At the budget hearings in June, Cathy Fisher, who is Santa Barbara County’s Agricultural Commissioner, was the only department head to request layoffs. She asked that all three scientist positions be eliminated from her department — the Plant Pathologist, the Entomologist, and the Weed Specialist — who already do the work of a dozen. What was remarkable was that her department’s $5 million budget was expanded by $322,000, with 75 percent of the increase going to administration costs, not to the staff who literally do the work in the fields.
With globalization, increases in trade, and population growth, the risk of new, serious invasive plant pests and diseases arriving in the county has never been higher, yet Commissioner Fisher is cutting her best first detectors who have PhDs. During the drought and current massive die-off of native and landscape trees, requests for service and advice from the County Ag Department have never been higher. No one else in the county has their knowledge or can do their expert work.
Commissioner Fisher claimed various different and contradictory things during the budget process. First she said that the positions would go to half-time, then be eliminated in six months, because there was no work. When that was obviously unsupported by the facts, her plan was changed to say there was work, but it could be done more “efficiently” by state employees in Sacramento. Many more objections were raised as to how sending everything to Sacramento, and waiting days or weeks for answers, could be more efficient or not actually cost growers a lot of money. Finally, she said that she would create a new combination job where one person would do the work of both Plant Pathologist and Entomologist, one person would be demoted to Ag Biologist, and the Weed Specialist, a job currently vacant, would remain unfunded.
The County’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, which provides oversight of agricultural issues for the Board of Supervisors, met on June 4 and heard about this plan from the Commissioner for the first time. They drafted a letter to the Board of Supervisors unanimously rejecting the plan to eliminate these specialists and urging the Board to fund them fully. There was one abstention, by Ruth Jensen, who represents the 5th District. Jensen is also an employee of the Ag Department and a personal assistant to Commissioner Cathy Fisher — a clear conflict of interest — confirmed by Jensen’s abstention from the vote.
At the budget hearings on June 10, Supervisors Carbajal and Lavagnino wanted to put up the $57,000 the Commissioner said she needed to stop the layoffs (this represents only one percent of the Ag Department’s budget), while Supervisors Adam, Farr, and Wolf did not. The supervisors acknowledged they had received a lot of letters and calls from a diverse group of stakeholders — Big Ag to small homeowners — urging them not to cut these positions. They said they were surprised since it had been presented to them as a minor reclassification, with Cathy Fisher continually saying there would be no layoffs. County CEO Miyasato actually had to stand up at the hearings and correct the Commissioner, making it clear to the Board that this plan would require two immediate layoffs of long-term employees.
As a resident of the 4th District, I am especially disappointed that Supervisor Adam did not vote to support and protect our agricultural industry, which is the largest in the county and valued at $1.5 billion. These positions have been in this department for 40 years, and there was no opportunity for input from the public.
Cutting all PhD scientists from this county department represents a fundamental shift from an agency that had a respected, expert, and experienced scientific staff to one focused only on regulation and enforcement. Under Fisher’s leadership, turnover of staff has been extremely high as the number of managers has doubled. This department will not be able to provide the same level of service or protection from invasive pests without these specialists. Soon the majority of the ag staff will be recent hires, without the licenses they need to do all the work that industry requires. The institutional knowledge and experience of many long-term employees is being lost because of how Fisher is running the department. Residents and the ag industry will have to turn to the private sector at their own expense or hope that the state will be able to help them from Sacramento. It appears that the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner is mainly a political position, and politicians rarely want input from scientists, even on their own staff.