News of the county’s surprising multimillion dollar budget deficit is an object lesson in why competence in elected office matters.
Sound governance requires thoughtful, honest, hard work. When breezy ideology trumps math, when political dogma substitutes for reasoned analysis, we can end up going from a healthy budget surplus to deficit overnight.
By all official accounts, it was an honest mistake which can and will be fixed. A cost miscalculation has turned an expected $3 million-to-$5 million surplus into a $3 million-to-$5 million deficit for the next fiscal year.
The unspoken truth is this glitch is a painful symptom of a much larger problem within county government: the chaotic reign of error and behind-the-scenes tyranny by the ruling majority of the Board of Supervisors.
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Their disdain for good governance, their disrespect for seasoned staff, have made this sort of mistake almost inevitable — and more difficult to rectify.
The budget process has been carefully constructed as a year-around endeavor involving all our departments, led by our Administrative Office. Earlier this year, however, the board majority drove off our outstanding county administrative officer, Dan Buckshi, whose budgetary skill guided us through the Great Recession and its aftermath, earning our county’s highest bond rating in history.
They then left the department adrift as they maneuvered unsuccessfully for two months to install their own politically aligned, outside candidate. The resulting damage reflects their overall shabby treatment of senior staff, whereby the majority contemptuously ignores professional advice, disregards facts, concocts new rules and blames others when their money grabs go bad.
This seemingly deliberate failure to govern competently shows up in many other actions — from the skewing of budget priorities to manufactured controversies over facility funding to fundamental ignorance of the emerging cannabis industry and its land-use regulations.
We have repeatedly seen this board’s majority behave as if they were a feudal troika, disregarding informed and transparent governing in favor of naked maneuvering for pork-barrel funding targeting their own districts and steadfast refusals to work within established best practices.
Why? Because three votes to do whatever they want is far more expedient for re-election and rewarding their patrons.
We’ve mentioned a number of examples:
Supervisor Debbie Arnold finally got three votes this year to alter our budget priorities, putting rural roads at the top of the list, right behind law enforcement. That added another $3 million to the $8.7 million already allocated annually for roads.
Serious problems with our jail’s mental health services? Lack of detox facilities? Desperate shortage of workforce housing? Nah, she went with potholes.
Voting in lockstep, these three also gave $2 million to subsidize their rural friends’ water consumption, another $1 million for useless planning studies at the behest of Home Builders Association cronies, and siphoned another $1.2 million for projects in Nipomo yet to break ground.
After nearly three years with few accomplishments, Supervisor Lynn Compton launched a conspiracy campaign in which her voters are victims of county misdeeds, using stage-crafted outrages to lard money into Nipomo to support her re-election.
Consequently, the proven process of professional planning for parks was scrapped and the countywide account of development fee collections is empty. Ironically, her political targeting of public money to Nipomo isn’t enough to put together one fully funded new park project in her district.
Justifications of these actions from board chair John Peschong are few — he often votes without comment, leaving us to wonder if he understands. His recent efforts to craft a land-use ordinance for cannabis activities suggest not.
He casually rammed through a radical change to push cannabis distribution into rural areas, while banning safer public dispensaries.
Those knowledgeable about the state’s regulation of the cannabis industry were stunned as Peschong, with his two loyal colleagues, tore apart the thoughtful work of staff and the Planning Commission. We’ll see the full damage when the board reconvenes on the issue Nov. 7.
That leads us back to how this ruling majority treats facts and evidence. Referring to cannabis, they’ve suggested widespread “chaos” and “devastation” without documentation.
They casually dismiss voters who don’t think like them — for instance, 57 percent of county voters who voted in legalized cannabis. They ask staff for professional advice, yet ignore it if contradicts their biases.
Thus, knowing what we know, seeing what we’ve seen, it’s understandable our beleaguered administrative staff made a mistake. We can overcome this oversight, but it will be more difficult due to the majority’s questionable spending decisions.
The majority will dismiss these criticisms, as is their wont. Regardless, we encourage this board majority to embrace fact-based decision making in the interest of the entire county, not just their voters and financial patrons.
Thoughtful consideration — not reflexive ideology — of the challenging issues before us is paramount. Good government requires careful analysis and the engagement of expert staff professionals.
Bruce Gibson represents the 2nd District and Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.