State of the North County

County Supervisor Jim Desmond Wednesday touted improvements to North County services, including behavioral health, but also said there’s still work to do, especially when it comes to providing more housing and reducing homelessness.

During his State of the North County speech before an audience at the El Corazon Senior Center, Desmond said he will “always be a voice and fight for our fair share of resources.”

“I’m just a small part, I try to connect the dots,” Desmond said of his role as a supervisor representing District 5, which includes cities like Escondido, Oceanside and San Marcos, Camp Pendleton and dozens of unincorporated communities.

North County “has much potential,” said Desmond, who mentioned the region’s importance in agriculture, education, industry, medicine, military, recreation, tourism and tribal communities. “We get to live where people want to vacation.”

Instead of too much government regulation, Desmond said the political philosophy should be giving people the tools to live in harmony with nature; providing more housing and assistance to the underserved; keeping residents safe; and letting residents raise their families, make a living and be productive — “and then get out of the way.”

The supervisor said society overall should be ashamed of the number of those living on the streets. Because of various court decisions, government can’t force people into behavioral or drug treatment, and county jails are the No. 1 provider of mental health services, Desmond said.

“This is a problem we all face, but we won’t until laws and legislators are changed in Sacramento,” he added.

Desmond said his office has pushed for policies to ease the homeless crisis, and he credited county departments and their leaders for programs offering help to those who want it.

Along with mayors in North County cities, the county started a pilot program in Oceanside, which allows social workers to provide a range of services/programs to homeless people, Desmond said, adding the effort is now countywide.

Crisis stabilization centers are open 24 hours a day for those in need, including walk-ins, Desmond said.

Such centers didn’t come easy, with the process starting three years ago with help from former Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who worked to get funding for an Escondido facility, he added.

That led to a collaboration with county District Attorney Summer Stephan to recently open a center in Vista. Just two days ago, a new facility in Oceanside opened, Desmond said, adding that next year, the Tri-City Medical Center campus will add more beds for those with mental health needs.

Reducing homelessness means more housing, and that’s not easy to come by, Desmond said. On the plus side, he added, North County gained more than 500 units over the past three years.

More expensive housing forces people to live farther away from the county, Desmond said.

“We’ve got to build,” Desmond said. “If we start losing our jobs, we’re in a world of hurt.”

Senior citizens may be the next unfortunate wave of homeless people due to rising costs, but the county is looking at a senior affordable housing program in Escondido, the supervisor said.

To help families suffering from domestic violence, Desmond said his office is partnering with the District Attorney’s Office on a family justice center located along the state Route 78 corridor in San Marcos.

“We’re trying to help people,” along with getting them off the street by working with different nonprofits, including Interfaith Community Services, North County Health Project, Casa de Amparo, he said.

“These are the angels in our community,” Desmond said. With the homeless crisis being on everybody’s mind, “North County is doing better, and we’re gonna fix it someday,” he added.

On the public safety front, Desmond said he “will never vote to defund the police,” referring to recent criticisms of law enforcement after the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer.

While there are a few bad apples among the ranks, the profession in general doesn’t deserve its bad rap, the supervisor said, praising the Sheriff’s Department, Probation Department and firefighters for keeping the public safe.

Desmond said the county is lucky to have not suffered a major wildfire over the past few years, and his office has pushed for more evacuation routes, brush clearing, better building materials, better vegetation management, emergency planning, training and communications.

“We plan, we improve, we allocate resources,” he added.

Desmond said that during his tenure, “we have successfully defeated every proposed placement of a sexually violent predator in North County.”

While SVPs may have done their time, they’re not cured, Desmond said, adding he and his fellow supervisors approved a policy that gives them veto power over placing SVPs in neighborhoods.

Desmond said one of the best things about his job is meeting people, including tribal communities, “who are very good neighbors” and an important part of the county’s economy.

Desmond, who is up for re-election this year, said the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from giving a State of the North County speech last year and in 2020.

“COVID, hopefully, is in the rear-view mirror,” said Desmond, who praised county medical officials, including Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten, “who did the best they could to keep us safe during the pandemic.”

Desmond, a critic of certain state or federal pandemic mandates, said that “everybody went above and beyond to deal with it, even though everyone didn’t have the right answers.”

He mentioned that the county Health & Human Services and fire departments administered more than 60,000 vaccine doses and 80,000 COVID tests.

Desmond criticized the San Diego Association of Governments for not keeping its transportation promises to North County municipalities, while wanting more tax increases.

For example, a promised high-occupancy lane for the SR-78 hasn’t materialized, Desmond said, adding that SANDAG shouldn’t receive any more funds from North County until it delivers.

“We’re not getting the short end of the stick — we’re not getting the stick at all,” he said.  “We want our resources up here.”

Desmond said it was important to “continue to be curious and question authority,” but strive for civil debate. “Let’s treat everyone with respect going forward.”

City News Service contributed to this article.