By Miriam Raftery
February 24, 2018 (La Mesa) – In keeping with tradition, La Mesa Chamber of Commerce’s first breakfast speaker of the year was Supervisor Dianne Jacob, now serving her seventh and due to term limits, last term represented her district that encompasses virtually all of East County.
“It was a man’s world,” she recalls of her early days in office. But that didn’t phase Jacob, who began breaking barriers early in life when she played on a boy’s baseball team at Rolando Elementary School. She’s since served multiple times as Chair and Vice Chair, leading efforts to create a County Fire Department, improve ambulance response times, create many new parks and preserves, and more as her legacy to our region.
“Who will be on the board concerns me, and it should concern you,” she said of the future, the laid out the ambitious agenda she has set for 2018.
Topping her list is improving roads in a district that has 2,000 miles of roadways. “I know by driving a lot of those roads that they are not as good as they should be in the unincorporated areas,” she said. A federal standard found our local roads ranked 60, on scale of 60 to 100, which is “not acceptable.” The limit is money, but Jacob has pushed for $56 million a year to go from 60 to 70. “You will be seeing some good roads,” coming soon, she pledged. The Supervisor also urged residents to report pot holes and other problems by using the County’s Tell Us Now app on your mobile home.
Always an ambassador for the backcountry, she encouraged guests to drive those roadways. “Go to Julian, enjoy the apple pie. Go to Ramona, enjoy some winemaking and drive along Highway 94,” adding that there have been a lot of positive changes in those areas.
Another priority for Supervisor Jacob is parks. When she joined the board of Supervisors, she recalls, “You had to have an entity to build a new park…I thought that was wrong and set out to change it.” Today, there is a $13 million fund and a three-year plan to build parks, she said.
Fire protection continues to be a major priority. She calls creation of a County Fire Department a “huge success story” enabled by $46 million that the County has invested in improving fire protection including fire engines, helicopters and boots on the ground firefighters. This investment came after a Grand Jury found earlier county efforts lagging following past firestorms. “The County continues to invest more and more in fire protection,” Jacob said.
Pension reform is another key issue. Jacob quips that she drew the “short straw” to chair the County’s pension board. A 20 percent cut in staffed saved $40 million a year. The County also hired a “top notch executive officer” who oversaw that change and more. A couple of good years in the stock market grew retirement funds but not enough, so a tough decision was made to eliminate retiree healthcare, which Jacob said was not a promised benefit. She predicts that a lot of other cities and counties will continue to struggle with unfunded pension costs.
A bright spot is county investment in a camp program for kids modeled after a program Jacob described in Pine Valley, where kids from all walks of life ranging from straight-A students to gang members interact with deputy sheriffs in plain clothes and teachers, yielding positive results. “By Sunday, they learn a lot about themselves,” Jacob said, smiling. “On the last day, the Sheriffs come out in uniform – you should see those kids!” But by then, the kids have looked to the deputies as role models, she says. The program is being rolled out in the Grossmont Union High School District. “My initiative was to expand this countywide, and we’ve invested in it,” she said.
Photo, right: La Mesa Chamber President Mary England with Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
To address our region’s fast-growing senior population, at Jacob’s urging the County is seeking to appoint “senior czar” who has not yet been found. “We’re seeking someone with a lot of passion and caring,” Jacob said.
San Diego’s senior population will double over the next 15 years, outpacing other age groups. Jacob asked audience members to look at the person on their left and right, then said that statistically, one in every three will have Alzheimer’s or dementia by age 85. The County has developed standards of diagnosis and care, and is also seeking to address other issues notably “affordable housing” and “keeping seniors on fixed incomes in their homes. We want to keep our seniors from becoming homeless or if they are, get them off the streets,” Jacob said. The County plans to build affordable housing for seniors, veterans and families including a $25 million “innovative” partnership with private sector partners. There is currently a March 1st request for proposal deadline to build 600 to 1,000 housing units. Also, the County has put 11 county properties up for the private sector to build affordable housing on county lands, Jacob says, adding that if successful she expects to see more such investment.
