In a move that had been anticipated since last summer, county Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Fisher this month combined the jobs of two full-time PhD scientists in her department, demoting one of them to a lower-paying position.
Brian Cabrera, the former county entomologist, or insect expert, has accepted a position as a staff biologist, union officials said, marking the end of an era. For nearly a century, the county had provided a full-time entomologist to identify pests and provide free advice to growers and gardeners alike.
Heather Scheck, formerly the county’s full-time plant pathologist, or disease expert, will now serve as its “agricultural integrated pest management specialist,” identifying weeds and plant pests in addition to plant diseases while continuing to offer technical assistance to growers and the public, said Mike Woods, a spokesman for Local 620 of the Service Employees International Union.
Agriculture is a major industry in Santa Barbara County, with a production value of about $1.5 billion yearly. During budget hearings in June, Fisher convinced the county Board of Supervisors majority that the biologists on her staff could perform the initial screening of pests and plant diseases at a lower cost than the specialists, and, if necessary, email photos to state labs for identification. But the county’s own agricultural advisory committee and a number of nursery owners, arborists, landscapers, and backyard gardeners opposed the plan, saying it would cause delays, reduce services, drive up their costs, and result in the loss of local historical knowledge.