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County seeks input on how to spend tax
January 16, 2013, 12:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

Private Seton Medical Center, county transportation agency SamTrans and parks advocates were among those asking county officials yesterday for a piece of the $60 million annual sales tax passed by voters in November.

The money was sought for seismic upgrades, worker rehiring, paratransit trips, a dedicated naturalist and much-needed infrastructure maintenance staved off by years of cuts and a structural deficit.

The tax, which increases the county rate to 8.75 percent, begins April 1.

The Board of Supervisors won't make any hard and fast decisions about where to allocate the funds until a Feb. 12 public workshop but yesterday began the process by offering up their priorities and hearing from groups who hope they make the cut.

The request by Seton Medical Center, a private facility in Daly City, was no surprise; the November ballot specifically listed the earthquake upgrades as a possible use and Measure A backers said keeping the hospital open was an important element of delivering care to the North County's needy.

"The fact is we cannot continue to provide any of these services without substantial support from the proceeds of Measure A," said James Schuessler, interim CEO of Seton Medical Center.

Whether the hospital remains sustainable is a "significant question" without those resources," he said.

Schuessler did not ask for a specific dollar figure, instead focusing on the need and benefit to the county. The average population is the same as the county's health plan, with approximately 80 percent on Medi-Care or Medi-Cal and 70 percent to 80 percent passing through the emergency room, he said.

Schuessler said Seton is prepared to make a long-term commitment to the county and community if funded.

Maya Altman, CEO of Health Plan San Mateo, echoed the idea that Seton, while private, caters to a large needy population in the North County and is a "major partner" in the effort to expand senior services and programs for mental health and those with developmental disabilities.

Parks were another expected request, with several speakers yesterday suggesting the need for a dedicated natural resources professional and splitting the parks function away from the Public Works Department where it was consolidated as a cost-savings measure.

Julia Bott, executive director of the San Mateo County Parks Foundation, also advocated specifically for field staff.

"They can do a lot and do double duty by doing repairs and being a presence," Bott said.

Supervisor Carole Groom agreed on the need for a resource management specialist in the parks and also wants to separate parks and public works or at least have a parks director.

SamTrans and San Mateo County serve largely the same population through its transportation offerings, including paratransit and lifeline trips, said Mark Simon, SamTrans executive officer of public affairs.

But barely any of the federally mandated trips are reimbursed at the fare box and the agency has a structural deficit to contend with along with debt service from extending the BART line, he said.

The agency takes $10 million to $12 million annually out of reserves to balance its budget and is restricted financially from the opportunity to grow and innovate, he said.

SamTrans wants the county to use some of the Measure A money to help the agency provide that transportation to the most needy, including the disabled, young and the elderly.

"If we do not find some significant relief we will, within a relatively short period of time, face drastic cuts to our budget and our services," Simon said.

At Tuesday's hearing, board President Don Horsley appointed supervisors Adrienne Tissier and David Pine to a subcommittee to select and recommend how to set up the tax oversight committee.

The board will receive a mid-year budget update at the Jan. 29 meeting and pencil out some more specific decisions on the tax Feb. 12, said County Manager John Maltbie. Any agreement with Seton or creation of mental health programs for schools, as suggested by some speakers, will require further discussion and board approval, Maltbie said.

Tissier suggested the board also receive an economic development update and use the tax money to leverage other dollars rather than shell out for needs solely on the county's own. She said replenishing reserves is also important for the next rainy day.

But in the meantime, the supervisors said they are happy for the challenge of doling out the sales tax funds.

"It's one of those good problems to have," Pine said.

Note to readers: This article has been changed. It originally said SamTrans had an ongoing structural deficit of $131 million. That is the size of the agency's total annual budget.


Michelle Durand can be reached by email: michelle@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.


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