The breach of the Pajaro River levee that flooded the town of Pajaro.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

County supervisors gear up to tackle housing plans, mental health courts, Pajaro River levee and CZU recovery

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors returns from its extended summer break next week. Lookout Politics and Policy correspondent Christopher Neely reached out to all five county supervisors to understand what they foresee as the priority projects and policy discussions coming before the board for the remainder of 2023.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors returns from its extended summer break next Tuesday, Aug. 8. Supervisors are set to get back to work on major policy questions facing the county for the remainder of this year.

The first half of this year witnessed the historic string of atmospheric rivers that rearranged our natural environment, public infrastructure and people’s homes. We’ve watched communities grapple with how they will make room for unprecedented levels of new housing units — mandated by the state — by 2030, controversy over a powerful seat on the California Coastal Commission and growing intrigue around the three supervisor seats (Districts 1, 2 and 5) up for election next year.

Lookout Politics and Policy correspondent Christopher Neely reached out to all five county supervisors to understand what they foresee as the priority projects and policy discussions coming before the board for the remainder of 2023.

Their answers, which range from storm recovery and housing questions to homelessness and county staffing levels, are below.

District 1 Supervisor Manu Koenig

District 1 Supervisor Manu Koenig.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As with a few of his colleagues, Koenig quickly pointed to the completion of the county’s housing element as the central task for the supervisors in the second half of 2023. The housing element, which will need to be submitted to the state by year’s end for final approval, illustrates the county’s vision for how and where it will fit the more than 4,000 new housing units the state wants to see planned for by 2030.

The county already submitted a first draft to the state for initial comments, and will refine the plan based on the state’s input through the fall before submitting a final version around November or December, Koenig said. The plan includes “a ton of rezonings” through the unincorporated parts of the county, including intensified housing density in the more urban areas, such as Aptos, Live Oak and Soquel. Koenig also expects the county to increase height restrictions along major intersections as a way to make more room for the units.

Also on the front burner for Koenig, who sits on the Regional Transportation Commission, is the reimagining of the county’s public transit system. With input from the public, Santa Cruz Metro system is rethinking its bus routes, and considering adding more frequent buses along the busiest routes and eliminating less-traveled routes. Right now, Metro has two short-term options out for public input, and will decide on a long-term solution later this year, Koenig said, all in an effort to increase ridership in the system.

District 2 Supervisor Zach Friend

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The March failure of the levee that displaced many of the 3,000 residents in Pajaro was a catastrophe many saw coming for decades. Although funding that would have reinforced the levee against the winter storms was secured last year, it was too late.

Supervisor Zach Friend has talked about his role in securing that federal, state and local funding for the Pajaro River levee project as among the principal accomplishments of his nearly 12-year county supervisor career. Now, ensuring that the larger reconstruction project moves forward along with the repairs from the winter storms stands atop his priorities through the second half of 2023.

Friend said he is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies to ensure the levee project moves on time to avoid similar disasters in the future. He said he also wants to prepare for the winter season ahead, clearing dead trees and any other debris that could exacerbate flooding along Santa Cruz County creeks.

Friend also pointed to prepping for the roll out of CARE (Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment) Courts next year as essential for the board of supervisors during the final stretch of 2023. Mandated by the state, CARE Courts aim to overhaul how counties deal with the severely mentally ill. Once implemented, Santa Cruz County will have a new arm of the justice system that empowers courts to compel people suffering from diagnosed schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorders into state-sponsored treatment.

As is the case with most counties, Santa Cruz’s CARE Court system will need to be live by December 2024. Friend said the program is expensive and questions abound around how counties will fund this new judicial arm. “We don’t know what the impact will be on county resources,” Friend said, pointing out that the county’s behavioral health department is already short-staffed. “From the county’s perspective, there is always caution around any new programs without funding.”

Although he has played it close to the chest thus far, Friend will need to make public his plans for reelection, and whether he will seek a fourth term or vacate the seat, by the Dec. 8 deadline.

