After nearly two years of pandemic life in Stanislaus County and beyond, Board of Supervisors Chairman Terry Withrow gave his 2022 State of the County address last week and shared what he believes the agency has done right during a time when so many have focused on the wrong.
Withrow reflected on the past 23 months, which have seen supervisors faced with making public health decisions to protect county residents, dealing with state and federal mandates and, at times, questioning those orders.
He mourned the nearly 1,600 Stanislaus County residents who have succumbed to COVID-19 during that time. The chairman thanked county health service leaders Mary Ann Lilly and Dr. Julie Vaishampayan for their integrity during trying times, and noted the county’s accomplishments despite recent hardships.
“The opinions on what we should or shouldn’t do have often been split. The criticisms of our actions have been constant; we’ve been damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but that’s okay,” Withrow said. “For it is the ‘doing’ during this pandemic, from our Board and staff, that I am the proudest of…That’s what true leadership is all about and I couldn’t be prouder of how Stanislaus County government has responded during these trying times.”
Stanislaus County is in one of its strongest financial positions yet thanks to COVID relief funds, and has received $216 million, or 15 percent of its budget, since the pandemic began. The county’s ag-heavy economy also allowed for sales tax revenues and property values to remain unscathed, but running COVID testing sites, producing public information campaigns, providing personal protective equipment, conducting contact tracing and more has cost $118 million to date.
Some of that cost went to grants and nonprofits, however, and Stanislaus County distributed $15 million in direct cash assistance to its nine cities — one of just six counties in the state to do so.
“...our proportion was nearly double anyone else in the state,” Withrow said. “This level of support demonstrates our strong commitment to the success of our local cities and our appreciation for the basic services they provide to the vast majority of Stanislaus County residents each day.”
The county is debt free, with the exception of an 80 percent funded unfunded pension plan, and its general fund balance is healthy at $254 million. One sign of fiscal health in the county is the reopening of the Sheriff substation in Salida, which will take place by mid-April, and the effort to open more is pertinent as the Sheriff’s department seized 305 pounds of heroin, methamphetamines, fentanyl and cocaine over the last year along with 30,486 pounds of processed marijuana and 228,804 marijuana plants. The department seized $886,000 in cash and 145 firearms as well.
“The lack of consequences for these crimes continues to affect the quality of life of all in our community. I believe as a society, our mission and obligation is to help and support those who are troubled, not to enable and accept their path to hell,” said Withrow. “We must continue to seek reforms in this area from our state representatives to grant us the ability to end the cycle of lawlessness we are currently facing.”
Withrow highlighted progress with the county’s infrastructure, which includes phase one of the new state route 132, as well as the celebration of the remodeled public library in Turlock.
He also touted the $158 billion budget for the Department of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, which has focused on getting help to those in need through a new strategic plan focused on those most in need of treatment for severe mental illness or experiencing a mental health crisis. Court approved conservatorships have more than doubled the number of conserved individuals to an average of 230 in the county on any given day, providing them with a roof over their head, three meals a day and needed medical treatment.
In the area of homelessness, accomplishments by the county include:
• The opening of a Low Barrier Shelter with 182 beds.
• The Kansas House – a converted hotel housing up to 225 individuals, providing the next level above a shelter and a bridge to traditional housing.
• The deployment of Outreach and Engagement teams, working daily to get individuals off the streets and into services and housing.
• The deployment of a Community Assessment Response and Engagement team to work specifically the most acute of the homeless population.
• Initial stages of tiny homes being placed on certain excess properties supplied by participating churches.
• The Conversion of blighted properties into workforce housing
Despite the county’s success over the last two years, Withrow said the current state of affairs in America have left him troubled, alluding to political polarization and the inability to compromise. He urged the community to live life rather than to survive, and to get back to churches, synagogues, temples and mosques so that the community can be built up once more.
“Let’s get back to living,” said Withrow.
(Editor’s note: This is the entire text of last week’s State of the County Address delivered by Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chairman Terry Withrow).
Good evening to all of you here and those of you watching at home or online. Thank you for taking the time to be a part of tonight’s meeting. I am truly honored to be able to present to you this year’s State of the County Address.
