The walls of his office are filled with photographs and mementos – photos of his family and keepsakes from his personal and professional life – from the time he served his ministry in Switzerland to signs and proclamations from his time as a Visalia City Council member and as Supervisor for Tulare County.
Born on a small farm on Laton, Phil Cox’s family moved to Visalia when he was about 18 months old. Actually at the crux where the city met farmland a few blocks away from Mt. Whitney High School and just blocks away where he and his wife, Connie, live now. His children attended the same schools growing up that he did.
“We were actually on the edge of the country back in 1959-1960 and there was nothing, and I mean nothing, beyond that,” he said. “It’s been interesting watching Visalia grow from there.”
BEYOND HIGH SCHOOL
After graduating high school, Cox went to Switzerland as a missionary for the Mormon Church.
“And, when I came back my goal was to not get married for a couple of years – to work and go to school and buy a house – I had those kind of aspirations, and yet I met my wife literally two days after I returned from my mission,” he said. “Well, I did get to buy the house a month before we got married.”
About a year and a half into marriage Cox felt he needed to take some classes to help with his work in the family sheet metal business.
“I knew I wanted to be a contractor, but I felt like we weren’t reaching our full potential as a business,” he said.
He took marketing classes, advertising classes and a solar class at COS.
“I took things that I felt would help me in my career as a contractor and as a business owner,” he said.
“I like working with my hands, I like building things, I like starting from nothing and being able to look back and see what you have built, see what you have accomplished,” he said.
“I actually purchased the business from my parents about five years after I returned from my mission, when I was 26-27 years old,” he said. “My mother continued to doing the bookkeeping for us, she loved doing the bookkeeping, she liked answering the phone.”
Cox and his dad didn’t always see eye to eye on business-related matters.
“The first time it got slow, I asked my dad, well, where do you usually go to drum-up business and he said, ‘Well I don’t, I just wait for it, and it will come to us – our reputation will keep us moving.’
“I wasn’t comfortable with that and I started branching out and I went out into our industrial park – talked with really every manager out there that would talk to me and we started picking up a lot of work. We went from doing $50 and $100 jobs to $1,000, $10,000, $20,000 jobs.”
The sheet metal businesses evolved into developing air handling vacuums and later into stainless steel work as well.
“It was fun – it was a challenge – there was a lot of engineering involved,” Cox said. “Trying to figure out how to get something that has a substantial weight, suck it up with a vacuum and move it 200 feet across a factory and dispose of it in a bin – there was a lot of engineering that went behind that.
“From there we went into doing restaurant work – we worked a lot in kitchens and specialized there toward the end in doing stainless steel custom fabrication, again working with metal but it was an area of expertise that no one locally was doing. We were able to work for quite a few restaurants in the area, doing custom design work for them – again moving the air out of the kitchens, off of the stoves.
“As times changed, we changed with the times to make sure that we kept enough work in-house,” he added.
Cox’s interest in serving the community came with his missionary work and really right after he and his wife were married.
“We talked about what do we want to do, how do we want to give back to our community,” he said. “Way back then, in the early 80’s, there was a Visalia Volunteer Bureau, located where we have our literacy center now in the library on Locust.
“We went in and told them we’d like to volunteer, what do you have? They gave us a list of places that requested volunteers and we actually started volunteering at the Creative Center.”
Cox also volunteered at the library on Saturdays.
“After we purchased the business, we decided that we could become involved in a more financial way,” he said.
The growing family started doing construction projects for the Creative Center including framing and air conditioning and then went on to help Visalia Emergency Aid by installing its first refrigerated walk-in boxes.
Later, the Coxes volunteered with Habitat for Humanity – with every new house built, their company installed air conditioners.
“That was our way of giving back to the community,” Cox said.
From there Cox joined the North Visalia Advisory Committee and served as chairman there for about five years. He was then appointed to city’s planning commission and served for almost four years before running for city council in 2001, he said.
