Combating homelessness and creating better local housing options were two of the main topics that San Diego County Board of Supervisors candidates debated at a Monday night forum.
Former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher are seeking the District 4 seat. San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond is facing legislative analyst Michelle Gomez for the District 5 seat.
District 4 Supervisor Ron Roberts and District 5 Supervisor Bill Horn are barred from running for re-election because of term limits.
Dumanis, the San Diego County district attorney from 2003 through 2017, said the county budget “has numerous resources” to build more housing and reduce the local homeless population. She added that she would not take a salary if elected, stating that the money could be better spent on programs designed to ease the homeless crisis.
Citing last year’s deadly hepatitis A crisis among the homeless population, Fletcher said government leaders must have a better plan in terms of getting people off the streets, including a full accounting of resources.
“We can’t afford another decade of (just) talking about it,” said Fletcher, a two-term assemblyman who now teaches political science at UC San Diego.
Desmond said there is no “one size fits all” solution to getting people off the streets, but as a county supervisor he would be able to quickly pull regional resources.
Gomez said the county has the ability to help alleviate the homeless crisis but has chosen not to do so. He argued that there must be housing options, along with a program addressing the root causes of homelessness, or the problem will worsen and affect tourism.
In a related topic at the forum organized by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, the candidates also discussed improving mental health treatment. Dumanis suggested that community nonprofit organizations can play a role, while Fletcher described improved treatment as his main concern.
According to Fletcher, the county faces a future crisis in psychiatric patient housing, given that some hospitals are either closing such facilities or don’t have enough beds.
Desmond said performance audits are one way to ensure that agencies are offering proper mental-health services. He added that if elected, he would bring in experts to find better solutions.
Gomez said the county has an obligation to treat psychiatric patients, especially younger ones, adding that Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside doing away with 16 beds in its psychiatric unit affected public safety.
The candidates differed on how the county should move forward on better transportation. Dumanis said local leaders need to find balanced solutions that encourage people living near where they work, rather than commuting from Temecula, and Fletcher said he wants a focus on transit and a growing urban corridor, adding that rapid transit buses pay for themselves.
Desmond, chairman of transportation for the San Diego Association of Governments, said more buses or trains in North County are not needed, considering that ridership is down. Instead, the focus should be on more efficient highways with innovations like autonomous vehicles, he said.
Gomez said the county should look at where transportation will be 10 to 30 years from now, and not concentrate on wider freeways
“Should we invest more in light rail or more robust bus service?” she asked.
The candidates also discussed how the Board of Supervisors should address the county’s growing senior citizen population.
Dumanis said the focus should be on helping people “age in place” by offering in-home services and paying health-care workers more, adding that the county must ensure seniors are not being swindled by con artists. Dumanis has proposed that the county set aside $400 million as a loan to assist seniors in finding the housing they need.
Fletcher said he wanted supportive housing for the elderly, saying the county also should encourage better engagement between generations by placing senior centers near child-care centers.
Desmond pointed to a program in his own city in which sheriff’s deputies visit elderly people living alone as one way to help seniors. On the financial side, local government should “allow seniors to downsize their homes by lessening the tax burden on them,” Desmond said.
Gomez said she agreed with Dumanis on better pay for home health-care providers, and added that the county needs to focus on elder abuse by educating seniors and their families, along with neighbors.
Regarding pension matters, Dumanis said San Diego County is in good shape in terms of unfunded liability. She also responded to Fletcher’s comment on her $275,000 annual county pension, correcting him on the amount. Fletcher had stated that Dumanis’ pension was $300,000 per year.
“I worked for the county for 35 years, raising through the ranks,” Dumanis said of her pension.
Fletcher said it was a mistake for the county to have given workers retroactive benefit increases 20 years ago, describing himself as open to some reforms.
Desmond called it important to have a sustainable pension system, with the county and employees being willing to compromise.
Gomez said she favors a defined benefit program, which levels the playing field for workers.
— City News Service
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