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Rise to the top

By   /   Friday, June 13th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Rise to the top

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After starting her new job April 1, Marty Robinson said she still is getting used to being Ventura County’s chief executive officer.

“I’m still settling in,” said Robinson, the first woman to be appointed Ventura County’s top administrator in its 135-year history.

But after spending the previous three decades as a county employee, Robinson, 58, knows her way around.

Robinson is scheduled to speak at the Ventura County Taxpayers Association luncheon at 11:30 a.m. June 26 at the Pierpont Inn in Ventura.

This year, the county CEO’s message has some good news and some not-so-good news: The county’s fiscal outlook is decent, but the state’s looming $17 billion budget deficit and its effect on California’s 52 counties may not be as pleasant.

Robinson served as assistant CEO during the turbulent years of 2004-05 when the county had to lay off almost 700 employees in a two-year span because of budget problems.

“Things don’t look as bad today as they did in 2004,” Robinson said during an interview in her Hall of Administration office.
Her boss, county CEO Johnny Johnston, was called in to restructure the county’s fiscal situation.

By most accounts, Johnston is credited with bringing the county out of its quagmire.

“There was a lot of pressure to expand retirement benefits,” Robinson said. “Our management team took a hard look at that and said it was prohibitively expensive and we don’t want to go down that road. So, this board was very conservative in handling those kind of benefit expansions.”

Consequently, Ventura County is in better shape than most other Golden State counties. Many other counties had to borrow funds to make their pension obligation bonds, but Ventura County did not, she said.
“If left to our own devices, we can deliver this year’s service level at next year’s prices,” she said. “Costs will continue to go up, but we will be fine.”

On June 16, Robinson said she plans to present a $1.64 billion budget to the county board of supervisors. She said the county still is down about 200 jobs from it total workforce in 2004. It now employs 8,048 people.

Robinson comes to her job in the face of the sub-prime housing loan meltdown and hundreds of layoffs at Countrywide Financial and Amgen – the county’s two largest employers.

Those factors also are being blamed for a part of the state’s fiscal woes. Robinson said counties across the state see a loss of funds for social services. She said aid will be lost for people who are the most financially vulnerable.

So far, the most noticeable effects of the state’s economic slowdown in Ventura County can be seen in delays in repairs and funding for its jail expansion. Many counties – including Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Orange – have a similar jail problem.

While admitting cuts in social services, such as mental health, might be a disservice for the county’s growing transient population, Robinson said she has faith in the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“A lot of the state cuts are going to affect the people who are the most needy in our society,” Robinson said.

For example, the county’s foster parents just received a small raise, which will be wiped out under the currently proposed state budget, she said.

Despite the state budget crunch – which may not get resolved until late October – Robinson said she sees brighter times ahead largely because of the county’s diverse economy, which includes robust agriculture, increasing tourism, thriving military activity and budding areas such as film-making.

She said the county could be buoyed by a proposal to build a $125 million independent sound stage studio in Moorpark, which could break ground as soon as April.

Robinson said she also is encouraged by the June 3 voter approval of Santa Paula’s Measure G. That means one of the county’s largest agricultural interests, Limoneira Co., will be able to expand its workforce with the construction of about 1,500 homes, 210,000 square feet of office and retail space and some 150,000 square feet of light industrial.

The new county CEO has public-private partnership plans to develop the diamond-in-the-rough Channel Islands Harbor, which could become a key revenue generator.

A draft of the plan also calls for, among other things, construction of better lighting, signage, parks and other amenities that could greatly boost the county’s tourism industry.

Along with the need to address the $30 million-a-year cost of the county’s jail expansion, Robinson said two other challenges are on the horizon.

One is the $195 million cost of cleaning up “non-source point of discharge” pollution required by the regional water quality control board.

The other is the need to earthquake retrofit the county’s medical center.
Robinson said both of these challenges will require funding from sources other than just county coffers.

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