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Q&A with Mona Miyasato
updated: Mar 29, 2014, 4:00 PM

By Alex Kacik

Binders, manila folders and papers cover Mona Miyasato's desk in her corner office on the top floor of the Santa Barbara County Administration Building on Anapamu Street. The sun spills through tall, rectangular windows overlooking Santa Barbara's iconic Spanish red-tiled roofs and the homes tucked into the Riviera, the 2-mile span that separates Mission and Sycamore canyons and has inspired comparisons to Monaco, France or Italy's Amalfi Coast.

The spiral-bound Santa Barbara County Recommended Operational Plan Fiscal Years 2013-14 and 2014-15 report sits on the new county CEO's desk. It's opened to two pie charts on page B-6 that illustrate how much money the county dedicates to public safety, begging the question if that's the best use of Santa Barbara County's budget.

This fiscal year, Santa Barbara County spent 60 percent of its discretionary budget on public safety, compared to 54 percent in 2004-05, the report notes. Most of that is used on employee salaries and benefits: The average pension and health insurance cost for a public-safety employee has increased from $117,600 in 2009 to $153,200 in 2014.

New employees like Miyasato won't receive retiree medical benefits and will have smaller pensions, which will keep long-term costs low. In the meantime, the county will have to cut back more, generate revenue or most likely do a little of both.

Miyasato, who replaced Chandra Wallar after the supervisors didn't renew her contract last year, took the job in early December. She has had a lot to catch up on in her first three months on the job, managing the $844.5 million annual budget. Miyasato now leads county government, even though her first intention was to report on it.

Mona Miyasato, Santa Barbara County's new CEO, took over the job in December. (Alex Kacik)

Miyasato's original plan was to be a journalist, but she probably wouldn't be earning anything close to her current $230,000 salary if she had stuck with the plan.

She wrote for UC Berkeley's Daily Californian while studying political science and economics there, and intended to go into journalism. However, she later decided to go back to school after surveying the field's scarce employment opportunities, eventually earning a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. That led to a gig writing environmental documents for Los Angeles County projects, which then led to a job at the West Covina Redevelopment Agency, a deputy city manager job for the City of Santa Monica and eventually a move to Marin County in 2008 as its chief assistant county administrator. There, she spent five years reducing its budget after the recession, reforming pensions and developing a more transparent system.

Now, Miyasato inherited a budget constrained by long-term costs and stagnant revenue growth. Until the housing-market bottom dropped out in 2007, Santa Barbara County experienced years of healthy, general-fund-filling property tax revenues. The county has since had to decrease its staff by about 580 employees, furlough workers or freeze wages, shave $60 million and use its strategic reserve funds to offset flat property tax revenue and increasing pension costs.

Santa Barbara County has underfunded mental health services, a $292 million backlog of roads, buildings and parks that need repair, a proposed North County Jail, high unemployment in North County and few housing vacancies in South County and more than $800 million in unfunded pension liabilities. Mission and State sat down with Miyasato to talk about her plan of attack.

Mission and State: What interested you in journalism and public policy?

Mona Miyasato: You want to provide information that will improve the community, whether it's influencing other's opinions or decision makers, or having people understand an issue so they can take action. I think that's why I liked it. When I went to public-policy school, I realized I could also be doing that by working directly in public policy and government and have broader influence by doing the latter.

What's the current state of the county's general fund?

For 10 years, there was a consistent 6 to 7 percent general-fund growth and it has been flat since the recession. That's why everyone had to make reductions, because revenues weren't growing as fast as our expenses were growing. That was the cause for all the cutbacks throughout government.

How do you balance the needs of different departments?

That's the art and difficulty the board faces. A lot has to do with emerging needs. As much as you want to be a needs-based organization, we're a resourced-based agency. We only have so many resources that we get mostly through property tax, and we have to use them strategically because we don't have enough for everyone. I wouldn't want to be on the board, because you have to weigh those values.

What are the emerging needs?

There are a lot of state and federal mandates on us that we're trying to meet, like reducing staff. When you look around, there are safety-net needs; there's always a huge demand. There are issues surrounding a high demand for services at our health centers. It's a balancing act and there's no magic bullet as we expect steady but slow growth out of the recession.

How do you make sure there's an equitable distribution of resources between North County and South County?

My perspective is that it's still one county. The north and south have been fighting for a long time but they've probably been in marriage counseling just as long. The division is highlighted every so often, but there are strengths each bring to each other. There are different philosophies, as you can tell, in the board sometimes, but those differences make us a stronger county; the diversity of opinion is important.

What's causing that conflict?

I don't know. It has been a long-standing issue. I had a professor who said, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." What you see depends on your own life experiences. People have different perspectives of the north and south based on the economics, higher unemployment up there, different land uses and different types of businesses.

Santa Barbara County's property tax revenue is projected to grow about 4 percent a year. (Santa Barbara County)

How do you balance economic development while maintaining the character of Santa Barbara?

There hasn't been a lot of focus recently on development because of the economic downturn. Right now we don't have a lot of staffing and resources, but hopefully that's something we'll be looking at. [Economic development] means so many different things. Does it mean growth, streamlining, making it easier for developers; does it mean trying to facilitate development in a reasonable and responsible way?

What's the climate of the housing market?

We're in a tight market down here because of land values. Other organizations I've been with in Marin County and Santa Monica see the same thing. We're doing what we can on affordability and trying to prepare people for the workforce, but it's going to be a tighter market.

How do we mitigate the drought?

We have the drought task force, which includes water-department heads and water purveyors discussing long-term plans. Right now we're encouraging a 20 percent reduction. I know that there's been discussion of new legislation regarding drought measures, so we'll wait and see. For now, we're not advocating for anything more except voluntary cutbacks and planning for the future.

Is that enough?

For now, we'll see. But again, everyone will be in the same boat. We'll be after the same scarce resource. The State Water Project seemingly won't be able to fulfill obligations and people are gearing up for what that might mean. We have a couple of years in reserves, which isn't a lot of time, but I think the state has been able to pull through before. So we'll have to go back to some of those measures if there's no rainfall.

Excerpt provided by Mission and State. Read the full article at MissionAndState.org


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