The Visalia Chamber of Commerce put on its second candidates’ forum of this election season between Visalia Councilmember Amy Shuklian and incumbent Tulare County Supervisor Phil Cox. The two candidates are running for Tulare County Supervisor District 3, which encompasses most of Visalia.
Gail Zurek, president of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, started the forum off by asking what each of them can bring to the community as supervisor. Cox started by saying the county is moving ahead at light speed. He said that he is running to see several projects the county is working on get finished and to ensure that the county continues moving forward. Those projects include a couple of new jails, a new vocational education building, and buying the Cigna Building that will supply the space needs of the county for the next 10-20 years.
Cox said, “It takes some continuity, takes some knowledge of what is going on.”
Cox stated that he is very fiscally conservative and that “my board does not like debt. They do not like to borrow money to pay for things that we can save for and pay for up front. ”
“Fiscal responsibility is very important to the city council, and very important to me,” said Shuklian in response to Zurek’s question.
During the recession Visalia’s $13 million in reserves was depleted to $1.3 million, but the city still managed to balance the budget without laying off personnel. Visalia now has $8 million in reserves and the council is looking to get it back up to 35% of the General Fund.
Shuklian said that some of the city council’s accomplishments during the last few years have included rehabilitating blighted and foreclosed properties throughout Visalia using grant money. The city also just had a groundbreaking for the Visalia Emergency Communication Center to replace the current facility located in a city building’s basement.
Shuklian said she also will continue working on luring higher education opportunities that are public and affordable to the youth of Tulare County. Right now Visalia only has private four-year institutions.
Her career in politics started by getting two dog parks built in Visalia.
She said, “You can make a difference on the local level especially in a town like Visalia and a county like Tulare.”
Shuklian won a city council seat in 2007 and in 2011 was reelected and served as mayor for two years.
“The greatest experience that I have had is representing Visalia as its mayor,” she said.
“Politics is not my career, I have worked the last 30 years in health industry,” she said. “Local politics should not be a career. It should be a service to your community and what I have done for last eight-and-a-half years.”
She said she was born in District 3 and raised on the family farm “doing everything you do as a farm kid.”
She said she is excited about the opportunity to represent the farmers she knew as a young girl and grew up with.
Zurek’s next question was how to balance between being a fiscal conservative and spending money to solve the county’s problems.
Shuklian said that Visalia’s reserve is what got the city through the recession.
“But you have to solve problems now and can’t let assets sit around and deteriorate,” she said.
One of those assets that were deteriorating was Visalia’s animal control facility. She said that Visalia recently completed its new animal control facility and got it built under budget.
“I liken animal control right up there with public safety,” she said.
Cox jumped right in and said, “I would never say that animal control is equal to public safety, you can contract for that service. Knowing I would have to go into debt to build something, I would have taken my dispatchers out of the basement and built a dispatch center first, before building the animal control. I would have taken care of my people first and then the animals.”
Liz Wynn, director of Visalia Emergency Aid Council, asked what they planned on doing as far as economic development to help the 22% Tulare County residents who live in poverty.
Cox replied that despite what has been said, the county works with the cities better today, than it has for decades. He said that the county formed an economic development focus team after the county parted company with the ineffective Tulare County Economic Development Agency last year. The county’s team meets with corporations interested in investing in the area, and if the county does not have the land they need, it directs them to the city that does. The county makes sure they are working hand in hand with the cities in assisting them to bring in large employers into their communities.
“Rising water lifts all boats,” he said.
Shuklian countered by saying that she was running because there has not been collaboration between the city and county and, “I would like to see that change.” She said that right now the biggest thing the city is working on is getting Nordstrom to build in Visalia rather than Fresno. With 1,800 jobs at stake, members of the chamber came to speak along with city mayors and other residents of the industrial park including Jo-Ann’s to tell Nordstrom what a great place this is to do business.
“At that meeting our room was packed, but there was no one from the county,” she said.
Cox responded by saying that, “I’m sorry that Amy is out of the loop. The county was asked to not publicly participate.” He said that the county negotiated directly with Nordstrom in connection with Visalia’s city manager. “This information was not passed onto the city council and I apologize. Nordstrom did not want to make this a public forum.”
Amy countered, “I was informed. That deal was made after the fact,” or after the city council meeting referenced above where it ended up voting on increasing incentives to draw Nordstrom to Visalia.
John Rogers, a local farmer, asked about how supervisors get their raises. Cox said that the supervisors’ raises are linked to the top three administrative county jobs. When the board of supervisors votes for the top three administrators to get a raise, the board gets a raise. He said he feels it is not an ideal system.
“The Consumer Price Index has been 2-3% increase a year whereas the boards’ increase has been about 1%,” he said.
The pay for a supervisor is about $100,000 a year.
Cox said that he went from a 60- to 80-hour work week owning two businesses before being elected, to working a similar 60- to 80-hour work week as a Tulare County Supervisor. He ended up closing both of his businesses “because being a supervisor is a challenging job that requires full time. Otherwise you aren’t doing it justice,” he said.
Shuklian said that she didn’t think that an elected official should vote on their own raises, and that for Tulare County, $100,000 is a lot of money.
“When I started my salary was at $800 a month. It was at that time that we were asking employees for a 4% take back, so I took 4% off my salary. I know it’s not a lot but I did it as a symbolic gesture. I am the lowest paid city council member. I’m not a city council member for $800 a month folks, I’m doing it because I care about the community,” she said.
“I’ve never taken a raise. I’ve never taken the city’s insurance. I don’t turn in receipts when I meet with folks and have lunches,” she said.
Shuklian was asked, if elected supervisor, would she discontinue the county’s suit against the SEIU employees that is costing the county $100,000’s.
Shuklian’s response was, “I’m sure it is and I’m sure I can’t.”
She reminded the audience that there will still be three other members on the board after the election, who did vote to sue their employees.
“It is very costly and I don’t think it is good for morale to sue your own employees, but I don’t think I have the power to stop that,” she said.
Cox countered by saying, “Let me educate you. We did not sue our employees.”
He said that the TCBOS filed a complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). The complaint was based on bad behavior by the SEIU negotiators during employee contract negotiations. SEIU has filed seven cases against the county and the TCBOS has filed one against them. Cox reiterated that the complaint is not costing $100,000’s.
“We have on some [legal cases], but not this” he said.
To close the forum Zurek asked both candidates to give one word that would describe themselves for supervisor. Shuklian said “committed” and Cox said his word would be “accountability.”
Because of the large number of candidates there will be two more forums for District 1. The Exeter Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a forum on Thursday, April 20 at the Exeter Memorial Building from 6-8pm.
On Wednesday, May 4, the Valley Voice, the Foothills Sun-Gazette and the Exeter Republican Women Federated will host a form also in the Exeter Memorial Building from 5:30 – 8pm. Refreshments will be served and questions from the audience are invited.