When the dust settles around speculation about her next career move, it is likely that Santa Barbara County CEO Chandra Wallar will be headed to Orange County after just two years on the job.
Orange County would represent a big career move for Wallar, who inherited a $75 million deficit when she took over from Mike Brown two years ago.
How big a career move? Very big. Strictly by the numbers, the OC budget is $6 billion, compared to $850 million for Santa Barbara; its population is 3 million versus about 450,000.
What’s more, Orange County badly needs a Ms. Fix-It because its top executive ranks have been devastated by a series of scandals and high-level departures.
There is always a chance that negotiations will fall apart and Wallar will continue on in her role on the Central Coast. But my guess is that she’s not bluffing and I’ll bet you dinner at Lucky’s that she is not holding out for higher pay from Santa Barbara County.
Her short statement to Santa Barbara County’s Board of Supervisors is a clear signal that her talks with OC are far along and that she’s probably made up her mind to go.
Wallar brought two things to Santa Barbara County.
First was a dose of reality about budgets. Instead of the laissez-faire “this is Santa Barbara and things always work out” attitude that often prevails at the county headquarters, she brought a head for numbers and a sharp pencil to the job. On her watch the core cost of county government has been brought somewhat under control. Two-hundred jobs have been eliminated, departments have been restructured and services now much more closely match the county’s revenue stream.
The county has taken steps toward building a North County jail, a much needed resource to address crime, punishment and rehabilitation issues in the Santa Maria Valley. And there has been an effort, not always visible but evident in Wallar’s practical approach to problem solving, to get government just a little bit out of the way.
If Wallar is to move on, it will be very important for the Board of Supervisors to take a cue from what’s happened in Ventura County and double-down on cost controls and pension reform.
Santa Barbara County’s pension plan is still woefully underfunded and catch up payments remain a big drain on resources. The Board of Supervisors needs to set a goal of restoring the plan to well-funded status, and accept the reality that investment returns may not match the go-go years of the 1990s.
Finally, there is the question of charting a sustainable course for the economy. Wallar came to Santa Barbara after a successful run in San Diego County where she had administrative oversight of land use planning and economic development.
In Santa Barbara County, budget issues, the recession and cost reduction took center stage. But without major capital projects such as new industrial parks in the Santa Maria Valley, completion of the still-stalled Miramar Hotel and Highway 101 widening through the South Coast, the economy can’t advance and the county’s finances will remain weak.
Among Wallar’s gifts to Santa Barbara County were a level head and an understanding that growth in tax revenue is directly linked to the ability of politicians to get behind big capital projects. The biggest gift of all was her ability to make her points without dragging personal or political baggage into the argument.
If she goes, she’ll be badly missed. But her no-baggage legacy is one that will resonate in Santa Barbara County for a long time.
• Contact Business Times Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]