There are times when government largess is appropriate. In the midst of a life-threatening pandemic, when millions of Americans are put out of work without warning, programs like the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which distributed $800 billion to nearly a million American businesses, are necessary to keep the economy from falling into an abyss.
It’s what happens in much smaller slivers of government in more normal times that tears at the confidence of taxpayers everywhere, including here on the coast. A thousand dollars here, $10,000 there, and it starts to add up. Consider some recent taxpayer expenses right here:
- Coastside Fire Protection District responded to complaints about the bright outdoor lights at its new El Granada fire station by muting lights on 13 poles. The Midcoast Community Council, which advises the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, says that work was done without necessary approvals and that means the final cost could be even higher than the $40,000 spent so far to dim the lights.
- The San Mateo County Harbor District crowed about saving money on a new headquarters when it paid $3 million for the building at 504 Avenue Alhambra in El Granada. It didn’t mention that it was offered the building for 40 percent less eight years ago, but balked because its property inspector uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in necessary repairs. It’s not clear whether those repairs have been completed. Even if they have, it won’t make up for eight years of rent in the interim, nor the fact that the district had already paid $1.3 million for land on which to build a headquarters — land it had previously sold to the fire district for a quarter of what it paid this year.
- Then there is the mother of all ongoing Coastside clusters, the pending Half Moon Bay lawsuit against Montara Water and Sanitary District and the Granada Community Services District over an intertie pipeline for the sewer authority the three agencies jointly run. Eighteen months of mediated negotiations have failed to produce a signed settlement. The Midcoast Community Council, which recently pleaded with the city to make things right, estimates the legal expenses at more than $1 million between the three agencies — and the matter hasn’t even gone to trial.
What do these three local examples have in common? They begin with distrust and acrimony among competing public agencies that sometimes serve the very same citizens.
Collectively, we have been through a lot in the last year and a half. The upside, if you are an optimistic sort, is that we can see our petty concerns for what they are. No one cares about an arcane feud between public agencies when thousands of neighbors are fighting for their lives against a mysterious virus.
Let’s not return to “normal.” Let’s use what we have learned about the big picture to solve costly government feuds and put the resultant savings to good use planning for climate change, educating our children, and building homes taxpayers could better afford if not for government waste.
— Clay Lambert