Although it has been not quite three years since the last time I stood here before you, there is no denying what a different county, state, country and world we find ourselves in today. So much of our daily life, that we once took for granted, has been changed by this Pandemic.
As county supervisors overseeing our local government, during this unprecedented time, we’ve been tasked with doing all we can to protect the health of our residents, dealing with sometimes almost daily federal or state orders and mandates, while still trying to maintain the basic functions of government. The challenges have been great. We’ve had no play book to follow.
We have found ourselves constantly making decisions based on the information available at the time, only to later be reversed or altered as we gained more information and knowledge. The opinions on what we should or shouldn’t do have often been split. The criticisms of our actions have been constant, we’ve been dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t, but that’s okay.
For it is the “doing” during this pandemic, from our board and staff, that I am the proudest of. Whether it was the accepting and implementing of marching orders passed down from federal and state agencies, or the heated discussions where we questioned these orders and sometimes refused to apply them based on their lack of applicability to our local circumstances. That’s what is asked of us by those who put us here. That’s what true leadership is all about and I couldn’t be prouder of how Stanislaus County government has responded during these trying times.
So often, all we hear is what’s wrong or what we have failed to do. What I would like to do here tonight is use this opportunity to highlight a few of the many good things, here in Stanislaus County, that we have accomplished in the last year to facilitate and improve the quality of life of our citizens.
If I could, I would like to first acknowledge a few people.
To the 1,588 friends and family members in our county who have succumbed to the Covid-19 virus over the last two years, you are, and will always be, in our thoughts and prayers.
To our past year’s Chairman, Supervisor Chiesa, Vito, your steady and calming leadership this last year has been admired by us all. I’ve said this before, but I can’t imagine having continued in this position over the last 11 years without you sitting next to me.
To our newer more recent board members, Mani, Buck and Channce, you have all stepped right into your positions with heartfelt passion and concerns for your constituents. The trust and care we have all quickly achieved for each other has allowed us to work through even the most difficult issues to do what’s best for this county. It is an honor to call each of you my fellow supervisors and friends.
To our Chief Executive Officer, Jody Hayes and staff, our Clerk of the Board, our department heads, leadership teams and rank-and-file employees making up approximately 4,600 individuals, your dedication and sincere efforts to make this a better community do not go unnoticed.
It is you, especially through this last year, who are the true servant leaders in this county. Without you, we accomplish none of what we are tasked to do by the taxpayers. Please know, even if not always acknowledged, you are appreciated by all in this county.
A special thank you to the men and women in our county law enforcement. You have nothing but the utmost respect and appreciation from this board. You perform the most essential and basic function of any government, to maintain law and order and protect our citizens. You leave your own families each day to go out and protect the families of others.
Amid adversity and an ever increasingly complicated world, you continue to do this job professionally, showing the utmost respect for all those you encounter. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
I also want to highlight my appreciation for our leadership in health services, particularly Mary Ann Lilly and Dr. Julie Vaishampayan. Everyone in this organization carries their fair share of responsibility each day, not just to serve our community, but to improve it and work towards a broader purpose. Mary Ann and Dr. V. have spent two years carrying much more than any of us could have imagined, and they have done so with tremendous integrity and without complaint. Thank you both for your work with the Board and in the community, you deserve our appreciation and recognition.
In that same light of health services, we can’t go without praising all our health care workers who went way beyond the call of duty to serve all of us.
Finally, and for me, the most personal thank you goes to my wife. Christen, you have given the last 37 years of your life selflessly to us and our children. From that you have nurtured and produced four amazing human beings that we both are so proud of. Thank you for your love and dedication to our family and enduring the last 11 years.
So let’s talk accomplishments!
I am pleased to report today that the state of our county is as strong as it has probably ever been. Now you would wonder, how this could be, following almost two years of a global pandemic?
Fortunately for the county, and unfortunately for our children and grandchildren, the federal government has been printing a lot of money. Our county alone, between the CRF funds (Coronavirus Relief Funds) and the ARPA funds (American Rescue Plan Act), has received approximately $216 million dollars. This represents almost 15 petcent of our current annual budget.
