About 125 people filled the Kimball High School theater to hear farmer and businessman Tom Benigno, City Councilman Bob Elliott and Planning Commissioner Rhodesia Ransom.
During the event, sponsored by the Tracy Press, candidates were allotted four minutes for opening and closing statements and 90 seconds to answer predetermined questions and submissions from the audience.
The 5th District includes Tracy, Mountain House and parts of Manteca. The nonpartisan position has a four-year term, with elected officials allowed to serve two full elected terms. The winner will replace termed-out Supervisor Leroy Ornellas.
Any candidate to garner more than 50 percent of the vote during the primary would automatically earn the seat. If no one’s total surpassed that threshold, the top two vote-getters would face off in the November general election.
Several questions during the one-hour, 45-minute program focused on key issues facing Tracy and San Joaquin County, including fiscal responsibility, public safety, agriculture and pensions for county employees.
The following is a sample of the candidates’ responses.
Elliott, a 62-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel, believes that balancing the county budget is a top priority and said a “robust economic program” is needed.
“If we want to continue to fund the programs that we have,” he said, “we need to have a reliable funding stream.”
“The best way to accomplish that is to encourage businesses to come here,” he added. “That will bring more jobs, more economic activity, expand the tax base and provide for the revenue we need to keep our programs growing.”
Elliott said he would employ steps similar to those being taken by the City Council to reduce costs by eliminating duplication of services, reorganizing staff, increasing departmental efficiency and looking for opportunities to contract services.
Ransom said that when drafting a budget, “you can’t spend what you don’t have.” That attitude, she said, would help her identify areas of spending for the county.
“Once we know what our priorities and desires are, and we know how much we have to work with, then we can start making decisions,” said the former member of the civil grand jury.
Ransom also believes it essential to work with banks and lenders to prevent future foreclosures of homes and farms in the county.
“We need to do more to stop the bleeding in our community,” she said.
Benigno, a 75-year-old lifelong Californian, said the county needs to generate more revenue, but said, “I don’t know where that will come from.”
“What we need to do is remember where this money is coming from,” he said. “Now, I wouldn’t want to lose my job — would you want to lose your job? So what do we do? Keep working you 16 hours at a job? I don’t know. There is an answer, because we have a problem, but we have to solve the problem by creating smart people and sending people to Stockton.”
Ransom believes that public safety is an issue for the entire community and vowed to push for more funds to be funneled into areas that have been more recently developed.
She asserted that the face of crime had dramatically changed during the past 15 years, but funding levels remained relatively unchanged.
“Public safety is very important to making sure the community is safe, that businesses are safe, that families feel safe bringing their kids here,” she said, adding that she had experience developing programs to prevent gang violence in Tracy schools. “So, I would definitely invest in public safety — that way, we can be more attractive as a community.”
Elliott said he saw a direct link between strong public safety and a successful community and considered it his top priority if elected.
“If we’re talking about economic development, let’s get serious — a nice business is not going to come here if it’s not considered safe,” he said. “To ensure we bring that to reality, we have to ensure that adequate funding is in place for the entire spectrum of our public safety efforts and the entire spectrum of our law enforcement capability.”
Public safety begins with a balanced budget, Benigno said, and he pledged to end wasteful spending.
“The problem is that we have money going out the door, and no one knows where it’s going,” he said. “A lot of people say they don’t care where the money comes from as long as they get a check. That’s the problem. We need to understand that if we aren’t business friendly, we’re going to change the footprint, and we aren’t going to survive in our town.”
All three candidates identified water and agriculture as top issues they would keep close tabs on if elected.
However, there was a split on the topic of whether to build a peripheral canal or tunnel — which would ship water from the Sacramento River to Los Angeles and farms in Southern California, bypassing the lower parts of the Delta.
Ransom said building the canal would destroy the county’s agriculture industry and its heritage.
“The people who would benefit from this canal are not in San Joaquin County — there are no pros for us,” she said.
“I understand that some people feel that building a peripheral canal would mean jobs, but we can’t sell out our agriculture. We can’t sell out our economic base for temporary jobs.”
She said the high cost of refining the salt-rich water that would remain in the Delta with a peripheral canal in place was a price San Joaquin County residents shouldn’t have to bear.
Elliott said water was the greatest commodity in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, and a canal would only take that valuable resource away from local farmers, causing the agriculture industry to “wither and die.”
He said the “extremely high cost” of building it would offset any benefits.
“We need to have a reliable source of water at an affordable price. The peripheral canal will not get us there. We need to oppose that,” he said.
He suggested more offsite reservoirs and storage areas as an alternative to the canal.
Benigno called the topic his “meat and potatoes” and said he backed the proposal because it would provide 10,000 jobs for seven years for San Joaquin County residents. The work, he said, could support families who have lost homes to foreclosure.
“Heritage, selling out — that’s a lie. Pros and cons, that’s not fair,” he said. “It’s not about me trying to lose a race, because I believe in the peripheral canal, I’m not trying to do that. It’s about creating jobs for your kids and some of your family, because that’s what I’m supposed to do as a supervisor.”
Ransom said cost-cutting should be "all-inclusive”
and not just aimed at public employees.
“When we talk about making sacrifices, we need to make sacrifices from the top to the bottom, bottom to the top,” she said.
Ransom said cuts to public employees would target departments such as the county sheriff’s.
“The last thing I want is someone who is supposed to be protecting me worrying about how they are going to pay their bills for their family,” Ransom said. “We need to think before we make changes to people’s futures and livelihoods.”
Elliot would push to refine the system to a two-tier setup that honors pensions of present employees but allows room to adjust the pensions of future hires. This system, he said, is already in place in many cities in California.
“I believe any adjustments in the current system should be made with consultations to all parties involves,” he said. “But that has to be balanced with the fiscal realities, and come up with a program that will be sustainable.”
Benigno said lawmakers need to stop placing restrictions on business and believes that “we need to watch our economy by watching our budget.”
Pension plans for public employees will fall
victim to lawmakers looking to make cuts, Benigno said, if taxes continue to increase.
“Those people that have good pension plans, I wish you luck,” he said. “Those that don’t have good pension plans, I wish more luck.”