District 3 Supervisor Justin Cummings

Justin Cummings served on the Santa Cruz City Council before being elected county supervisor.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Within his district, Cummings said two issues immediately come to his mind. First: the completion of the North Coast Facilities Management Plan, which will outline how the county and agencies with a stake in the region, such as California State Parks, the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Trust for Public Land and Caltrans, will prioritize facility improvements like parking along Highway 1. Second: ensuring Comcast installs its required backup power infrastructure to support essential communication service (such as phone reception) in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Cummings said residents lost phone service almost immediately after the power went out during the winter storms, leaving people without a way to reach emergency responders; however, the California Public Utilities Commission requires telecommunication companies to have backup power so phone service can stick around for at least 72 hours after a power outage.

On broader, countywide issues, Cummings pointed to progress on homelessness. Both he and Koenig said that the county needs to focus on expanding temporary shelter options on county property, as well as managed, sanctioned encampments.

On the housing element, Cummings said he wants to see the county add more affordable housing requirements before it submits its draft to the state for final approval later this year. He wants to see the county increase its inclusionary zoning rules to require new multifamily developments to reserve 20% of the units as affordable, up from the current 15%.

District 4 Supervisor Felipe Hernandez

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The fourth supervisorial district encompasses much of South County, which makes the repairs and eventual reinforcement of the Pajaro River levee the top priority for Hernandez. Similar to Friend, he sees his role as ensuring the projects move along on time. He is also keeping a keen eye on the flood resiliency projects happening along Corralitos and Salsipuedes Creeks, which both flooded and displaced many residents during the winter storms. “The Army Corps of Engineers want to offer 25-year flood protection to those creeks,” Hernandez said. “Right now, they have zero protection against floods.”

Fire resiliency through clearing brush and dead trees, and bringing the more South County voices to the table on transit discussions are also priorities for Hernandez this year, especially as Santa Cruz Metro plans to alter its bus route system and potentially reduce frequency in some rural South County areas.

The county’s staffing shortage is also particularly concerning for Hernandez. Hiring has been an issue for the county, especially in the Behavioral Health Division, where more than 1 in 4 positions are vacant.

“County jobs used to be coveted jobs, something everyone wanted,” Hernandez said. “At the end of the day, the county needs to figure out how to hire people. Every department is understaffed and we have a slim talent pool to hire from.”

Hernandez said he is looking to places like Santa Clara County, which he said has drawn many applicants from Santa Cruz County, to see how they are able to attract talent and get fresh ideas on hiring and employee retention.

District 5 Supervisor Bruce McPherson

Bruce McPherson, first elected District 5 supervisor in 2012, says he won't seek reelection next year.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The recovery after 2020’s CZU fire, which burned 911 homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has been a torturous process for many homeowners. Updated regulations on modernized septic systems, geological testing requirements and the size of fire roads have stunted the ability of homeowners, through cost or logistics, to complete their rebuilds.

Only 36 homes have been rebuilt in the three years since the fire, and McPherson feels the pressure. He said finding ways to get people through the process remains a priority for him. He said, in its handling of the recovery, the county has “made some mistakes but we’re trying to fix them.” However, he maintains that the expense of state regulations, especially those that require rebuilt homes to include modern septic systems that can cost around $80,000, have rendered the county powerless.

“I’m really not trying to pass the buck here, I’m utterly frustrated over how long it’s taken for some,” McPherson said.

The three-term supervisor, who announced in June that he would vacate his seat at term’s end next year, said he would also prioritize helping to usher embattled Boulder Creek water utility Big Basin Water Company from private ownership into state-dictated receivership. That process is underway following a lawsuit by Attorney General Rob Bonta that would hand financial control of the utility to an independent law firm. The utility has been unable to address infrastructure damage following the CZU fire and winter storms, which has led to sewage spilling out into the environment and gaps in drinking water delivery, leaving customers without reliable water and wastewater service.

McPherson also foresees the CARE Court rollout, filling a growing number of vacancies among county ranks and a potential sales tax increase to boost struggling county tax revenues as taking up a lot of the energy on the board of supervisors for the rest of 2023.

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to correct the rate of vacancies in the county’s Behavioral Health Division; it is 26%, more than 1 in 4.

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