She mentioned a program to help seniors in crisis that the county is testing as a pilot program with the Grossmont Healthcare District and Sharp Grossmont Hospital. It would help in situations such as when the wife of an 85-year-old man called for help and was passed from agency to agency, eventually calling 911. Police responded and arrested her husband who had become verbally and physically abusive due to dementia. “He didn’t belong in jail,” says Jacob. The new program will create a separate path for calls like that one, with a clinician, not a law enforcement officer, responding in most cases. The goal is to keep seniors out of jail and also out of emergency rooms except when those options are truly needed.
“One hospital visit to an emergency room for a patient with demention, usually three to five days, has a cost equal to one year of in-home case, $75,000 to $85,000,” Jacob revealed. She hopes to see the pilot program roll out in the next few months starting in a couple of East County communities.
To help people in need of finding an assisted living facility and avoiding the many “bad apples” out there, Jacob says the County has set up a free website, https://choosewellsandiego.org/ that includes voluntary participation with ratings of 120 assisted living facilities, utilizing dozens of indicators to rank small to very large faciliites. “We hae about 600 in the county and not all are good ones,” Jacob cautions. “We’re hoping the bad apples will go out of business,” as more people utilize the website, similar to what happened when the furniture industry started a site to rank companies in that industry. The District Attorney is also going after bad applies in the assisted living facility sector, she added.
Cajon Air Center is moving forward after a long time and a lot of environmental work. “There’s finally construction going on,” said Jacob, but added that major advances are still a few years away.
The County is also putting together financing for Bradley/State Route 67 “because the state of California failed us,” Jacob noted.
The growth in local wineries is a “great story. In my wildest imagination, I never knew we would have this success,” she says, referencing the new tiered winery ordinance developed under her leadership. She credits cutting government regulations for enabling not only wineries to flourish, adding, “Now there’s beer making, distilleries, farm stays – a whole industry.” She praised Linda McWilliams, owner and winemaker at La Mesa’s San Pasqual Winery and president of the San Diego Vintners Association, as “great.”
After her talk, the audience asked questions. The first questioner quipped, “Will you consider running for President in 2020?” (“You know the answer.”)
A business member from Oasis in Grossmont Center asked about prevention of dementia in seniors. Jacob cited the county’s Live Well program and urged everyone to “eat right, don’t smoke, exercise, keep moving and don’t retire!” It’s clear she’s not relishing being forced to retire in 2020 due to term limits. She advises seniors to “plan another something to keep engaged,” after retirement. She later told East County Magazine she’s not yet sure what that something will be in her own case, once she leaves the office she’ll have held for nearly three decades.
Another Chamber member asked about homelessness. Jacob faulted the city of San Diego for allowing the problem to get out of hand, then praised the city of El Cajon, naming Mayor Bill Wells and Councilman Steve Goble specifically. She supports a “tough love” approach with law enforcement for vagrancy but also giving homeless people a choice. “You can either go to jail or get help…We’re aiming toward the seriously mental ill,” she said of county efforts to assist more homeless people. She also acknowledged, “I also agree with the ban on homeless feeding in public places,” and believes it’s better to refer the homeless to places where they can receive food and services.
In the unincorporated areas, homeless is a growing problem. “They’re living in our river beds and building bamboo houses. It’s amazing how creative they can be,” she said, but added there has been a serious issue in Lakeside, where homeless people moved into a quarter mile long culvert where some were “doing naughty and illegal things…they had to bring in the SWAT team to get them out.” The area was also unsanitary. To solve the issue, grates were put on the ends of the culvert that can be opened in case of heavy rain. “It’s a national problem, but I think there is a solution,” she added.
Someone asked about getting transportation for those in areas such as Ramona, Ranchita and Borrego who can’t afford a car but need to go to doctor appointments. Jacob said a program was tried din the past, but not enough people used it.
Perhaps the most intriguing answer came to a question on women in leadership. Jacob acknowledged that “there is gender discrimination in the workplace, though not at the county.”
The woman who broke the glass ceiling before the term became fashionable offered this advice to women in the workplace, whether that workplace is in the private or public sector.
“You have to stand up at some point and be counted and do what is right, and not be afraid. There are risks that you may lose your job, but if that happens, maybe you didn’t belong there anyway,” she concluded, summing up the philosophy that has led her to be East County’s longest serving and most popular politician. “You do what’s right, and you can’t be afraid.”