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County tackles budget, considers building lease
February 01, 2012, 05:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

Just a year after plunking down $40 million for a pair of office buildings aimed at freeing the county from costly leases, the Board of Supervisors might lease out one of the facilities as a way to make ends meet.

County Manager John Maltbie will bring the board a more fleshed-out plan at a later date but suggested the board fill one building with county departments while aggressively trying to lease the north building. Doing so could bring in $1 million the first year, then $2 million each of the next four years.

Maltbie said the county could have the south building filled by the fall, leaving Supervisor Dave Pine bristling at adding another nine months to the year already passed since the purchase.

"I don’t find that acceptable, frankly. That has to be moved up,” Pine said.

The fate of half the Circle Star properties was but one of many proposals considered yesterday when the Board of Supervisors knuckled down in a budget workshop to contemplate its own local finances, the impact of state proposals and the ongoing effort to eliminate a structural deficit.

According to Maltbie’s calculations, the board can balance its budget this upcoming fiscal year and have a modest surplus going forward if his projections hold true and the board makes good on recommended changes.

Amid the discussion, the board looked at revenue, expenses and ways to change both. A possible tax grabbed some attention although the board majority wasn’t too keen on a sales tax proposal. Supervisor Carole Groom in particularly worried that a local tax would compete with the state tax measure pushed by the governor, resulting in its failure.

 Instead, the board agreed to place on the June ballot a rental vehicle tax aimed at passengers coming through San Francisco International Airport. A similar 2008 measure died which the board attributed to assuming it would pass without much effort on their part.

"Shame on us,” said Board President Adrienne Tissier.

The board also threw out ideas including a fire protection fee that could generate roughly $1 million annually, establishing ongoing guidelines on how to budget half of the county’s excess property tax money that previously went to schools and redevelopment and eliminating special districts like those originally established to operate hospitals.

Although the five-year plan presented by Maltbie didn’t immediately include cuts, Pine said they need to be a factor to whittle away at the structural deficit.  

"I can’t believe there’s nothing we can’t cut in this fiscal year,” Pine said, suggesting $5 million to $10 million would be reasonable.

Over the last five years, the county has made good progress on its five-year plan to eliminate the deficit including cuts, Maltbie said.

So far, the county has eliminated 500 positions and realized cost savings of more than $700 million. Yet the county continues to have a deficit, in part because of a recession worse than anticipated. If the board takes no action, it will swell from $77 million in fiscal year 2013 to $149 million in fiscal year 2017, Maltbie said.

Large contributors to those figures are the new jail costs and debt service, negotiated salaries and retirement and increasing health and dental premiums for employees.

The board won’t hold formal budget hearings until June and September but wanted Tuesday to comb through its expenses and revenue and lay out a game plan for the future.

"There’s no magic to doing a budget. There’s two ways of doing that,” Maltbie said, referring to revenue and expenses.

One challenge, however, is that the budget is based on assumptions that may or may not happen.

Other hurdles may be finding support for some of the proposals to either raise money or slash expenses.

A previously announced plan to close Burlingame Long-Term Care, the county-operated nursing facility, drew a full audience of employees and residents who denounced the plan. The county has said keeping the facility open is cost-prohibitive and unsafe.

The suggestion of dissolving special districts and naming the county a successor agency to collect and use taxes also drew a mixed reaction. An idea to convert county parks into an open space district was more favorable as was improved bill collections at the county hospital.

Although a new hotel at San Francisco International Airport is far from a reality at this point, Maltbie said the transient occupancy tax from one could raise $4 million in the last two of the next five years. He also suggested seeking a TOT hike from the current 10 percent to 12 percent to match surrounding communities, reopening a juvenile girls camp for use by other counties and closing the Cordilleras fire station.

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

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