Homelessness, public safety top Santa Clara County priority list

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via mercurynews.com
By Joe Rodriguez
Posted: 01/28/2014 03:51:35 PM PST

SAN JOSE — As Santa Clara County’s only Republican supervisor, Mike Wasserman on Tuesday delivered a speech that a roomful of Democrats, social service advocates, liberals and moderates of either political party could appreciate.

“I loved it,” said Jennifer Loving, a veteran leader in the campaign to end homelessness. “The problem of homelessness is as bleak as it’s ever been, and for him to show such commitment was just great.”

Wasserman, who is president of the nonpartisan Board of Supervisors — a ceremonial position rotated by seniority among its five members — delivered his remarks during the traditional State of the County speech. Before a packed room at county headquarters in San Jose, he said the budget deficit was the lowest in a decade, providing an opportunity to focus on his top priorities: public safety, delivering quality public services for less taxpayer money, and educating residents on what county government actually does.

Visitors look over the memorial to the homeless dead during the annual roll call of the homeless who have died in the South Bay; December 2013.

Visitors look over the memorial to the homeless dead during the annual roll call of the homeless who have died in the South Bay; December 2013. (Patrick Tehan, Mercury News)

“While these may sound basic, they are not easy to accomplish in a county our size,” Wasserman said. Among those services, he promised to “raise the profile” of county efforts to solve homelessness.

“Let’s face it, our most vulnerable residents, men, women and children are those living on the streets,” he said, also endorsing permanent housing solutions over temporary ones in reaction to crises.

His stand on the vexing social problem echoed that of Don Gage, the last Republic supervisor to deliver a State of the County speech, in 2007.

“He’s right on about homelessness,” said Gage, who is now mayor of Gilroy.

Wasserman is in a better financial position to solve homelessness than his GOP predecessor. Gage faced a $238 million budget deficit when took the helm of the county board. By comparison, Wasserman said his projected deficit in the $2.4 billion general fund budget is about $25 million.

That relatively healthy, financial starting point to his tenure as board chief should help Wasserman deliver on another of his priorities, to get more bang for the buck from county government. County Executive Jeff Smith embarked on the same mission four years ago while avoiding the drastic cuts labor unions and social service providers had expected.

Among Wasserman’s priorities, the most unique or rarely heard was his desire to let more people know what county government actually does. He included himself before his election.

“I did not have a full appreciation for the number of lives we touch daily,” Wasserman said. “In my estimation, 90 percent of residents simply don’t know what our county does.”

In a way to prove his point, his staff asked almost everyone in the audience — many of them government insiders — to complete a 10-question quiz on the county. Questions ranged from how many foreign languages are spoken here to what percentage of property taxes goes to county services. A mere handful got them all correct.

To underscore his point another way, he borrowed a play from the presidential script for State of the Union speeches. Wasserman introduced the audience to an ordinary person in the audience. She was Katherine Ferrari, a Saratoga woman who said a county rescue unit saved her life.

However, Ferrari wasn’t just another beneficiary. She is Wasserman’s mother, a fact that wasn’t clear until the supervisor called her “Mom.” Wasserman’s gratefulness for the rescue teams that saved her life and many others drew the loudest applause of the speech.

Wasserman went on to describe the wide variety of county services he said residents need to know more about. His examples ranged from the 70,000 visits for emergency care to Valley Medical Center to the 10,000 arrests made by sheriff’s deputies and the 1 million visits to 28 county parks.

“I believe these services are too important to be invisible to the public,” he said.

One dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and veteran of county politics was impressed by Wasserman’s goal.

“That was the best review of county services I have seen in 19 years,” said county Assessor Larry Stone. “Nobody knows what county government does.”