For years, Santa Clara County government has boomed, benefiting from a surging economy and escalating tax revenues.
But those days of rapid growth are over. And the behemoth government agency — responsible for a public health system, social services for vulnerable people, law enforcement, roads, and parks and recreation facilities — finds itself in a financial pickle.
At the same time, the five-member governing board is about to lose its two senior members. Cindy Chavez and Joe Simitian are finishing their final year on the board because they are barred by term limits from seeking reelection.
It all heightens the importance of the March 5 elections and, if needed, the fall runoff. At this critical time, what’s needed are leaders with strong elective-office experience and financial acumen.
Our recommendations: Former San Jose Councilmember Madison Nguyen to replace Chavez in District 2 in San Jose, and Mountain View Councilmember Margaret Abe-Koga to replace Simitian in District 5, which stretches from Palo Alto through Los Gatos to the southwestern corner of San Jose.
Whoever wins the elections, the challenges ahead for the Board of Supervisors will be monumental.
Over the past 10 years, the county population increased slightly and then dropped back to where it was. Meanwhile, the number of county employees surged 41%, from 15,766 employees to 22,300. And the budget more than doubled, from $4.6 billion annually to $11.3 billion.
Costs, driven largely by employee salaries and benefits, are projected to continue rising. But the rapid growth in property values and the resulting tax revenues are expected to slow, as are the increases in state and federal funding.
The result: The county faces a $250 million projected shortfall through mid-2025 and an even greater structural imbalance the following fiscal year. County supervisors will have to make cuts in programs and services. It won’t be easy.
Some have been maneuvering for a sales tax increase. But, of California’s 58 counties, Santa Clara County already has the fourth highest sales tax. And taxes on purchases are one of the most regressive ways to raise revenue, disproportionately affecting those who can least afford it.
In addition to the financial challenges, new supervisors will face other tough decisions. For example, the board must decide whether to build a new county jail and what facilities should be included in it. And it must address the dysfunction exposed when a baby died from a fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose after county social workers left her in the care of her drug-addicted father.
None of the decisions that lie ahead will be easy. This is a time for proven leaders.
District 2 – Madison Nguyen
During her nine years on the San Jose City Council, Nguyen was independent and fiscally prudent, with a compassion for the underprivileged that stems from growing up in a family of Vietnam refugees who arrived here with next to nothing. It’s exactly the mix of traits needed to help lead Santa Clara County’s largest government agency.
Nguyen supports paying county employees well, but she also expects them to perform well. Right now, she’s frustrated by the lack of urgency and accountability. She wants to see changes driven by metric-based audits of the county’s major programs. And she says she won’t support a new sales tax.
Her leading opponent is Betty Duong, currently Chavez’s chief of staff, who has worked for the county for 10 years. Duong has never held elective office and struggled to explain how she would differ from Chavez, who has been closely tied to the county’s labor unions. What the county needs now are elected leaders who are not politically beholden to the people they are overseeing.
Corina Herrera-Loera, a deputy probation officer for the county and a trustee of the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District board, touts her support of Chavez and her labor activism. Despite her criminal justice-related job, she struggled to discuss what the county should do about the deteriorating conditions at the new jail.
Jennifer Celaya, a former county employee who did patient registration at county clinics, left last year and says she is deciding whether to sue the county after unsuccessfully pursuing a state workplace discrimination case. She has never held public office and didn’t seem to fully appreciate the county’s fiscal plight.
Finally, there is attorney Nelson McElmurry, running for office for the first time. He has little knowledge of county operations and struggles to remember when he attended a meeting of the Board of Supervisors — perhaps a few years ago, he says.
Read the original publication in The Mercury News here.