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County in Crisis: ‘Stunned’ Economist Predicts Anemic Growth for ‘Chronically Weak’ Ventura County

A respected economic forecast released in March says Ventura County has experienced more than a decade of continuous economic decline, which enfeebled the county going into the COVID pandemic.

“Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Ventura County was experiencing a prolonged period of economic weakness,” reported Dr. Matthew Fienup, the executive director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

“Ventura County’s current economic situation is truly stunning considering the strong economic legacy of the region,” he said.

The report cites key indicators such as civilian labor force growth, population growth and domestic migration, all important measures of economic vitality. All three indicators “experienced sustained weakness going back to 2013.”

Fienup released his findings on March 8, the same day Ventura County supervisors voted in a closed session to place longtime county CEO Mike Powers on paid administrative leave. Powers, the highest-paid County employee who made in excess of $500,000 annually, had served as CEO since 2011. He resigned two days after being placed on leave. The following week, the Acorn local newspaper reported that Powers is the subject of a sexual harassment investigation.

The Pacific Coast Business Times also reported that the closed session could have run afoul of the Brown Act, which requires transparency for meetings between officials. David Snyder, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, told the Times they should have disclosed if they decided to put Powers on administrative leave, a contention the county’s chief counsel disputed.

The Conejo Guardian asked all five County Supervisors about the Powers scandal and about the devastating economic forecast. All supervisors remained silent on both issues.

During Powers’ tenure, the county lost 23,200 workers, a “shocking” number according to the economic report. High-paying jobs that support the higher cost of living in Ventura County fled the area, and an “astonishing” $26,600 was lost per worker. Nevertheless, Powers told the Pacific Coast Business Times he thinks he left the county “in a good place.”

Ventura County’s economy also shrank by $8.8 billion between 2007 and 2018, a 16 percent decline in total economic activity.

Fienup, who teaches courses in econometrics and environmental economics for CLU’s Masters of Quantitative Economics program, said the county was “chronically weak even as the California and U.S. economies were experiencing sustained economic expansion” under President Donald Trump.

He has been sounding an alarm for years. For instance, in a 2018 executive summary written with Dan Hamilton, he warned: “The dominant economic story in Ventura County is a continued decline in total economic activity. We hesitate to use the word recession, but we don’t know what else to call two consecutive years of economic contraction. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, Ventura County’s economy contracted by 0.9 percent in 2016 and an additional 0.4 percent in 2017. Average economic growth over the past four years rounds to 0.0 percent, the worst four-year period for which we have data. While job growth remains positive in Ventura County, sectoral data give little support for optimism. Whether you look to jobs or GDP, the state of the Ventura County economy is weak.”

More recently, in the last two years, 12,600 more people moved out of the county than moved in as County leadership pursued lockdown mandates that helped trigger an “unprecedented” economic contraction. At least 45,200 jobs were lost, representing 13 percent of the workforce.

The study gives a bleak forecast for the years ahead.

“Because of the weaknesses that characterized Ventura County in the years leading up to the COVID-19 Pandemic, we expect Ventura County to be especially hard hit,” warned Feinup.

The anticipated growth rate for the county will be “anemic” compared to “almost any other geography, including L.A. County, California, and the Nation,” the report states.

The report reminds readers that Ventura was the last county to recover from the Great Recession, taking seven years to finally regain the number of jobs lost.

“Revised data indicate that Ventura County’s pre-pandemic weakness was longer and more severe than we understood one year ago,” Fienup reported, adding, “The revisions to Ventura County’s economic history are substantial. Economic growth since 2007 is much slower than previously understood, and the size of the County’s economy in recent years is much smaller than previously measured.”

As for recommendations, Fienup believes Ventura County would benefit from “a deliberate effort to be more business-friendly and pro-growth.”

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