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Cox focuses on county's strength in face of state and national troubles

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Greg Cox warned in his State of the County address Wednesday that the San Diego region isn’t going to be immune to troubles brewing in the state and national economy, but still he maintained that the county is “strong.”

“We are strong because we do things differently here at the county of San Diego,” Cox said in the Balboa Theatre downtown. “We impose on ourselves a fiscal discipline that you won’t find in many governments. We demand that outcome and results, not process and paperwork, be our primary focus."

Cox pointed to the county’s AA+ bond rating -- the highest of any urban county in California -- the AAA rating of the investment pool and the retirement system’s AAA rating as signs of the county’s fiscal strength.

However, he did indicate that cuts to county services could be on the horizon, with the housing market flailing, unemployment on the rise, some economists projecting a nationwide recession and the state facing a possible $15 billion deficit.

“We will face some difficult decisions at the county, including potential cuts in programs and services to correspond with state funding cuts,” Cox said. “But we will make the hard decisions wisely and timely. Unlike the state, we will not put off tough choices or set off a downward spiral by using one-time money for ongoing expenses. That is what separates our county government from other, dysfunctional governments.”

Whether or not that was a dig at the city of San Diego and its financial woes wasn’t clear, but Cox said he plans to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and the mayors of San Diego County’s other 17 cities to make sure San Diego gets its fair share of state funding.

Another sign of the county’s strength, Cox said, was its response to last year’s wildfires. He said communications systems put in place after the 2003 Cedar Fire was vital to response last October, where half a million people were evacuated.

“We needed to secure technologies like Reverse 911 and our new Alert San Diego systems that enable us to notify whole neighborhoods about the need to evacuate,” Cox said. “Sheriff Bill Kolender and I recommended these investments that gave us the ability to quickly evacuate whole communities.”

Cox said the county has purchased two fire-fighting helicopters and 30 fire engines, strengthened ordinances requiring brush clearance and implemented strict new building codes for fire protection in response to the fires. The county has also spent tens of millions of dollars to remove dead and dying trees and invested $20 million in upgrades to the regional communications system. Last month, Cox and Vice Chairwoman Dianne Jacob initiated a comprehensive analysis of a regional proposal to reorganize fire protection services in the unincorporated areas of the county, where most wildfires start.

Other initiatives that Cox announced or touched on in his address included the plan to replace all the aging facilities in the County Operations Center and the Las Colinas Detention Facility. In 2008, the county plans to begin or complete work on libraries in Alpine, Encinitas, Fallbrook and Ramona, and update technology throughout the county. Also, the county plans to launch a new Web site this spring designed to be more user friendly, including a powerful new search engine and e-mail updates.

Cox said he wants to encourage San Diegans to get out and use the county park system more this year, as for the past few years the county has been working to add and update thousands of acres of park space. In 2008, a major portion of the 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway is expected to be finished.

The county also plans to promote more “green” practices, holding conferences with schools, renovating the County Operations Center to use more energy efficient lights and recycled materials, and offering incentives to builders who do the same with private projects.

In education, through a grant from The Stuart Foundation, the county plans to partner with the County Office of Education to launch a new program called “School Success,” designed to give foster children the continuity in education they need to graduate from high school.

When it comes to public health and safety, Cox announced that San Diego’s Scripps Health will host one of the state’s first Mobile Field Hospital Programs. Mobile field hospitals are a new way to respond to emergencies in California. They’re fully functional hospitals that can be set up anywhere within 72 hours after a disaster. The county has also made $1 million in improvements to its Emergency Operations Center.

Cox spoke about his trip last year to Washington, D.C. to discuss border issues with the federal government. He said the government has been responsive to the idea of opening a third border crossing to reduce congestion at the Mexican border. Cox said he and the county are continuing to work with the proper agencies to urge the state to approve $400 million in funding to improvements to trade corridors in the region.

“County government works,” Cox said. “With the help of all San Diegans, we kept this region working when disaster struck. And standing together, we can keep this region working every day for everyone, no matter what we face in the future.”

Send your comments to Elizabeth.Malloy@sddt.com

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