SBC residents listen to elected officials at BenitoLink town hall. Photo Mo Ismail.

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The Report to the County Community Town Hall hosted by BenitoLink on Nov. 8 at Paine’s Restaurant brought county and city officials together to discuss economic development, the proposed landfill expansion, roads and the future of Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital.

One panel consisted of San Benito County Board of Supervisor Mindy Sotelo, Hollister Mayor Mia Casey and San Juan Bautista Mayor Leslie Jordan. The second panel consisted of San Benito County Council of Governments Executive Director Binu Abraham and San Benito Health Care District Director Devon Pack.

One by one, panelists answered two questions from hosts Larry Slonaker and Julie Morris, then took questions from attendees.

Mayor Jordan, Mindy Sotelo and Mia Casey, Photo Mo Ismail.

Pack was asked what were the root causes of Hazel Hawkins’ financial difficulties and if a joint powers authority, potentially consisting of stakeholders from Hollister, San Juan Bautista and the San Benito Health Care District, which the county hopes to create in order to keep the local control over the hospital, is good for the community.

Pack noted several factors, such as the rate of Medicare and MediCal compensation, which has not increased at the same rate as inflation, and that people are going to Santa Clara or Monterey counties for medical procedures and services.

SBC residents listen to elected officials at BenitoLink town hall. Photo Mo Ismail.

He said the joint powers authority is up to the public as to what they are willing to pay to keep the hospital within local control. If a JPA is formed, it will be able to issue a bond or an impact fee or a local tax to fund operations.

“I don’t know what the answers are, that’s the part that has to be discussed in talking about the JPA.”

Sotelo addressed the condition of local roads and employee turnover rate in the county.

“It’s been tough,” she said about the roads. “I think it’s going to be tough for a little bit longer. Please be patient with us. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

She also said that the Board of Supervisors invested $28 million to improve roads including Fairview Road and Union Road. She added residents will notice a difference in the conditions of local roads over the next five years.

Regarding employee turnover, Sotelo said wealthy neighboring cities and counties recruit aggressively and San Benito County cannot compete.

“We need to start thinking outside of the box,” she said. “We have amazing employees and we want to keep them.”

Casey was asked about residents’ concerns over being blindsided by the two Amazon warehouse operations in Hollister and how to help local, independent businesses located downtown.

“This happened when I wasn’t mayor,” Casey said in reference to the Amazon projects. “I’m kind of mixed on that.”

She explained that developers decide what businesses to bring in, not the city.

Asked about the city’s limited law enforcement contract, Jordan said San Juan Bautista is in conversation with the Sheriff’s Department to hire one deputy and one code enforcement officer for her city.

She was also asked about the city being accused of being unfriendly to business.

“I think we have some challenges ahead of us on how to be more friendly to businesses,” Jordan said. “We are working with our Planning Department and our assistant city manager to revise some of our ordinances and make it more of a business friendly community.”

Other questions from the audience touched on business tax, the landfill expansion and economic development.

Robert Bernosky asked Sotelo about Prop 13, a fixed property tax rate of 1%, and what the county can do to increase retail sales.

That would be a board decision, Sotelo said.

“I think that there definitely needs to be some economic opportunities here, one to bring in some additional sales tax revenue, and we need to create additional jobs for our residents,” Sotelo said. “We’re talking about opening up the county General Plan and making some amendments and hopefully we can be real strategic and identify some areas.”

Two speakers, Barry Katz and Brigitte Baumaun-Thorp, offered statements and questions to the first panel about the landfill expansion.

Katz asked if they were aware of the recent changes that were made to the tonnage daily limit for the proposed expansion from 1,700 tons to 2,300 tons. However, the draft environmental impact report, which was released July 15, stated among the options was to increase daily limits from 1,000, the current limit, to up to 2,300 tons.

Sotelo said the county is trying to be transparent with the public and trying to have as many conversations as possible.

On Oct. 11, the county Planning Commission extended discussion of the proposed landfill expansion to three meetings.

“This conversation has been happening since 2019. So I just want people to understand that this isn’t something that has happened overnight,” Sotelo said.

Other speakers asked about chain restaurants in town like Denny’s, Wendy’s and Panera Bread; industry jobs in the county; the Strada Verde project; updates on the library expansion and Gavilan College’s sewer hookup, which was approved by the Hollister City Council Nov. 6.

During the second panel Abraham was asked what type of public transportation was a possibility in the county.

Binu Abraham of COG and Devon Pack of San Benito Health Care District. Photo by Mo Ismail.

“I don’t think we are at the point where we have enough ridership to sustain any kind of rail operations right now,” she said. “It might be something in the future. We can do a rail if we have money, but I don’t think we have $300 million to spend on our rails that may not have the ridership.”

Annette Perez mentioned that people go to Hazel Hawkins, but then are flown to another county for medical care and charged a hefty fee. She wondered if instead of shipping patients out, the hospital could treat patients themselves.

To treat patients at Hazel Hawkins, the hospital needs capital, Pack said. The addition of cardiology, oncology and nephrology units would bring in money and resources to treat people in the county, he said.

“That takes money, that takes millions of dollars and the fundamental problem is that we do not have the capital reserves to be able to grow out those services to expand services in those directions.”

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren had agreed to be a panelist but canceled Nov. 2 stating she had to be in Washington D.C. the day of the event because “recent developments in Congress, including the selection of a new Speaker, and changes in the House’s in-session calendar.”

One couple left once they learned Lofgren was not in attendance.

Council of San Benito County Governments Director and Board Supervisor Bea Gonzales was also replaced by Abraham.

BenitoLink recorded the town hall and it will be posted on our YouTube page.

YouTube video
YouTube video

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Monserrat Solis covers San Benito County for BenitoLink as part of the California Local News Fellowship with UC Berkeley. A San Fernando Valley native, she's written for the Southern California News Group,...