2007-01-25 / Community

County in good shape, official says

By Michelle Knight knight@theacorn.com

Ventura County has a healthy economy but lacks sufficient affordable housing, the county's executive officer said last week at a meeting of business and government officials.

"We're in good shape," John Johnston told an audience of about 200 at Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo.

Johnston was the keynote speaker Jan. 18 at the annual meeting of the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County. The organization is a partnership of businesses and city and county government officials with the goal of encouraging economic growth and job development.

Johnston said that when he arrived in 2001 he was the county's fourth chief executive officer in less than two years. The county then faced a low credit rating, an unbalanced budget and costly lawsuits. The county has since rebounded financially, he said, with a balanced budget and restored credit rating. The biggest challenges facing Ventura County are healthcare, highways and housing, Johnston said.

Government policymakers and businesses are joining forces to strike a balance between providing jobs and affordable housing, he said. "People have to be able to live someplace; they have to be able to afford to live there; and businesses have to have a workforce. No one quite knows how to deal with it, but it's critical."

As for labor issues, the county- with a $1.5 billion budget and a workforce of about 8,000- has the same problems as other employers- attracting and retaining qualified workers, Johnston said. And while the cost of the average American healthcare policy rose 17 percent, rates for the county's plans dropped 5 to 20 percent, he said.

"We're containing the costs and we're working on the problem, but it's a neverending situation," Johnston said.

Additionally, instead of building more prisons, the state wants counties to keep prisoners serving sentences of up to three years in jails. Expansion of the already overcrowded jails could cost Ventura County $80 million, plus $25 million annually in operating costs, Johnston said.

"That is a substantial problem for us," he said.

Other challenges facing the county include the retirement of baby boomers and a shortage of workers to replace them, and refitting hospital facilities to new seismic standards- potentially, a $200 million expense for Ventura County, he said.

In response to a question about the county's pension plan, Johnston said that unlike some public employers, Ventura County doesn't grant additional benefits to its retirees without having funds available.

According to some estimates such "unfunded liabilities" could eventually cost public agencies nationwide as much as $1 trillion, Johnston said.

"If we can keep Ventura County prosperous, balanced and economically healthy and still a great environment in which to live and raise your families, we will have done our job," Johnston said.

After the speech, Gary Wartik, Thousand Oaks' economic development manager, said a financially healthy county results in less pressure on the cities that contract for county services.

Wartik said the county eliminates some services to contract cities and passes along higher costs for remaining services when it must pay higher interest rates because of a poor credit rating. Thousand Oaks contracts with the county for police and fire services.

City council members from Simi Valley and Moorpark said they were pleased with the positive tone of Johnston's speech.

"It's always nice to hear Johnnie Johnston say that the county is back on track and doing good. It's a nice way to start out the new year," said Simi Valley Councilmember Barbra Williamson.

Roseann Mikos of the Moorpark City Council said she agreed and was pleased that Johnston informed the public about the county's retirement plan.

"I think the pension (matter) is an important thing for people to know," Mikos said.

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