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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 7:06 pm | Fair 52º


New CEO Chandra Wallar Ready to Lead Santa Barbara County on Long Road Ahead

Executive officer talks with Noozhawk about her ideas to foster communication, encourage collaboration and address the dire budget situation

Santa Barbara County’s budget future just got a bit brighter, if Chandra Wallar’s choice of office furniture is any indication. Unhappy with a desk that faced a wall instead of out toward people entering the room, the county’s new CEO sent aides on a mission: to find a desk in the salvage department, in the building’s basement.

They found one, sitting dormant, that would work perfectly, and the exercise may prove her a shrewd overseer of the county’s anemic budget.

“We all have to do that in our personal lives,” Wallar told Noozhawk. “Why should government be any different?”

The start of her tenure comes in the middle of the bleakest budget season in county history. Facing nearly $40 million in General Fund shortfalls for 2011-12 alone, hard choices surely loom for the new executive officer and the Board of Supervisors.

Wallar has been in the position for only a month, and already she has been busy meeting with community and business groups, city managers and other county stakeholder groups. She oversees more than 25 county departments, and she said getting familiar with each — and their challenges — has been a big task.

Waller succeeded CEO Mike Brown, who had been at the county’s helm since 1996 and retired last month. Wallar moved from San Diego County, where she served since 1999 as deputy chief administrative officer and group general manager for the county’s Land Use and Environment Group, and managed 1,500 people and a budget of $400 million. With a degree in civil engineering and experience in topics including land use, Noozhawk asked how her background would help her face such a daunting financial challenge. In response, Wallar shed some light on the role she played in San Diego County.

Five deputy directors, including Wallar, met to discuss the county’s budget every year.

“We each bring our own perspective to the discussion, but we as a group develop the proposed budget,” she said. “Those folks are the ones who know it best.”

Instead of the budget being put together by the CEO, it’s put together by the operational groups themselves, an approach she said she hopes to bring to this county. Wallar said the approach reduces infighting and provides more of an opportunity for collaboration.

She has given four departments the goal of making 10 percent to 15 percent in cuts, and allowing them to come up with priorities. She said she’s hoping they’ll have that list by mid-January, and be ready to go before the Board of Supervisors with a draft by March.

Wallar said she knows her biggest challenge is bringing the budget back to health. Big issues she sees right away are one-time funding sources drying up, in the short term.

“We’ve been to the piggy banks, and now the piggy banks are gone,” she said. “This year, we’re truly going to have to look at program reductions to balance the budget.”

Santa Barbara County is blessed with a solid property tax base, she said, and unlike other counties, it doesn’t depend on new development to fuel its economic engines. In contrast, San Diego County nearly went into bankruptcy about 15 years ago, she said, and that county has adopted very conservative financial strategies since then. Hearty reserves have helped San Diego County going forward, but in Santa Barbara, “we don’t have huge reserves,” she said, and that expansion of services was greater here in good times.

Another long-term challenge involves employee pensions. The county’s pension fund has taken an enormous hit since the market downturn, with assets recording losses of $500 million. County supervisors have since put together a committee to explore alternatives to the current pension system, such as a two-tier plan that would cut benefits for new hires. The report of their findings on what could work for the county is due out this month.

“Going into the budget talks, we will have some ideas to pursue,” said Wallar, adding that although the supervisors ultimately will make the final decision, she feels like there’s a real interest in the two-tier approach. “Current pensions, for the most part, are not sustainable.”

Brown had a long — and at times controversial — tenure with the county. Keeping tight control of information became characteristic during his time in the position, oftentimes proving challenging for the media and the public. Wallar said she thinks she and Brown differ in that area of communication.

“You will find me an almost over-communicator,” she said. “I want to make sure that everyone is getting information and that there are no surprises.

“I prefer for the department that knows the most about an information topic to be the source.”

Wallar said she is hopeful that department heads will keep her in the loop about their contact with the media and others to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“It would be egotistical and very foolhardy for me to think that I know as much about a department as they do,” she said.

Brown also ran into trouble when supervisors amended the ordinance curtailing the CEO’s power, putting more influence back in the supervisors’ purview.

“I see myself as their consultant, and their operations manager,” Wallar said. “It’s my job to give them all the information they need to make their decisions, not to make their decisions for them.”

Blazing forward into budget talks, Wallar said she wants to make sure everyone is at the table.

“We’ll be talking with our employees, asking them to help us figure this out, too,” she said.

Ideas from them about which cuts to make and possible labor concessions will all be out there. She said she encourages groups and individuals to reach out to her, especially as the budget process begins.

“I’m really hoping that people will look at the broad spectrum of county services and say what’s most important to them,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews or @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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