Proud and humbled.
They may sound like opposites, but they are the only two words Jim Laponis could think of to describe his feelings about stepping down after 32 years of working for the County of Santa Barbara. His last day as county deputy CEO-a position he’s held for 21 of those 32 years-was Friday, October 5. Having worked at the county for the last three decades, Laponis said it will be difficult for him to just step away. “I rely on it as part of my life,” he said about being a part of county government.
Laponis, who has worked in six county departments, began his career as the Parks Department business manager in 1975. He said he learned a lot from the director of the department at the time, Michael Pahos. “Mike lived on the edge,” Laponis said, describing how at one Board of Supervisors meeting he would be able to work out a 3-2 vote in his department’s favor, and a few weeks later work out a similar vote with the supervisors on a different divisive topic. Pahos taught Laponis “how to get things done,” and Laponis has since tried to impart that wisdom to others. “When I came here, I was fortunate to be welcomed, and I stood on other’s shoulders and was given something to work with,” he said. “To work through issues the community has faced, people will come in and stand on the work I’ve done.”
And he’s done a lot. From consolidating South Coast court jurisdictions into the Santa Barbara Superior Court system, to working on several budgets, to serving as the director of Emergency Services, Laponis has had a hand in some of the county’s more important civic developments in recent years. But perhaps where he shined most, according to Supervisor Brooks Firestone, is this past summer during the Zaca Fire, which raged in the Santa Barbara backcountry for more than 60 days. For the first few days of the fire, Laponis and others worked 12-hour shifts, making decisions for the county as the fire continued to burn. “It gets pretty grueling,” said County Executive Officer Mike Brown, “but he maintained that enthusiasm.” Laponis said the fire became very personal when he realized its potential to come over the hills and toward the city. “We worked very hard to make sure we were ready,” he said.
He was one of the first people to take alarm when the fire broke out for the second time, recognizing the significance and the potential the fire had, Firestone said. “He was not shy in making that view known. And he was right in terms of growing potential.”
Laponis took a shot at the top spot in the county twice during his career, but wasn’t chosen. And yet he is thankful for the opportunity granted by the CEOs he has worked under because they could have brought in their own people instead of keeping him. “I’ve been given opportunities several times over the years,” he said. “The way they see me and I see them, we’ve been able to work it out in every case.”
Brown said that when Laponis started-and up until his retirement-he was an invaluable asset. “I was very fortunate to come into a new job and have somebody who has that sort of experience,” Brown said, adding that he relied on Laponis’s wisdom 12 times a day. In light of a tight budget, the now vacant position will be left open for a time, and Brown will be reevaluating whether to fill the spot or continue with the “tremendous amount of talent” in the office currently. With the departure of Laponis, Brown will be left with two other deputy executive officers, Ken Masuda and Ron Cortez.
Laponis, who has worked on his fair share of budgets throughout the years, believes the county’s $35 million in strategic reserve has made it “as solid financially as we’ve ever been.” The county brings in two types of revenue-ongoing and one-time, Laponis explained. Up until 1978, when Proposition 13 was passed, property tax had been the most stable ongoing revenue for the county. But now with the state’s property tax capped, revenue has reduced dramatically. The county receives about 20 percent of property tax. Assessed property value also plays a role in the funds brought in each year. Currently, property value assessments are high, but they can change in a heartbeat. While this year is a good one, Laponis said, next year could be bad should the assessed value decrease. “It’s cyclical,” Laponis said. “There’s good times and not-so-good times. The assessed value might not be so high next year. Or it might be.” But for now, the county is safe, he said. “I’ve been through the bad times and this is not one of them.”
So who has been his favorite board of supervisors and CEO to work for? “Always the current CEO and always the current board,” Laponis answered diplomatically, proving he learned a thing or two about politics in his time at the county working for politicians.
He has worked for the longest time under current boss, Brown, who has endured a sometimes tumultuous tenure at the county, including two lawsuits attacking his character. “There have been ups and downs in how he’s been perceived,” Laponis said. “I can understand how that can occur. When you’re in a leadership role you’re going to be criticized. But he’s done a tremendous job at managing the county.”
Laponis now joins his wife, Linda, a former elementary school teacher, in retirement. The two plan to get involved in the community, although Laponis isn’t sure how. “We’re in this together,” he said. “We feel part of Santa Barbara.”
And even though he’ll be gone, his expertise will still be sought after. “He deserves his retirement,” Brown said. “But I kind of suspect we’ll be tapping into him in the future.”