District 1 candidates differ only slightly in debate

Budget priorities were the main difference between Kuyler Crocker and Larry Micari during online forum on Sept. 15 

TULARE COUNTY – If you were watching the online forum for District 1 County Supervisor last week hoping to find the key differences between the candidates, you might have missed it in that brief moment you went to the fridge, took a restroom break or told someone to keep it down so you could hear.

On Sept. 15, incumbent Kuyler Crocker and challenger Larry Micari faced off in the first candidate forum leading up to the November election. In the most closely contested race on the local side of the ballot, the former government affairs advisor for PG&E and the former Tulare County Sheriff’s captain answered four pre-selected questions during the Zoom meeting format and six questions from those watching live on Facebook pages of sponsors The Sun-Gazette, Visalia Chamber of Commerce and the Tulare County Association of Realtors. Also sponsoring the event was the Women’s Council of Realtors.

While not identical, both candidates’ answers were similar touting their support for law enforcement, reopening schools and the county’s undocumented residents.

Both denounced calls to defund the police and racial riots while praising the Sheriff’s Department for building relationships in the community, as Micari touted his involvement creating the Sheriff’s Public Outreach Team (SPOT) and Crocker extolled the departments efforts to evacuate communities being threatened by the SQF (Castle) Fire. Both agreed temporary housing is “a good start” to “get people off the streets” to help deal with mental health issues and drug addiction.

Both agreed the county needed to begin the process allowing school districts to reopen to all elementary grade levels, as Crocker publicly supported Outside Creek’s efforts to remain open throughout the pandemic and Micari talking about parents’ confusion and frustration with rules allowing children to attend day camps on school grounds but no instruction from a teacher.

Both blamed the state for the economic impacts of the pandemic, with Micari saying the Governor was “jeopardizing careers and incomes” for manicurists and other microbusinesses while Crocker criticized the state for telling businesses “how to be safe” after failing to protect local seniors at nursing homes that are licensed and regulated by the state agencies.

Both agreed the Board of Supervisors should be able to have a check on the powers of the public health officer, an unelected position with powers authorized in the State Constitution that supersede local electeds during a public health hazard or emergency.

Both demonstrated how they supported Tulare County’s more than 36,000 undocumented immigrants, with Crocker explaining county health clinics never ask someone’s legal status and previewing the county’s Healthy Harvest program for farmworkers launched later in the week, and Micari’s reiterated his 33 years of experience in county law enforcement protecting all residents of Tulare County and calling for an end of “fear mongering” in the national news and political discourse of undocumented residents being deported after reporting crimes.

The real difference between the two conservative candidates came down to budget priorities. Micari said he would cut “excessive spending” such as the 2% cost of living adjustment for Supervisors that were part of the budget approved earlier that day. Micari said raises were inappropriate in a year where the budget had to be balanced with $2 million from its “rainy day” fund and $1 million from its contingency fund.

“We dipped a little into the reserves and that’s for a rainy day,” Micari said. “If you look deep, there were some raises provided. When it’s time to tighten down our belts we need to buckle down across the board.”

However, Micari also said he was in favor of keeping 100 funded but chronically vacant positions on the books to help the Sheriff’s Department balance its budget. Crocker said he and his fellow board members are the reason those funds had grown to $32 million and $5 million since he was elected in 2016 to help the county maintain services during an economic downturn, like the one the county is experiencing due to the pandemic.

“Through attrition and getting rid of over 100 chronically vacant positions, we have been able to make cuts that won’t do anything to services,” Crocker said.

The supervisor’s cost of living increase was included in the 2020-21 budget but was approved on April 30, 2019, almost a full year before the pandemic began. The budget also increased total employee compensation by 5%.

Micari also called out Crocker, along with Supervisors Dennis Townsend and Pete Vander Poel, for a 3-2 vote on May 19 to reopen the local economy through Stage 3 despite not meeting state metrics to do so and at a time when COVID-19 cases were on the rise.

“We need to look at reality of what we’re facing … and to not jeopardize any CARES funding with rash reactions,” Micari said.

One of the questions from the audience also asked Crocker about the vote. Crocker stood behind the vote saying the county had been advised by its lobbyist in Sacramento the state was not going to withhold funds. He also noted Yuba and Sutter counties took similar actions the week before and were not penalized with the exception of a “nasty” letter.

“There wasn’t any repercussions or loss of funds,” Crocker said. “It really came down to, are we going to be beholden to Sacramento to try and make decisions for us on whether or not we are going to kill our businesses?”

The county received a similar letter later that week from Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), stating the $1.3 billion in COVID-19 recovery funding was “explicitly contingent upon jurisdictions’ adherence to federal guidelines and the state’s stay-at-home order. Clearly the action Tulare County has taken would render it and the cities within the county ineligible for this funding.” The letter was also sent out to cities, which led to criticism from city officials in Visalia, Tulare and Farmersville, something Gov. Gavin Newsom touched on at a May 22 news conference.

“I’m not going to stand for that,” Crocker said in his response at last Tuesday’s forum. “I stand for business owners, individuals who want to do a good job and be employed and not have people on the government dole because we can’t be open.”

Crocker and Micari are running to represent District 1 on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. District one encompasses Visalia east of Santa Fe, the cities of Farmersville, Exeter and Lindsay and the unincorporated communities of Three Rivers and Strathmore.

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