The Lingering Questions Behind Three San Diego County Triumphs | Voice of San Diego

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The Lingering Questions Behind Three San Diego County Triumphs

The county’s annual report is accessible and engaging, but the accomplishments it touts gloss over important stories.

San Diego County’s 2012-2013 annual report is brisk, colorful and engaging, and you can learn a lot about what the county’s doing with its nearly $5 billion in a short period of time.

A quick snapshot: The county is throwing its weight behind public safety and public health, which together account for more than 70 percent of its budget. It’s clearing thousands of miles of brush to protect residents from wildfires, tracking the whereabouts of sex offenders and cracking down on prescription-drug abuse. It’s also offering CalFresh food assistance and vaccines to low-income residents, and it’s trying to de-stigmatize mental illness and get help for those who need it.

 

San Diego County Budget 2013-14

The county presents this information in a more accessible way than your average government tome. But the report is too selective and simplistic at times. This is especially the case with the county’s statistical accomplishments.

CountyAnnualReportMashup

For every handpicked statistic, there are hidden stories of failure and success, and by emphasizing only those tidbits that bode best, the county deflects attention from problems that persist in San Diego.

Like the county’s surprising decision not to track the number of licenses issued since same-sex marriages resumed. Or its continued failure to collect domestic violence fines after a damning state audit. Or the hundreds of veterans still looking for permanent homes.

Here are a few questions the report left unanswered.

Marriage License Equality

County stat: 23,067 marriage licenses issued

Question: How is the county accounting for same-sex marriage licenses?

County Clerk Ernest Dronenburg got himself into hot water this summer when he bypassed the county counsel, hired a Prop. 8 supporter as his lawyer and asked the state Supreme Court to clarify whether same-sex marriage was legal in California.

At the time, Prop. 8 supporters were trying to revive the debate, and Dronenburg said he didn’t want to issue same-sex marriage licenses if they might not be legal down the road. By allying himself with attorney Charles LiMandri, who has spoken out against same-sex marriage, Dronenburg offended prominent LGBT leaders, including Dave Roberts, an openly gay county supervisor, and Susan Jester, head of the LGBT-friendly Log Cabin Republicans of San Diego.

The state Supreme Court later put the issue to rest, allowing same-sex marriages to proceed.

In light of what happened, it’s odd to see the number of marriage licenses touted as an accomplishment without any mention of where the county stands on the issue. The clerk’s office hasn’t been tracking the number of same-sex marriage licenses it has issued.

A spokesperson for the clerk said the office tallies only the total number of licenses in order to protect the privacy of all couples. That’s a legitimate concern. But the problem with this approach is that regardless of intentions, Dronenburg created the perception that his office is against same-sex marriage.

In order to dispel that notion, the county should take steps to show same-sex couples that they are welcome to marry in San Diego. Counting how many of those couples are getting married — and how many are not, based on U.S. Census data — will help the county step up its outreach and identify the needs of a distinct population it serves.

That’s not discrimination. It’s good customer service.

Domestic Violence Survivors Shortchanged Again

County Stat: 37,575 criminal cases prosecuted, 94 percent felony conviction rate

Question: How are convicts repaying their debt to society and their victims?

The number of prosecutions and the conviction rate don’t necessarily tell us how well justice was served in San Diego, and you can see a stark example of where the system fell short by looking at the county’s collection of domestic violence fines.

When someone is convicted of a domestic violence-related crime and sentenced to probation, they’re ordered to make a payment that helps fund emergency shelters for domestic violence survivors. But data from the county’s Office of Revenue and Recovery shows that collections didn’t improve much after state auditors exposed San Diego in 2012 as the worst of four large counties when it came to collecting the fines.

“Any time fines are not being paid to help women who are victims of domestic violence, justice is not being served,” said Betsy Butler, a former state assemblywoman who is now executive director of the California Women’s Law Center.

From July 2012 to June 2013, the county’s collections rate was about 18 percent — only 6 percent higher than what state auditors found in previous years — and more than $398,000 in outstanding fines was left on the books. The success rate, which includes public service in lieu of payment, was still only 21 percent.

The county court system still doesn’t have the technology it needs to track fine collections efficiently, and judges dismissed the fines regardless of convicts’ ability to pay.

In 2014, Butler said, the law center will be keeping an eye on how San Diego interprets a new state law that reclassifies the fines as mandatory administrative fees and limits judges’ leeway in reducing payments.

Still Searching for Home

County Stat: 294 homeless veterans received permanent housing

Question: What about those who are still looking for permanent homes?

Finding homeless veterans a stable place to live is not easy. “On any given night, between 1,700 and 2,000 veterans in San Diego sleep either in temporary shelters or in unsheltered conditions,” according to a National University study, and there are still many barriers to finding affordable housing in San Diego.

The county’s Department of Housing and Community Development gets grants and loans from the federal government and distributes funds to local nonprofits like Veterans Village of San Diego to help combat homelessness. And the federal departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development have stepped up a voucher program to increase the number of veterans in permanent housing, said Cindy Butler, a VA spokesperson.

Butler said 730 veterans in San Diego have found housing through the program already and they’re working with more veterans to use all 965 vouchers for the region. Those numbers include veterans who live in the city of San Diego and receive the vouchers through the city’s housing authority.

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