In January, Justin Cummings was sworn into office as the third district county supervisor, days after New Year’s Eve storms flooded the county, destroying homes and businesses.
Just over two months into the job, Cummings is committed to fulfilling his promise on the campaign trail: ensuring residents seeking rebuild permits from the CZU Lightening Complex Fires from 2020 are getting them. The commitment is even more daunting now that the county is still confronting damage from recent—and ongoing—storm damage.
The county budget is still in a recession, and the recent disaster damage is estimated to cost the county $76 million. That’s on top of the $67.7 million the county shelled out after the CZU fires, which it is still waiting to be reimbursed for from FEMA.
Good Times sat down with Cummings to discuss his plan for helping CZU fire victims, what it’s been like assuming this position during a natural disaster and how he will prioritize issues with a restricted county budget.
What will you focus on for your first year as a supervisor? Have the storms changed any of the initial goals that you had?
JUSTIN CUMMINGS: I’m committed to focusing on the issues in the mountains related to rebuilding, along with emergency response. A big part of my focus, and the storms definitely made this one of the top priorities, is communication. With the power outages in the mountains, just making sure that we can get people’s information ahead of time is a huge priority of mine.
In regards to rebuilding efforts after the CZU fires, we’ve been able to make some progress with 4Leaf—the outside agency that the county hired to help residents get their building permits— We reassigned a staff person who was in charge of septic permitting: there were a lot of disputes between residents and this staff member, so we had 4Leaf reassign that position to someone else. People are hoping that it might be easier for them to work with the new person, in terms of trying to get in the waivers for the enhanced septic systems.
We also provided direction to the staff to come up with a process for appealing decisions that 4Leaf makes. One of the things that did come up was a dispute, for example, between an individual and a leader, but how does that get resolved? And it wasn’t clear when I started what that process would be.
Permitting for septic or geological, there would be straightforward guidelines for what qualifies for permitting or not. How does the permitting process become subjective?
There are some state laws for new buildings, and then there are many different waivers if you’ve been a victim of a disaster. So, depending on who’s there, they can give different interpretations of if someone qualifies for those waivers or exemptions.
What kind of resources and support are you providing the CZU fire victims who have been without a house and unable to rebuild for the past two years?
Right now, for people without their homes, we are encouraging folks who are having issues to reach out to our office so we can try to help resolve some of these problems. We’ve been dealing a lot with the storms, so we haven’t been hearing those complaints come to our office. And so that’s why I’m just encouraging folks to let us know what challenges they’re running into.
The county recently had budget hearings and is still waiting on reimbursements from FEMA for the CZU fires. How do these substantial budget deficits play into what issues you prioritize in the county and your district?
I think to some degree, if we want to, for example, try to implement new programs that are going to cost money. It really puts us in a pretty bad spot. We need to be cautious because we have to maintain our general services. It’s a challenge, and I don’t think we’re the only ones facing those challenges.
That’s why I think it’s really important that we’re also working with our federally elected officials to make sure that we communicate with them, like, here’s where we’re at, and here are our needs. We need to make sure that FEMA will be able to process these types of reimbursements more quickly. We don’t want to find ourselves in a financially strained situation solely due to the fact we’re trying to help people during difficult times.
You became mayor at the start of the pandemic for the city of Santa Cruz. And now you’re a supervisor kind of in a natural disaster situation. Is this state of emergency that the county has been in since you assumed your role reminiscent of when you entered your position as mayor?
Yes. It’s a little different, but the common thread is communication and trying to get people resources. I think that’s the number one thing, whether you have a storm coming or whether it’s a virus threatening public health. The questions are the same: what are the things that we can put in place to keep people safe?
When my office heard that there was another atmospheric river, we immediately reached out to the county and public information officer and confirmed that with him. He sent me the link from the National Weather Service, and we put it online and sent out the photos. I think just having that connection and trying to get information to people so they can prepare as best as possible and just kind of be on the lookout for different types of ways of relaying information, whether it’s email or social media, or other forms.
You mentioned email and social media to communicate with folks in the mountains. What about those folks who have power outages, etc.? What do your on-the-ground efforts look like?
We should be looking at some low tech ways of communicating with folks. Because most people—and most of the time when I’ve been driving in the Third District—you can get radio signals. So one of the things that I suggested was that we try to find a radio station that we can work with that will be willing to help us get information out over the radio. I encourage folks to have backup radios in the house. So if power goes out and you don’t have access to the internet, at least we can get people’s information on the radio.
We’ve heard these accounts of people in the mountains who have gone without power or heat for weeks. I know your district doesn’t cover most of the San Lorenzo Valley, where many of these people live, but what efforts is your office making to ensure people in the mountains can resolve these issues of power or heat being out?
Because of the storms, we kind of have an opportunity to see where the gaps in the system are. After all these storms we will be in a position where we can start having those discussions around finding out how long people had to go without heat or power.
I know there’s been some issues with propane delivery and propane supply. So we need to talk to those companies as well to ensure that they’re going to be able to provide people with propane on a fairly regular basis, and also that there’s some confidence that they’re going to be able to get these resources when they need them most.
How much time have you had to do normal onboarding processes?
[Laughs] Yeah, none. It just keeps getting pushed off.
County Budget Breakdown
In late February, Santa Cruz County Budget Manager Marcus Pimentel presented what he described as a “doom-and-gloom” financial outlook, saying that a recession will last through 2024/25 years, after which the economy will recover.
In his mid-year report, during which he outlined the county’s $712 million general fund budget, Pimentel said that the triple disaster of the CZU fire, the January floods and the ongoing effects of climate change had taken a toll on county resources.
Pimentel said the county is “struggling, struggling, struggling” to get $67.7 million in unpaid FEMA claims, with just $5 million expected to come this year.
While the county will finish this year with a balanced budget and has a healthy 10% reserve, Pimentel predicts deficits over the next five years, topping out at $19.3 million in 2027/28.
Supervisor Bruce McPherson said that the county might have to look at ways of raising additional revenues soon.
“If we want to provide the services we do to the half of Santa Cruz County that’s in the unincorporated area—and throughout the county—we’re going to have to take some serious and not pleasant actions, I think, this year in our budget sessions,” he says.