By Sharon Byrne
It’s always a critical time in government. No matter what year, election, or issues, it’s critical. Ever notice that?
This week’s column isn’t to advance the interest of any candidates, party, or cause. The only concern expressed is a call for good governance… on every front. We’re not in some kind of “Bell” state of affairs, i.e., rampant corruption. In the news as of late, there are some struggles looming large within our city and county government, and I just hope our elected officials and staff can navigate through them to a good end for all of us.
The recent Point-in-Time Count is disappointing: the homeless count is flat since 2013. As someone who’s worked on that problem, people are getting help, including housing. But are we drinking a storm with a teacup, so to speak? Are we putting adequate resources in play to address homelessness? Are there enough Restorative Police here in Santa Barbara? Two cops work darned hard with chronically homeless individuals. With 893 homeless counted in the city of Santa Barbara this year, and 600+ deemed chronically homeless, is 2 cops even remotely realistic to tackle this problem? On the Milpas Outreach Project, we’ve learned 10 chronically homeless individuals can keep 10 of us volunteers pretty darned busy, and take months to finally house. Santa Monica, with a 2015 count of 738 (also flat), has 10 Homeless Liaison Police. Given that State St is adopting the Milpas model and had to push for Community Service Officers, where is the horsepower and leadership from SBPD to seriously address this problem?
The county funds alcohol, drug, and mental health services. That county department, ADMHS, itself the subject of heavy criticism, offers annual training sessions for law enforcement on dealing with mental health crises. It stands to reason that SBPD is probably called out to deal with individuals experiencing mental health crises on the streets pretty regularly. So why not flood these training sessions with officers to better equip them?
ADMHS has tens of millions of dollars available through the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). Those funds can be used for increased outreach to mentally ill individuals on our streets, supportive housing for them, and other crisis services we clearly need. Can our county supervisors direct ADMHS to prioritize MHSA funds to help reduce the number of severely mentally ill individuals on our streets? Are our city leaders aggressively lobbying the county supervisors in this direction?
ADMHS also has a number of job openings on the mental health side, with a hiring backlog approaching 100 for some time. There is a fairly new emphasis in hiring for cultural competency, but it’s resulting in turning away good people that are not bilingual. Are there not options for translators or bilingual contract staff to close the gap?
At the same time the flat homeless count was released, the County Supervisors’ pay hikes made the news. Pay raises for government officials and staff are always controversial. Taxpayers resent paying increased salaries, and it’s a somewhat poor argument to use salaries in other jurisdictions as the basis for increases, rather than performance, as multiple op-ed writers have noted. The problem is gaming the system. The first county to increase their pay paves the way for other counties to follow suit, whether warranted or not. Our county supervisors make less than some of their staff. They’re not rolling in the dough. But the optics, as they say in DC, aren’t good.
Infrastructure is a huge city and county challenge across the United States. How is it that at one time we could build all these bridges, roads, and buildings, but can no longer afford to maintain them? I am not a civil engineer, so am admittedly not expert, but it seems to me it’s probably more difficult to maintain a 50 year-old Ferrari in perfect condition than it is to buy a new one. Trying to find parts alone would be an ordeal. Edison, though not a government entity, is wrestling with 100 year-old infrastructure in our downtown, built when the area was not nearly so densely commercial. That aging infrastructure can’t handle today’s load; witness the blackouts. Edison would likely find it far less onerous to wire up a new downtown yet-to-be-built versus upgrading 100 year-old infrastructure buried underground. Sometimes, maintenance is just harder than demolish / build new. We’ve built an awful lot of stuff through the industrial era, and I guess we’ve hit critical mass in what it now takes to keep it all up.
Throw in district elections, rental market squeezes, IV, public pensions, and so on, and… well, it’s a critical time, as always. Consider this a plea for good governance, whatever times we’re in.