Cox was encouraged by a group of business people – builders, developers and business people who said, “Phil, we need someone with a business mind on city council,” he said. “I looked at city council and said, ‘well you’ve got business minds on there,’ and they said, ‘well, we still think you’d do well on council.’”
While late in his first term, a seat for the County Board of Supervisors came up and he was once again encouraged to run for this seat, he said. He ran and won, leaving an empty council seat, for which the council appointed an interim member to fill out the rest of the term.
“I was very happy with what we were able to accomplish (on city council),” he said. “This was during some of the boom years – we’d come out of a recession at the end of the ‘90s and things were doing really well. ”
During his tenure, Visalia purchased many properties, he said, including that where the Sports Park is located and a property on the east side of town, now being considered for another sports park and a ground water recharge area, which is exactly what the property was purchased for, he said.
“A lot of wonderful things happened like that,” he said of land purchases during his council days.
“Financing was a little different then – you had your community redevelopment block grants, you had redevelopment monies – we were able to use some of those funding sources to purchase those properties, so it didn’t really hurt our general fund at all,” he said.
The one regret Cox has from his council days, was Visalia’s not purchasing some property across from Recreation Pak.
“I saw the for sale signs up and literally that day went down to the city manager’s office and said to him, you know these four-plexus are for sale and they are only $67,000 – we need to buy these because we need more parking over there. He said, oh, $67,000 – that’s way too expensive for that property,” Cox said. “I regret that we didn’t get a little more pushy with the city manager and make him buy those. He thought it wasn’t a good deal – I thought it was a great deal, just for the expanded parking.”
During his council days and two years into his board of supervisors’ seat, Cox kept his business running with the help of some of his children.
“Wherever I look, I need to be challenged,” he said. “I didn’t know if this was going to be challenging enough to pull me completely away from the construction business – I had three sons that worked in the business for me and they carried on as I got more involved and imbedded in what I am doing as a supervisor/ I told my kids, you know I think this is what I really want to do. They all agreed, and said, well dad, we don’t like construction anyways.”
“With construction it is either feast or famine,” Cox explained. “When you do really well, you put money away for time when you’re not and I had become accustomed to that – but they were accustomed to getting a weekly paycheck.”
“And right now, looking at what we face today – I’m still challenged,” he said.
When Cox first ran for supervisor, he met Allen Ishida, who was running for a different supervisor seat.
“We had a lot of the same ideas, we wanted to see the county run more like a business and less like government,” Cox said. “Changing that mentality was not done overnight, but I think the county is more run like a business now than a government agency – we’re still stuck in our silos – we receive a lot of our funding from the federal government and state government. They give you a pot of money and with the directions of this is how you will spend this money. On our side, we get to manage the employees – where are we going to apply those services at – where are we going to put people – does the public have access to get in, to utilize these services.”
During his 11 years on the board, Cox feels he has been effective in part from his financial background, background from his business and time serving on Visalia City Council.
“When I came over here, I started looking for the money – track the money – where is the money coming from and where is it going,” he said.
One of the first things I noticed is that we had purchased some cars– we buy a lot of cars every year – probably 50-60 or more, so I’m looking at the agenda,” he said, “how are we buying these cars. We’re going out and borrowing the money through a bank to buy cars.
“And I look at the other side and we have a billion dollars in our investment pool. And my first question was why aren’t we borrowing the money from ourselves? And that’s what we did. Within the first year, we started purchasing cars, paying cash for them with the funds from the pool and paying ourselves back with interest just a little bit above what the pool collected, but we were saving 50-60% of the interest payments by buying the cars and financing them ourselves. It just really made sense, if we could save $50,000 a year on interest – I’d rather pay myself $50,000 interest than a bank. When you borrow the money from a bank, it doesn’t really create any more local jobs – I don’t see much of a local benefit to it.”
“We had a property that we wanted to sell and there was little or no discussion about what would happen with the proceeds from the sale of the property and I brought up – well what do we do – just naively not knowing – where does this money go? It went straight to the general fund.
