U BREAK IT, U BOUGHT IT: It was as if the county supervisors came armed for a piñata party but somebody forgot to invite the candy. In this case, the intended target would have been anyone representing perhaps the most pathologically dysfunctional nonprofit agency to squander county taxpayer money in the past 20 years, Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation (LHCDC). As usual, no one from LHCDC bothered to show up, even though it was their multimillion-dollar mess the supervisors found themselves scrambling to clean up this Tuesday. Weirdly, County Executive Officer Chandra Wallar sought to fill the breach by making herself the target instead. To that end, Wallar did an outstanding job arousing the wrath of an impressive cross section of affected parties. Wallar recommended that the county supervisors just walk away from LHCDC’s financial meltdown, even if that meant letting Lompoc’s 56-bed Bridgehouse homeless shelter remain shut down for the foreseeable future. Wallar argued that county government is not in the business of owning and operating a homeless shelter. Based on that, Wallar recommended that county government should not assume ownership of Bridgehouse via what’s known as a “deed-in-lieu” foreclosure, even though the county all but bought the property for LHCDC in 2001.
Given that Wallar and the supes will confront a $15-million budget shortfall in a few months, I can see why she wouldn’t want to be on the hook for what could be a couple hundred-thousand more. But Wallar’s math was strictly short-term and ignored the county’s long-term complicity in allowing the LHCDC mess to achieve critical mass. No, county officials did not force LHCDC to invest money it did not have in a series of black-hole and white-elephant real estate deals. But a whole lot of county officials had to strain their necks looking the other way before finally sounding the alarm last year. That’s when it was announced that LHCDC had failed to provide any of the legally required financial statements and inspection reports since 2007. Making matters especially uncomfortable are LHCDC’s close relationships with 4th District County Supervisor Joni Gray. For many years, Gray’s husband represented Lompoc Housing in legal matters. And Gray’s chief of staff, Susan Warnstrom, was president of LHCDC’s board of directors. But Gray — a full-fledged partner in her husband’s law firm since 2006 — never saw fit to recuse herself from any of the supervisors’ many funding votes on LHCDC, worth millions of dollars, until notified there was a conflict of interest late last year.
Reaction to Wallar’s recommendation was dramatic, swift, and utterly one-sided. Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino — father of 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino — complained Santa Maria’s shelters had been “inundated” with Lompoc’s homeless since Bridgehouse shut down January 17. Others — invoking the “domino theory” — warned that Santa Barbara could soon be swamped, too. If the City of Lompoc could take over one of LHCDC’s two shelters, argued Lompoc Mayor John Linn, certainly the County of S.B. could take the other one. Mike Foley of S.B.’s Casa Esperanza shelter noted that the county is, in fact, in the business of operating a homeless shelter for emancipated foster kids, and wondered what the hell county officials had been doing to keep Bridgehouse open since November 1, when the supervisors last discussed the issue. Former Lompoc mayor Joyce Howerton — who could well jump into this year’s race against Gray — indelicately reminded the supes that they bore some responsibility for the problem. “Pastor Doug,” who has organized Lompoc’s pop-up emergency warming shelter to handle those displaced from Bridgehouse, reminded the supervisors that real people are involved. “We call them guests. We call them friends,” he said.
Given this reaction, the supervisors put on a fine display of political footwork to distance themselves from Wallar. Supervisor Salud Carbajal got off the best one-liner, comparing management of LHCDC to the Loch Ness Monster. (Everybody else has seen them, he complained, except the county supes.) But Carbajal hyperventilated a bit, demanding to know if the district attorney could simply seize LHCDC’s properties outright. (The simple answer is no.) Supervisor Janet Wolf expressed outrage that LHCDC maintained its rental properties — about 250 of them — in such wretched condition that some tenants felt compelled to seek refuge at Bridgehouse. She demanded a “forensic audit” to find out what LHCDC did with the many millions of taxpayer dollars it received. Supervisor Lavagnino made the numbers dance as only a fiscal conservative can, arguing it made no sense for the county to walk away from an 11-acre property worth $1.5 million just because there were encumbrances on it worth a few hundred-thousand. The county would lose less, he argued, by holding the property for a year, paying Santa Maria’s Good Samaritan Shelter to run it, and eventually selling it to someone else, most likely Good Sam. Wallar argued that such a transaction was highly unlikely, given the 60-year deed restriction requiring the property to be used as a shelter. Who would want to buy it? Ultimately, it would be Supervisor Doreen Farr who managed to say the most while saying the least. Wasn’t it the county supes, she asked, that imposed that 60-year restriction in the first place? Yes, Wallar answered. Farr followed up with, couldn’t the supervisors also vote to rescind that restriction? Again, the answer was yes. With that, the supes voted 4-to-0 — Gray having recused herself — to accept the foreclosed-upon property and instructed Wallar to get it reopened as a shelter ASAP.
As rhetorical windmilling goes, it was a fine display. But why put people through all that bother when the solution seemed not just so obvious but also so inevitable? I didn’t get it and still don’t. Hopefully, there won’t be a next time. But if there is, make sure to put some candy in that piñata. My blood sugar’s crashing.