By MIKE BIDDISON
Merced County Supervisor Lee Lor is confident she’ll be reelected to the Board of Supervisors in the coming November election.
If she should lose, however, it would not only mean giving up that one position — the District 2 Supervisor would also lose seats on more than a dozen other county boards, committees, and commissions where she represents the county.
Heading that list are the California State Association of Counties and the National Association of Counties. She represents the entire county in those positions, working directly with leaders at the national, state, and local levels.
She has established strategic planning processes for the county on these assignments so the boards can set goals and track them. Lor says since being elected Supervisor, her plan was “to establish sustainable and fair practices and policies that would stay in effect after I leave office.”
As an example, Lor points to her work on the Merced County Behavioral Health Board which was not on track as it should have been with state requirements. While a board member, she has implemented an annual process to track the Agency’s goals and gauge the progress made toward those goals. After making these assessments, members would either set future goals or continue to work on ones not met.
The Behavioral Health Board rolls out programs for the Agency and allocates funding for specific wellness and mental health needs, including those for minority, older adults and the LGBTQ community.
Then there is District 2, where she became the Supervisor in 2016, defeating incumbent Supervisor Hub Walsh. Walsh served at a time when each supervisor was given a slice of money dubbed a Discretionary Fund, amounting to $40,000 annually for each district. While other supervisors spent the money on various projects and causes deemed important to the district they served, Walsh rolled a relatively significant amount of his district’s money over to the next year, and the next.
When Lor took over, she found herself in charge of this money, approximately $108,000. She decided to enlist the aid of her constituents in determining how to best spend the leftover funds, soliciting suggestions from the people, and organizing volunteers to come up with a plan. The final result was put to a vote, then the board approved the expenditure. The projects were set up to be self-sustaining, using the funds only as startup money.
The “People’s Garden” and the “People’s Pantry” are examples of what came out of that process, and soon the “People’s Fridge,” all to feed people in need. Lor likes to say she is the only County Supervisor in the U.S. to launch this “People’s Budget: Community Unity for Improvement.”
When Lor came on board, the $40,000 Discretionary Fund was eliminated, and the next year replaced with a $20,000 annual stipend on a “use or lose” basis, which each supervisor could draw from to pay for extra assistance when needed with various projects that might come up. Lor hired three college student interns to work on opportunities for young people that the board does not normally have to approve.
Supervisor Lor, a mother of four children, was born in Merced and is from the local Hmong community. She believes her status as a minority woman has given her challenges and opportunities she might not otherwise have had. The difficulties she has surmounted have broadened her experience and perspective. In some circles her status has been advantageous, in some, not so much. She’s found several areas of influence where men still have a decided advantage. When she is forced to make adjustments in her planning or thinking, she views it as an opportunity to learn, and to educate as well.
The automatic 3½ percent pay raise supervisors were given this year has been a source of criticism aimed at Lor. She is the only supervisor to accept the pay increase. Lor makes no excuses, saying she was “proud to accept the raise.” While other supervisors gave the money back to the county fund, Lor chose to accept the increase and donate directly to smaller local non-profits and community projects that normally escape the notice of elected officials. She also points out that she is the only supervisor on the board who does not own their own business. The transportation costs she incurs, the charitable gifts she makes, the fundraisers she becomes involved with, and other job related expenses are not reimbursed, and they all come out of that one paycheck.
Lor’s work on community non-profits, from the Fair Board to Leadership Merced keeps her busy, apart from her paid work as a supervisor. The Children’s Museum, a hands-on, interactive museum for young children, is a non-profit she incorporated to benefit the community economically and culturally. It will provide local employment and will serve as an entertaining and educational resource, drawing families from far and wide. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum’s structure as an interactive museum had to be completely re-thought. As a consequence the opening has been delayed.
All services provided by the county have been impacted by the coronavirus to a certain degree, says Lor. “The toughest part is getting out a consistent message to everyone.” There is a lack of funding and a lack of people for the work. No matter how robust your contact tracing is, you’re not going to get that 100 percent of people you’ve come into contact with. The problem is huge, especially with the time lag associated with testing. “People are just not going to remember every past detail necessary for contact tracing to work, but,” Lor says, “we can always do more.”
People are Lor’s first priority. “We need to focus on our people.” Others have focused on economic development, public safety, high paying jobs, but without building the skills of our people, we will not increase the quality of life or opportunities within the existing system. One positive development over the past several years has been the university. U.C. Merced has had a great influence on county development, adding high quality opportunities everywhere.
Lor says she has supported people bettering themselves for years. “You can bring the jobs, but without the skilled people, folks from outside will take the jobs. We need to think beyond workforce development, with new programs where people can move up in their jobs.” When you’re in a position to move up, you make room for those just entering the workforce.