In addition, our county’s main industries were for the most part not as COVID susceptible to the economic consequences of the lockdowns. This allowed our sales tax revenues and property values to not suffer as much as other counties.
The cost we have incurred to date, as a result of the pandemic has been substantial – approximately $118 million. It included equipping and staffing testing sites, public information campaigns, providing personal protective supplies, contact tracing systems, vaccine administering, and more recently, treatment services.
It also included grants we provided to local businesses and non-profits to assist them financially in dealing with the economic effect of the lockdowns. We brought together various members of the private sector who helped us determine those with the greatest need, and then aided us in the distribution of the dollars. As a percentage of our total COVID resources available, Stanislaus County was one of the leaders in the state for dedicating COVID funds to its businesses and non-profits.
As part of this effort, Stanislaus County distributed $15 million in direct cash assistance to our nine incorporated cities. This infusion of cash was critical to maintain core services at a time when many cities were struggling in the early days of the pandemic.
There were only six other counties in California who contributed CARES Act funds to local cities, and our proportion was nearly double anyone else in the state. This level of support demonstrates our strong commitment to the success of our local cities and our appreciation for the basic services they provide to the vast majority of Stanislaus County residents each day.
Our current fiscal year’s budget is approximately $1.5 billion. Discretionary revenue has grown $23 million, from $233 million in Fiscal Year 2020-2021 to $256 million in Fiscal Year 2021-2022. Our General Fund starts this fiscal year with a balance of $254 million.
Although this General Fund balance is healthy, we all have seen how quickly it can disappear with a downturn in the economy and that is exactly why we need to maintain our fiscal strength to avoid the type of layoffs and service reductions we experienced in my early years on the board.
Additionally, our county is debt-free, with the exception of our unfunded pension plan liability, which is currently approximately 80 percent funded.
Over the last several years, our Board of Supervisors has been committed to restoring our public safety budgets to our pre-great recession levels. I am proud to say that we have achieved that goal. One of our objectives was to get to a point that we could begin reopening our Sheriff substations throughout our county.
On that note, by mid-April, we will reopen the first one in Salida, our largest unincorporated community. The location will be just off Highway 99 as you enter our county from the north. The substation will share the site with Salida Fire and will house a sergeant and five deputies. We thank the Sheriff for helping bring this to fruition and to the citizens of Salida for their patience as we worked to make this happen.
As we all know, most of our crimes in this county, whether it be petty theft or violent felonies, revolve around the illegal drug trade and usage. Our ability to deal with this issue has been severely limited due to legislation that has come out of Sacramento and propositions voted on by the people, stripping us of the authority to arrest and hold individuals committing these crimes.
With regard to drug trafficking, over the last year, our Sheriff’s department has seized 305 pounds of heroin, methamphetamines, fentanyl and cocaine. And 30,486 pounds of processed marijuana and 228,804 marijuana plants. In connection with these operations, we have also seized $886,000 in cash and 145 firearms.
The lack of consequences for these crimes continues to affect the quality of life of all in our community. I believe as a society, our mission and obligation is to help and support those who are troubled, not to enable and accept their path to hell. We must continue to seek reforms in this area from our state representatives to grant us the ability to end the cycle of lawlessness we are currently facing.
Over the last year we have resurfaced and maintained 157 miles of road within our county. The new State Route 132 which has been 60 years in the making is finally coming to fruition. Phase one is nearly complete, from Highway 99 west to Dakota Avenue. The design and environmental work for phases 2 and 3, which will give us four lanes all the way to Gates Road is in progress and on schedule.
The North County Corridor project – which so far has delivered us four lanes traveling east from Highway 99 to Oakdale Road – continues to move forward with right of way purchases to eventually expand east of Oakdale.
The Faith Home Road Bridge over the Tuolumne River continues to move forward with environmental work and identification of preferred alternatives.
In addition, the Hickman Road bridge rehabilitation was completed in November, the Crows Landing Road bridge over the San Joaquin River has broken ground to be fully completed in 2023 and the McHenry Avenue lane widening from Ladd to the Stanislaus River broke ground in 2021 and is scheduled to be completed in 2022.
