San Diego County Supervisor Desmond highlights SANDAG, behavioral health as top priorities for 2020

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, photographed at a rally in May, has led the charge to prevent local politicians from diverting funds from a voter-approved tax hike, known as Transnet, to rail and other transit projects.
San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, photographed at a rally in May, has led the charge to prevent local politicians from diverting funds from a voter-approved tax hike, known as Transnet, to rail and other transit projects.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune

When Jim Desmond was elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors about a year ago, he won on a campaign that praised the county’s sound financial footing but stressed the need for greater investment in mental health, housing and transportation.

Now, a year into his tenure on the board, the former mayor of San Marcos has continued to define his work largely by those issues.

“It’s been what I expected plus a lot more,” said Desmond, reflecting on his first year during a recent interview. “It’s very different from being mayor. The county is vast and has many issues, but we focused on issues where we thought we could make a difference.”

One of two new members to join the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, Desmond replaced longtime Supervisor Bill Horn, who for 24 years represented the region’s largely North County-based District 5, which includes Rancho Santa Fe.

Early in his tenure, Desmond’s similarities with Horn have been hard to miss.

The first-year supervisor has been firmly pro-development, much like his predecessor, and has worked to advance housing initiatives such as streamlining parts of the permitting process.

Like Horn, he also has drawn criticism from residents for being too cozy with developers. Recently he drew ire for allegedly working with the building industry on a failed effort to reword a ballot initiative that, if approved, would require voters to approve future large housing projects in unincorporated parts of the county.

Similar to Horn, Desmond also has proven to be reliably conservative.

On the board Desmond, a Republican, opposed the county providing a building for a migrant shelter and backed the county joining the Trump administration’s lawsuit against California over its so called “sanctuary” policies.

He also voted for the county to oppose Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s police-use-of-force bill, a high-profile piece of legislation that was ultimately signed into law that raises standards for police use of force.

Desmond has prided himself on his fiscal conservatism, often raising questions about the cost of proposals brought to the board.

Even so, the former San Marcos mayor’s record contrasts with Horn’s in several ways.

Desmond has shown he is more willing than Horn to support county spending to address some of the region’s biggest challenges, including mental health.

A defining moment of his first year in office came in September, when the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an agreement with Tri-City Healthcare District to jointly fund a new 16-bed inpatient psychiatric unit on the hospital’s Oceanside medical campus. Desmond was one of the driving forces behind the agreement, which will provide needed services in North County.

The project is expected to cost $10 million to $14 million, which will be split evenly between the county and Tri-City, and is expected to begin operating in 2021 if permitting goes smoothly.

Desmond said behavioral health will continue to rank as a top priority in Year Two of his tenure. The county is working to get more behavioral health crisis stabilization units online along state Route 78, including in Vista and Oceanside.

“Something we (supervisors) all agreed on was that we needed to do more with behavioral health, and we will continue to do so,” Desmond said. “... The next piece of the puzzle is transition or crisis stabilization housing.”

Desmond also differs from his predecessor in that he established several community revitalization groups earlier this year in unincorporated parts of the county, including the communities of Borrego Springs, Fallbrook and Valley Center.

Modeled after something Supervisor Dianne Jacob did in her East County district, the revitalization groups involve large numbers of community members devising priorities and solutions for community issues, Desmond said. Because those communities don’t have their own town councils, revitalization groups give people a direct line to county government, he said, and they equip him to advocate for their issues on the Board of Supervisors.

“We’ve been showing up, we’ve been listening, and we’ve been trying to be a district voice for North County and the unincorporated areas,” Desmond said.

Desmond has drawn the most attention as a supervisor from his role serving on the board of the San Diego Association of Governments, also known as SANDAG.

As one of two supervisors on SANDAG, Desmond was a leading figure in the fight over the San Diego region’s transportation future. He was a key opponent of a proposal that would have scrapped many highway improvement and expansion projects in East and North County.

Staff at SANDAG in April unveiled a new vision for transportation that would use TransNet sales tax dollars and other sources of funding to add hundreds of miles of high-speed transit lines throughout the county, as far east as Poway and as far north as Oceanside. SANDAG staff said this would help the region meet state mandates for greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan also would do away with many long-anticipated highway improvement and expansion projects, including adding express lanes to state Routes 78 and 52 and widening state Routes 67 and 56. Those road projects were initially promised when voters approved the half-cent sales tax, though some have argued that the language of the TransNet resolution appears to be non-binding.

The new vision divided the SANDAG board and elected officials largely along regional lines and set off a fierce fight on the board, with North and East County officials opposing it and central and south San Diego officials supporting it.

Desmond opposed the plan, saying he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the vision but felt it needed to include road projects that had already been promised by TransNet.

Ultimately SANDAG leaders reached a compromise in late September, approving a nearly $600 million spending blueprint that gives significant resources to the agency to start designing a new rail system intended to lure commuters off congested highways and reduce climate pollution. The deal also includes funds for adding new lanes to state Routes 67 and 78 and prioritizes improvements along state Route 52.

Desmond said recently that making sure voters get the projects they were promised and ensuring the region has a balanced transportation plan were his biggest focus during his first year in office. People in the urban core could definitely use transit, he said, but people outside the urban core need quality roads.

He said he anticipates SANDAG and the future of transportation in the region will continue to be a defining issue of 2020.

“It is going to take a lot more work to make sure that we not only get projects done at SANDAG, but also that we keep our integrity with the voters,” Desmond said. “All these projects cost a lot of money and if we make promises, we need to keep them.”

Several transit-related measures may appear on the ballot next year, and a new tax increase is likely already required to support the new rail lines and freeway widening proposed in the SANDAG blueprint. Officials have said a proposal could be presented to the public as soon as 2022 and would require approval by two-thirds of the voters.

—Charles T. Clark is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune