November 4, 2013

We just read a couple of the recent Civil Grand Jury reports.

The Grand Jury Report entitled AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH ABOUT THE COW-NTY’S STRUCTURAL DEFICIT tells us there isn’t one. As we all know, cow-nty and city governments across the country have been struggling in recent years, and that was the picture San Mateo County had painted for us taxpayers as well. That’s why the County went out for Measures A, T, U, and X in recent elections, to raise more funds to keep the County in good fiscal health. While not all of those measures passed, Measure A and T did, at a cost of millions of dollars per year to taxpayers.

The Grand Jury report claims that the Cow-nty hasn’t had a structural deficit for the past ten years, and that Cow-nty politicos used a supposed gap between revenue and costs to encourage Citizens to vote for the tax measures. San Mateo Cow-nty is one of several in the State that overpays property tax every year because of the way the formula works statewide, and is rebated its overage back every year. This is known as “excess ERAF” – Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund. The report claims that the Cow-nty chose to ignore this money coming back to it in its revenue projections – to the tune of $661 million over the past ten years.

The Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley and the Cow-nty Manager John Maltbie strongly disagreed with the conclusions of the report, of course. They claim that not including the ERAF funds in budget calculations is “fiscally prudent.”

The fact remains that when the ERAF funds are counted, the Cow-nty was $26 million in the black before passing Measures A and T, and the Grand Jury found that there would be no structural deficit. The Cow-nty has received more than $79 million in excess ERAF funds each year for the past four years. The Grand Jury made the reasonable recommendation that the Board of Supervisors report all revenue that they believe they will receive including ERAF, and tell voters what their best view of the Cow-nty’s deficit or surplus would be when new taxes are placed on the ballot.

In a separate report on clarity and transparency in financial reporting, the Grand Jury concluded that the financial information now produced by the Cow-nty is “so voluminous and complicated that the public cannot easily understand it.” They recommended that the Cow-nty financial reports should be easily understood by the residents and should focus on the major elements of the Cow-nty’s finances. It listed examples of these elements as including the total Cow-nty revenues, total employee payroll, and the total cost of benefits received by employees, each of which the Grand Jury found to be currently not reported or is very difficult to discern.

The Civil Grand Jury has no legal power to compel changes, but the the Cow-nty is mandated to respond within 90 days. The recommendations about clarity and transparency have already been accepted by the Board of Supervisors in August. We hope the recommendations on the so-called “structural deficit” will also be accepted. We’ll be waiting.

The Grand Jury is to be applauded on its good work.

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