As the investigation continues into a budget shortfall of over $1 million that has affected the three largest school districts in San Benito County and possibly hampered raises for teachers, Treasurer-Tax Collector-Public Administrator Mary Lou Andrade is retiring. Two candidates, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz and Budget Officer Melinda Casillas, are running to fill the position of what is essentially the county banker to the region’s 11 school districts.
Melinda Casillas, 54, has lived and worked in the county for 30 years, while her husband Frank is a lifelong resident. They have three grown children.
Casillas has worked for the county for nearly 20 years, first starting in the auditor’s office. For the last five years, she has worked as the budget officer in the administrative office. In addition to experience in the banking and transportation industries, she has been the accountant for her husband’s business for 17 years. She and Frank are part-owners with his father of a 50-acre pomegranate orchard along John Smith Road.
As the budget officer, Casillas compiles the county’s annual budget, which she presents to the San Benito County Board of Supervisors and then monitors it throughout the year. She is also involved in labor negotiations and assists the auditor’s office with its accounting requirements.
Casillas said she has worked with Andrade and Clerk-Auditor-Recorder Joe Paul Gonzalez. She handled cash reconciliations in the treasurer’s office between the county and school districts and also assisted in distributing property tax forms.
Once Andrade announced she was retiring, Casillas said she thought it would be a natural transition for her to run for treasurer.
“I’ve always had my eye on that office,” Casillas said. “I thought that would be an interesting position to hold.”
Casillas is aware of the ongoing investigation and lawsuit between the San Benito County and the Hollister School District. She said because it is still in litigation she couldn’t discuss it.
“My goal is to strengthen communications between all the agencies and the treasurer’s and auditor’s offices,” Casillas said. “Part of my strength is I know the players and what to be looking for because I’ve been involved in the fiscal management of the county for the last 20 years.”
Casillas is using her Facebook account, Melinda Casillas for Treasurer, to campaign. Those interested in contacting her can email her at [email protected]
Jaime De La Cruz
Jaime De La Cruz, 52, and his extended family have lived in San Benito County for generations. He and his wife, Angie, have three children and four grandchildren. De La Cruz credits having to undergo a kidney transplant operation to moving him into politics. While recovering from surgery and undergoing lengthy dialysis treatments, he said he took advantage of the time away from work to “retool” himself by going back to college.
“God gave me the opportunity to keep living and I decided to go to college and at the same time help the community,” De La Cruz said. “I ran for vice president of finance at Gavilan College. I went on to San Jose State and ran for student body controller.”
De La Cruz has worked over 12 years as controller for West Coast Rubber Recycling in the county. He has worked in finance and accounting for over 20 years for a wide range of companies, including Monterey Mushrooms and Lockheed Martin. He has multiple degrees in financing and electrical engineering.
After college, De La Cruz said he decided to run for public office. His first venture was the successful run for the office of president of the San Benito County Health Foundation, which he held for three years. From there he was appointed to the both the Hollister Parks and Recreation Commission and Planning Commission. He was then elected to the San Benito County Water District. After serving on the Gavilan College Board of Trustees, he then decided to run for the San Benito County Board of Supervisors.
“I won my first term back in 2004, and have four terms under my belt,” De La Cruz said. He said he now wants to run for treasurer because he believes with his combined experience in accounting, management, and as a supervisor, it gives him the skills to better serve the public.
“I have a passion for finance and accounting and feel it’s a perfect fit for me,” De La Cruz said.
The number one job De La Cruz will perform as treasurer is to invest over $210 million of public money to get the best rate of return at minimum risk, he said.
“The school district, the county, the special districts all want to make sure there’s cash available in the checking account and making sure those monies that are not being used to pay bills are being invested in CDs and mutual funds that the state government will allow to garner the highest rate of return,” De La Cruz said.
On the lawsuit between the San Benito County and the Hollister School District over impact fees, the current county supervisor said he wants to implement a plan to build better relationships to ensure they work together.
“I want to improve all the relationships and I have a proven track record,” De La Cruz said. “I will talk to people who are willing to talk and make sure communications are ongoing and not just once or twice a year.”
For more information on De La Cruz and his campaign, call (831) 297-2248.
Read BenitoLink's story on the budget shortfall: