Now that San Mateo County succeeded in passing a half-cent sales tax for the next decade, officials have a new challenge — figuring out exactly how to spend the $60 million it is expected to generate every year.
Officials could not legally mandate Measure A’s uses prior to Election Day because it was a general tax requiring only a simple majority. However, they did offer a list of possibilities including pricey seismic upgrades at private Seton Medical Center in Daly City to stave off its closure and a handful of the usual needs like public safety, parks, jail staffing and child care.
Going into the election, tax backers and others like successful supervisorial candidate Warren Slocum said they definitely wanted to establish guidelines or methodology for distributing the money and crafting the partnership with Seton. With the dust settling from the election in which Measure A secured a hefty 2 to 1 victory in no small part due to the $1.4 million campaign bankrolled by Seton, the time will soon arrive to start divvying up the funds.
The supervisors appear in agreement that a public process is key.
"My recommendation would be maybe a meeting in each district and as we collect public comment putting all of it into the budget process. It’s almost time to start that again, too,” said Supervisor Carole Groom.
The tax, which hikes the rate to 8.75 percent, cannot take effect prior to April which Groom said gives the county ample time for a thoughtful and, if necessary, elongated approach.
"We don’t want to rush into this. My choice is to go slow because this is an opportunity voters haven’t given us very often and if we squander it they may not give us another one,” Groom said.
Groom and the others don’t anticipate much action, though, until after the new year when Supervisor Don Horsley is expected to take up the helm as board president and Slocum is installed as in the District Four seat.
Horsley said part of the undertaking includes establishing an independent oversight board for the funds. The board might also have some say in the money generated by the 2.5 percent rental car tax in the unincorporated areas passed by voters in June but nothing is concrete, Horsley said.
Although Horsley also wants public input before formalizing fund recipients, he still has a personal wish list that includes health care for seniors and parks infrastructure like water treatment facilities. The latter, he said, is an example of a need the public would likely support if it only knew about them which is why the supervisors need to balance public input with their own information.
Horsley said the Sheriff’s Office is already looking at its needs for possible funding including its activities league. Groom said some department heads, like Human Services Agency’s Beverly Beasley Johnson, have also given the board a list of areas that fell victim to dramatic cuts like job training and child care.
Groom also thinks transportation might be another area because, even with dedicated tax revenue for those needs, the funding is still thin.
"I just don’t know. If people tell us that is what their priorities are, we need to listen,” she said.
Whatever the decisions, Slocum believes the county should spend the money investing in needs with future returns like technology at the San Mateo Medical Center to improve billing. County Manager John Maltbie has estimated the county hospital could save $10 million yearly by more accurately tracking patient services and billing faster so perhaps the technology currently being implemented for electronic patient records can also include that capability, Slocum suggesting.
Slocum does not favor putting the money into the general fund with no earmarks.
"I think what the people said with Measure A is that we value county services and we’re going to give you a period of time to right this ship financially. So for me, there’s not a moment to lose,” Slocum said.
The supervisors are also in agreement on no blank checks — not for departments and certainly not for Seton.
During the campaign, backers of the tax argued that Seton provides care for a significant portion of the county’s low-income population and its closure would have a domino effect on other providers. Seton faces closure in 2020 without mandated seismic upgrades which the measure listed as a possible expenditure on the ballot statement but which officials say is not a done deal.
"I have a number of questions to ask, primarily what is the business plan going forward. I need to see some numbers,” Slocum said.
Slocum concedes it would be a "tough decision” to say no to Seton after its heavy involvement in the campaign but said the bottom line is basing that decision on solid evidence.
Any memorandum of understanding and partnership with Seton is going to a very long, very involved process spelling out specifically what the county is getting for its money, Groom said.
That said, Groom said the community needs to remember that as of now there is no agreement in place despite the election outcome or public perception.
Horsley thinks Seton can fill in needs for the county like skilled nursing and skilled nursing beds. The closure earlier this year of Burlingame Long-Term Care showed the lack of local space as all but one of those residents faced transfer out of county before its takeover, Horsley said.
In return for funding, Seton could be required to make up some of the difference, he said.
The public needs to remember that not helping Seton could bankrupt the county’s health plan and leave some residents, like those who need ventilators, with few if any local options for care, he said.
The supervisors say the measure’s passage is a sign that county residents are behind the list of possible uses for the money which gives them confidence going forward with nailing down definitives. However, they said the public isn’t going to put up with them not making good use of it.
"What people have said is I trust you. I’ve listened to you that you don’t have enough money. But, we better deliver and it better be delivered soon,” Groom said.
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.