JUICE PATROL: In the world of politics, one man’s pork is another man’s bacon. How one distinguishes between the two depends entirely upon which side one’s bread is buttered, whose ox is getting gored, and whose cat is getting skinned. Those on the procuring end of government-generated tax dollars proudly regard what they do as “bringing home the bacon.” But those removed from the immediate transactional exchange — dogs in the mangers, perhaps — are more inclined to dismiss such deals as “pork-barrel politics,” which, in any language, remains an expression of venality bordering on the corrupt. Bringing this to mind is the recent grand opening of the brand new public swimming pool in New Cuyama, and the relentless exertions by 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno to secure money that the county did not have — and certainly could not afford — to get the thing built. In this regard, Centeno, an ex-Santa Maria police chief who plays the role of cranky, craggy granddad to perfection, has been singularly impervious to either shame or reason. That’s probably a big reason he’s been so successful.
New Cuyama, for those who forgot or never knew, is a little town located far across the Santa Ynez Mountains in the outer northeastern corner of Santa Barbara County. As such, it barely qualifies as the pimple on the ass of Centeno’s supervisorial district. Yet he cares deeply about it. Cuyama is Chumash for “giant mutant clams,” a vision no doubt induced by the 107-degrees-in-the-shade temperatures that afflict New Cuyama in summer months. Insects attempting to cross the road explode on contact with the pavement. Snakes melt. New Cuyama is located about an hour away from Santa Maria and an hour away from Taft; only 1,200 souls live there. In exchange for their isolation, they’re rewarded with spectacular star showers and some of the most affordable real estate prices in California. Last I checked, you could buy a decent standalone home in New Cuyama — condos don’t exist there — for about $180,000. A while back, the public school district was forced to shut down the town’s one and only swimming pool; it had grown impossibly expensive to maintain. That’s when Centeno jumped in.
New Cuyama is the place where extravagant dreams go to die: giant bullfighting rings, futuristic ecotopian communes, and executive golf-course housing developments — featuring individual airplane landing strips for each home — all got hatched in New Cuyama. None, however, would survive to see the light of day. In this saga, Centeno refused to be Captain Ahab and the New Cuyama Pool would not be his Moby Dick. He would harpoon the great white — even if it turned out to be an elephant — no matter what it took. And it took a lot. The pool itself cost $2.4 million of county taxpayer money just to build. And it’s going to cost another $250,000 a year just to maintain. And this for a pool that will be open just three months of the year.
Centeno’s timing could not have been worse. County finances have been abysmal for years. They’re worse now. For example, S.B. County Sheriff Bill Brown is looking to cut $10 million from his department alone. The cost of pool maintenance would pay the salaries, benefits, and retirement for two full-time officers. Centeno persevered despite strenuous objections from fellow supervisors — current and former — Brooks Firestone, Joni Gray, and, most stubbornly, Janet Wolf. County Parks officials noted that they could bus kids from New Cuyama to a full-fledged aquatic center in Taft for a tiny fraction of the cost. Hell, they said, it would be cheaper to fly the kids to Hawai‘i.
Where mere mortals might have crumbled, Centeno stood strong. A practical man adept in the tit-for-tat of local politics, Centeno had county über-executive Mike Brown’s backing for the pool. A crusty conservative, Centeno also had taken pains to cultivate good relations with liberal 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal. When former supervisor Firestone, a conservative from Santa Ynez, challenged the continued existence of Montecito Planning Commission — a most sacred cow in Carbajal’s district — Centeno sided with Carbajal and opposed Firestone. It all paid off. Well, sort of. When Centeno steps down at the end of this year, he will have a pool named in his honor.
But how many kids from the land of withering heat will actually benefit remains to be seen. The pool is not free. It costs $6 an hour to swim in it. Maybe that’s why the attendance numbers thus far are less than inspiring. Last Friday, 15 people used the pool. On Saturday, only 13 did all day. But on Sunday, the number jumped to 40. Whether pork or bacon, it makes perverse historic sense that New Cuyama would be rewarded with a swimming pool. That’s because county voters were stampeded by developers into approving the State Water Project nearly 20 years ago — at an ongoing annual cost to rate payers of about $50 million a year — based on the argument that Santa Barbara County was strip-mining its groundwater basins at a rate far faster than they could be replenished. Only by the most contorted stretch could that argument be deemed accurate. And only then by including the massive quantities of water, then as now, being overdrafted from the prehistoric groundwater basins underlying the Cuyama Valley by industrialized carrot cultivators there. Without Cuyama’s figures distorting the picture, the county’s water demand was pretty much in balance with its supply. But to the developers’ chagrin, there was little room for growth and expansion.
I know it’s bad form to grouse over battles lost so long ago. But we’re still paying the price for the State Water Project, and it’s still not delivering. Certainly it’s doing nothing to address the egregious overconsumption that’s caused ground subsidence in the Cuyama Valley. In fact, the chair of the Santa Barbara Water Commission just issued a detailed report warning that the State Water Project has become so unreliable that we should plan on getting no more than 25 to 35 percent of what we pay for. Another commissioner opined it would be safer still to expect no more than 22 percent. Most people would hit the roof if they paid for a Big Mac and were served only one-fourth of one. But when millions of dollars are at stake and water’s involved, no one says a word. Weird. I’m going to ponder this mystery over a fat BLT. You should too. My suggestion? Put it on Joe Centeno’s tab.