This column was contributed by San Benito Live founder and San Benito County Supervisor District 2 candidate Kollin Kosmicki. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
Looking ahead at San Benito County’s continued response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear our community will face economic hardship on some level. Government leaders should start proactively addressing this issue in the near term instead of waiting for a potential avalanche down the road.
The unfortunate reality is that local government entities will likely face severe budget challenges due to the pandemic’s economic impacts, and we can’t turn our backs on the problem with a reliance on mere hope.
As for upcoming budget talks, the county for one should move forward with an immediate and thorough analysis of all discretionary spending so officials can make an aggressive attempt to ward off employee pay reductions.
To the contrary, I would like to see the county have enough budget stability to accommodate potential employee raises after the release of a much-anticipated compensation study that will undoubtedly show our workers are vastly underpaid. The only way we can accomplish such stability in the short term is by identifying unnecessary discretionary spending—outside of employee compensation—and eliminating or suspending those costs.
It’s an opportune time to clean up the budget while focusing on core services and a bevvy of infrastructure improvements. In the end, the county may not have an abundance of non-essential programs to put on the backburner, but it’s certainly prudent to explore what’s expendable in an open, public setting for community dissection.
The county, meanwhile, is fortunate to have healthy reserve funds. This type of crisis is exactly the right time to spend down some reserves if necessary, and I would strongly support using these rainy day funds for their intended purpose during these tumultuous times.
Also with regard to employees, it’s good timing to start a more structured recognition program for county workers who deserve more attention for their service to our community. Such a program—the “Baler Strong” awards at San Benito High School set a great example—would help to boost morale and pride from the employees.
As a way to show support for workers and local businesses hurt by the pandemic, it would be nice to see the county offer some sort of small gesture for recipients such as gift cards to local restaurants—perhaps $100 to $200—as an additional show of gratitude.
Another way to adjust post-pandemic, local governments could learn from the private sector and analyze more permanent work-from-home opportunities. If certain employees show they can work effectively from home and prefer it—as long as those workers aren’t routinely dealing directly with the public—perhaps it could increase productivity and reduce costs. It’s always worth looking to the private sector for such ideas, and companies like Twitter, Facebook and Square are making these adjustments where possible.
When we get through this—and we will get through this—it will be an appropriate time for the county to do a top-to-bottom, structured analysis of what worked and didn’t work in the response. A detailed report analyzing successes and failures should be made available for public dissection as well.
To this point, county leaders have made prudent decisions with their support for an early shelter-in-place order and the much-debated—but judicious—face-cover requirement. As more information became available—and it was clear our case numbers weren’t overwhelming for hospital capacity—public health officials and supervisors showed the ability to adapt by allowing the local shelter order to expire and following the state’s less-restrictive rules.
County officials have made several other laudable moves such as hiring a public information officer, gaining priority COVID-19 testing status, aggressive outreach to businesses and organizations, and adopting a program that gets local restaurant meals to senior citizens’ homes.
I’m proud of our community’s response to this point, and I want to thank our local officials for their service and strong leadership when it was needed most.
Of course, there have been vocal critics. It goes without saying: not every decision by local government officials has been perfect; nor is it realistic during the crisis of a generation.
I have disagreed with critics’ collective tenor—some calling for a local “sanctuary county” declaration in defiance of the state—but completely understand their frustrations about wanting local residents to get back to work and provide for families. These are valid concerns, especially in a community with a fragile economy.
It’s a delicate balance—weighing public health against economic impacts and the potentially devastating side effects—and our county has followed the most responsible path on the most important matters during this emergency.
Now officials must stay vigilant and do everything they can to proactively minimize the economic damage from this historic pandemic.