After years of studies and intense negotiations between the various agencies in our county, I am proud to say we have merged four of the separately operated bus systems into one Regional Transit Authority. This system will not only result in fiscal efficiencies but will provide a more user-friendly system for our riders with better route options. I want to thank all who persevered and worked so hard to make this happen.
Finally, after years of hard work and dedication from countless individuals, involving private and public partnerships, we were able to celebrate the openings of the remodeled Turlock Library and the newly constructed Empire Library – both amazing gems for these communities. Thank you to all who made this happen.
We all know, and I have discussed above, how much effort and resources have been dedicated to the physical health of our citizens over the last year of this Pandemic. What I would like to highlight here is accomplishments and achievements we have obtained in the area of Mental Health through our Department of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.
The budget for this department in the current fiscal year is $158.1 million. As a county, we are tasked with providing services to those in our community with severe mental illness. In April of 2021, BHRS began implementation of a new Strategic Plan focused on those most in need of treatment for severe mental illness or experiencing a mental health crisis. This Core Treatment Model promises to get services out to those in need.
In addition, and as a result of legislation, there is now a mandate that our local Medi-Cal insurers begin not only paying for but promoting services for Medi-Cal patients with mild to moderate mental health issues. This, along with mental health services being provided in our schools, now in partnership with our county, will hopefully provide early treatment before individuals succumb to severe mental illnesses.
We have also made great strides in getting individuals off the streets who suffer from such severe mental illnesses that they cannot care for themselves. Through court approved conservatorships, we are able to get these individuals into facilities where they can have a roof over their head, three meals a day and receive needed medical treatment. Over the last several years, we have more than doubled the number of conserved individuals to an average of 230 in the county on any given day.
Although this is an expensive option, there is much cost savings to the system by removing these individuals from continuous use of our Emergency Medical Services, not to mention just the basic humanity of getting these people off the streets and into care.
We have also, as a result of additional federal and state funding through what’s called the Drug Medi-Cal Organized Delivery System, increased access to over 100 residential treatment beds for Medi-Cal beneficiaries in our county. In addition, and as a part of this funding, we have increased access to 219 Recovery Residence beds.
These residences provide a safe and clean sober living environment for those who have completed substance use disorder treatment and are committed to their recovery. Although these residential services had been available for private insurance or private pay, these critical services are now available for those that did not have the financial means to pay.
From a social services standpoint, we are a county that provides some form of assistance or subsidy to approximately 40 percent of our population, which includes those receiving MediCal healthcare coverage due to a lack of affordable health insurance. This statistic is sobering, and we have got to find a way to change this trajectory.
Approximately six years ago, we brought together leaders from throughout our county to formulate a plan to reverse this trend. Out of this was born ”Focus on Prevention,” a movement aimed at bringing multiple organizations and institutions together, breaking down silos and working collaboratively to not just treat the symptoms of our ills, but to get to and cure the root causes.
At the beginning we defined what success would look like, we determined how we would measure it, then we put in place strategies to achieve it. Five result areas revolving around families were identified: Health, Neighborhoods, Education, Economy and Housing. We have so far advanced three of these result areas.
We began with housing, specifically the area of homelessness. The accomplishments here so far include:
1). The Opening of a Low Barrier Shelter with 182 beds.
2). The Kansas House – a converted hotel housing up to 225 individuals, providing the next level above a shelter and a bridge to traditional housing.
3). The Deployment of Outreach and Engagement teams, working daily to get individuals off the streets and into services and housing.
4). The Deployment of a Community Assessment Response and Engagement team to work specifically the most acute of the homeless population.
5). We are in the initial stages of tiny homes being placed on certain excess properties supplied by participating churches.
6). We have begun the conversion of blighted properties into workforce housing.
We have also just recently started a Housing Stanislaus Initiative, with the help of the consulting firm Valley Vision, to accelerate the availability of affordable and market rate housing in our county.
