, it will continue with the daily tasks of paving roads, vaccinating children, answering 911 calls, and collecting property taxes, O'Brien said.

As the address drew to a close, O'Brien said the board will continue to preserve those vital services while looking to the future. By addressing “issues head-on and then walking a path of integrity,” O'Brien said this “new day” may be bright.

“May we at Stanislaus County walk on that path of integrity,” O'Brien said. “May our eyes be fixed upon a future filled with hope and opportunity in the reality of this new day.  And may we continue to encourage one another to persevere in times of challenge, and to see the hope of a brighter future together.”

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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