After years of staggering through a recession, Sacramento County is continuing to straighten itself out. But as in much of the country, the recovery remains uneven.
Renewed economic growth is driving a resurgence in the job and housing markets, and increasing the demand for development in the unincorporated areas. At the same time, the number of vulnerable people who need a piece of the county’s social safety net has remained stubbornly high.
The next Board of Supervisors must find a better way to bridge that gap.
In June, two of the board’s five seats are up for grabs. Roberta MacGlashan, who has been a supervisor for 12 years, has decided not to seek another term, making for what’s likely to be competitive race in District 4, covering Rio Linda, Citrus Heights, Orangevale and Folsom. Supervisor Susan Peters is running for re-election in District 3, which covers Arden Arcade and Carmichael.
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The composition of the board will change. Here are the key issues they’ll face:
Homelessness: With protesters camped outside Sacramento City Hall and discussions going on about whether the City Council should authorize a tent city, it’s easy to forget that the county, not the city, is most directly responsible for homeless services.
Indeed, ever since rock-bottom cuts during the recession, the supervisors have been slowly ramping up spending on supportive housing and park rangers who confront homeless campers along the American River Parkway. Supervisor Phil Serna, who is not up for re-election this year, puts that figure at about $40 million – an amount that includes substance abuse programs, probation and other related services.
Still, not much has changed. Instead of shrinking, homelessness seems to be worsening; it’s certainly more visible. On any given night, about 1,000 people sleep outdoors, mostly in the central city. But in the last year, homeless people also live in suburbs and undeveloped parts of the county.
Fixing this will require more money for housing and services, more cooperation between the city and the county to come up with an actual coordinated strategy, and more of a willingness to use the tools available to help get mentally ill people off the streets.
Transit: Regional Transit is struggling. According to research from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the agency spends more money per mile driven and more money per passenger than transit agencies in nine other markets.
And yet, ridership is down more than 20 percent from 2009. RT had to dip into reserves just to balance its budget. Without another fare hike, this one an average of 10 percent starting in July, those reserves would’ve dropped almost to zero this year.
The Sacramento Regional Transit board stopped the bleeding last week by allowing RT to raise rates for bus and light rail, but that’s a short-term fix. A long-term solution is another story.
RT, along with the Sacramento Transportation Authority, wants to ask county voters for a half-cent sales tax hike in November to fund long-term operations and road repairs across the county. Before that happens, RT must get introspective.
The agency, with pushing from the supervisors, must determine if the current level of service is appropriate. Can routes be eliminated or shifted? Can the money be better spent on replacing equipment or beefing up popular routes? What about consolidation? Do we really need independent commuter bus services to neighboring counties and only one struggling route to the airport?
These questions need answers.
Social services: The next Board of Supervisors must make it a priority to care for the county’s most vulnerable residents, whether that’s kids whose lives depend on the competency of Child Protective Services or adults wandering the streets with untreated mental illness.
A good start would be to fully implement Laura’s Law, which allows a judge to compel people with a history of violent behavior, psychiatric hospitalizations and jail sentences into outpatient treatment.
The current solution, “CARE Plus,” which uses a public conservator instead of a judge to accomplish the same goal for an inexcusably small number of people, helps. But the county needs to get more aggressive. In certain extreme cases, the government should intervene to provide help, even if the individuals needing care are resistant. Severe mental illness is an illness, not a civil right.
Growth: After many years of pushing, a plan to expand the urban service boundary in North Natomas has finally made it before the current Board of Supervisors. This week, the supervisors will consider whether to move ahead with an environmental review of the project, which would carve out a new suburban community of about 55,000 people on nearly 5,700 acres.
Environmentalists are rightfully alarmed. Whether it’s this board or the next board, supervisors must not give into temptation and allow urban sprawl to resume largely unabated. Because of the drought, there are concerns about water conservation. There also are worries about land use and air quality given the prospect of putting more cars on the region’s already crowded roads.
It’s in the best interest of residents for this board and the next board to encourage more infill development within the city of Sacramento. It’s the only way to continue building a sustainable region.
So far, many of these issues have already come up. In a debate last week at Folsom Lake College, for example, candidates vying to replace MacGlashan talked about helping the homelessness and fixing the transportation challenges facing the county.
But they only spoke in general terms. As the campaign progresses, we need to know more – a lot more. Talking points are no substitute for specifics.