“With government financing, when it goes into the general fund – the money is gone. I suggested that we create trust funds to hold monies from the sales of property and that we dedicate that money to the purchase of property or the expansion of our buildings. We would designate that one time money from the sale of that property for future needs for the county. Those trust funds are pools of money we’ve used for our matching money for the two new jails that we’re going to build – they require a 10% cash match.”
“One of the most rewarding so far, has been to be the chair of TCAG. In 2006, I was tasked with writing Measure R [the half-cent sales tax] and actually working with a team to get measure R passed,” he said. “That was very time consuming, we had to literally negotiate with every city while we were writing Measure R what they might get out of it if it were passed.
“Those negotiations were interesting – we had to in some cases, tell the cities, ‘why don’t we give you two buses – you don’t want anything else, can we give you two buses?’
“The county has literally increased bus ridership 300 percent, since Measure R and that’s a big accomplishment.”
Cox also spoke of the development of First Five including the county’s affiliation with the three hospital districts within its borders for First Five programs, and also of the Step-Up Program which he hopes continues long after he is no longer on the board.
“In 2007, a young boy was shot and killed out in Goshen – I thought Goshen is going to become unglued and I was expecting other small communities to literally rush our office and demand that something be done. And there was nothing. For a week, there was nothing,” he said. “I asked the sheriff, are people pounding down your door asking you to fix the gang problem that’s plaguing our small communities and he sent a lieutenant over to talk to me. Then Lt. Mike Boudreaux came and picked me up and we went out to Goshen. And, he showed me the street, where this little boy had been shot and killed, and he stopped and said, ‘look left there was a big blue “S” painted on a garage door. And, now look right – there was a big red N in six-foot letters painted on the garage door. That’s what we’re dealing with in some of these communities – we have southerners and northerners living on the same street.’
“What he said really pierced me to the heart – he said that the opinion that we see out here is that they really don’t care – they think these young people are destined to be in gangs anyways and their destined to be killed anyway. That didn’t set right with me, because I care. Had some tears come to my eyes, I said, I care. We need to do something.”
That was the birth of the Step-Up Program and out of that now we literally serve tens of thousands of young people every year through the Step-Up Program.
Cox has seven children of his own – two of which, he said gave their parents trouble.
“One, we thought, this boy is going to end up in prison and at age 25, he completely turned himself around, started going to church, found himself a girl who we just love to death – they got married and have given us a beautiful grandson. We were very concerned about him – he was going down the white-supremacist’s path – a gang of its own.
“We have a daughter, who was very involved in drugs and she was involved with some bad people who were stealing cars. We were happy when she was arrested and went to jail, because we knew there had to be something to wake her up. That was the event that made her change her life.
“As I look back, we’re a middleclass, white family and we have two children that were involved in gangs – two children that were involved in drugs. It can happen to anybody.”
Five of the children are the Coxes natural children, all boys. Unable to have any more children, the couple decided to adopt the baby girl Connie Cox had longed for, and then a second one.
Several of the grown children live in the area, while a couple have moved out of state.
In his down time, what little there is, Cox loves to read.
“I will only read nonfiction, if it’s not real, I don’t want to read it. I don’t think I’ve read a novel, ever, except when I was in high school. I love reading history. If it’s true I like to read about it.”
He admits to being a Sci-Fi nut.
“I watch Sci-Fi movies. I enjoy trying to figure out – how did they do that – how did they get that shot,” he said.
Old and new – he likes to watch them all, when they come on TV.
Cox attends a lot of events as a supervisor.
“It can be work,” he said, “You always have to be on.”
For the past eight years, Cox has stayed close to home, other than traveling for the board, and to see their family.
His wife’s cancer brought a change to their lifestyle – she has been in remission for seven years.
After his supervisor years are through, both Phil and Connie Cox would like to do some more missionary work. It will be the new priority.