Out of the result area of education was born Cradle to Career. This initiative is a partnership of multiple organizations along with Stanislaus County Office of Education with the mission to align sectors and systems in our county to ensure successful outcomes for learners from cradle to career.
Under the result area of economy, we have just recently initiated Stanislaus 2030. This initiative, made up of partners both in funding and participation, from Stanislaus County, Stanislaus Community Foundation and various leaders of the private sector, is putting together an economic strategy for a community wide vision for our future economy. We have contracted with the Brookings Institute to prepare a market assessment which has recently been completed. We are on a fast track to then take this data and move towards strategies to implement.
Before I leave the topic of Focus on Prevention, I want to share with you just one of the real-life stories that fuels myself and my fellow supervisors ongoing passion to lead and invest in these efforts.
This last weekend I received a note from our staff sharing a success story from our public safety system. Several years ago, we had the idea to add Social Services directly into the Public Defender’s Office, thinking there was no better place to interrupt the cycles of poverty in our community than the moment when people are facing incarceration and separation from their families and parental responsibilities.
I give credit to the entire Public Defender leadership team and staff. They changed their mission to include a focus on reducing recidivism and worked hard to develop a new model of Client Support Specialist who are now available to directly support individuals ready to make changes in their life.
The numbers are impressive; they have already reached about 200 individuals with case management, individual counseling, peer support and connections to all of our community resources available to chart a new path in life.
The letter I’m about to read was written to county employee Jeremy Myers, one of those Client Support case workers in the Public Defender’s Office. It was written by Mr. Lorenzo Brown:
“Mr. Myers, I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for the support I received from you, my attorney and the District Attorney. Allowing me the opportunity to enter this program has been the biggest gift and blessing I have ever had in my life. My entire outlook upon life has been altered. I came here broken, afraid and lost. But with the help of the staff and the Godly direction I receive here I am a better man today. I’ve learned that I can still be a good father, brother, son, husband and productive member of this great society. I thank all those who were involved in this opportunity, one that has given me a new beginning. This Program has taught me to trust in the Lord, to be patient, and to work for what you want out of life. Today I work in the administrative office helping the new men who come in with fears and doubts just like I did. My mind is clear and my thoughts are Christ centered. My heart has changed. I feel full of love for life each and every day. I can now rise with a purpose and a sense of urgency because I know that I can be that spark to change someone else’s life just like it was done for me.
Lorenzo C. Brown”
I want to congratulate Mr. Brown, and our county team members, Jeremy Myers, Amanda Barnett and Sandra Ainslie who are involved in these types of efforts in the community, we have them all here with us this evening, will you please stand up so we can recognize you.
These are the reasons we feel called to service as County Supervisors. Our goal should be to have so many of these examples joining us that we outgrow this Board chamber.
Regardless of our individual beliefs or religious affiliations, we can all agree that any one of us may find ourselves on a journey in life that needs intentional connection and support from one another. I’m proud to see that growing through Focus on Prevention.
I felt it was important to acknowledge specific accomplishments your county government, with your tax dollars, has been working on over the last year. It’s what I like to call the “the good stuff” happening here in Stanislaus County.
If I could, I would like to end tonight with a few reflections.
About a week ago I received an email from a friend, asking if I was troubled by certain national events. As I contemplated the question and my response, I thought yes, I am troubled by many things that have occurred over the last couple years.
I am troubled by the demonization taking place on both sides of the political aisle today.
I am troubled that we can no longer have different points of view and still respect each other’s opinions.
I am troubled that compromising has become a lost art and even considered by many a sign of weakness.
I am troubled that we expend so much energy and time, trying to tear down those with whom we disagree, instead of focusing on and promoting community changing ideas and solutions.
I truly believe that God puts us on this planet with a mission to make it a better place. The last couple of years have tested all of our resolves and taken us off our mission course.
Life is to be lived, not just survived. We cannot take care and improve the lives of others in need, if we are solely concerned about our own wellbeing.
Let’s reduce the use of the words I, my and me and instead get back to more of us, our and we.
Let’s get back to our churches, synagogues, temples and mosque.
Let’s get back to our mission, building community.
Let’s get back to living.
May God bless our county, state and country. Thank you all.