Chandra Wallar, Santa Barbara County’s first woman chief executive, isn’t moving to Orange County after all.
Wallar kicked up quite a fuss in the media over the past month after she emerged as a top candidate for the CEO spot in the OC. Unable to conclude a deal on her terms, she’s back at the county office building on Anapamu Street to complete the two years remaining on her contract.
This will not be an easy assignment. Santa Barbara County continues to pay a price for profligate spending and not enough economic activity during the past decade, expecially in the Santa Maria-Lompoc corridor, which struggles with an unemployment rate approaching 15 percent. Because of a soaring demand for services and a revenue shortfall, a deficit of some $8 million in the current budget is expected.
Wallar will have to balance the urgent needs of law enforcement and public safety against deeper cuts in non-emergency departments that already have taken huge hits in order to close a $75 million shortfall.
She will also have to hang tough in negotiations with Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso, who continues to press for a $15 million subsidy in the form of hotel tax relief in order to build his long-delayed Miramar Resort. Caruso claims the funding isn’t available unless he gets his tax break, but we think that with credit markets easing up, global tourism on the rise and the core economy healing, time is on Wallar’s side.
The biggest challenge she faces is to break the anti-growth, anti-business and pro-regulation culture that’s made it difficult for the county to get the revenue it needs to move forward, even if the proposed projects are for clean tech or green energy.
The city of Santa Barbara, not exactly the most business-friendly place on the planet, has begun to pay attention to the needs of its innovators and has made a showcase of its startup culture. In doing so it is joining Ventura and San Luis Obispo in making the case for more, not less, new business activity.
The problems Santa Barbara County faces in areas such as pensions are large and daunting. But if Wallar can succeed in moving the needle even slightly in favor of business versus regulation, her tenure will have paid huge dividends for Santa Barbara County and its taxpayers.