With a unanimous vote just days before the beginning of a new fiscal year, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on June 26 approved revisions to the county's two-year budget to solidify a spending plan of $2.749 billion and 5,528 employees.
In response to comments by members of the public expressing outrage in recent weeks over President Trump's policy of separating undocumented immigrant families who cross the U.S. border, supervisors also voted unanimously to dedicate $764,000 toward the creation of a deportation defense fund to help undocumented immigrants in the county get legal aid.
Deportation defense fund
San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley said he plans to talk to the community to better grasp the extent that undocumented people are immigrating to San Mateo County and what those immigrants' needs are.
"It could be that there's some activity that is going undetected by at least me," he added.
He said he supports providing legal representation to undocumented people who are applying for asylum and could qualify for residency in the country.
During the 2017-18 fiscal year there were 182 unaccompanied minors reported to have entered the county, he said. All but two have been reunited with a guardian, custodian, or other family member. In the two cases in which the children have not been reunited, he said it was because the county had questions about the guardians.
A county subcommittee is fleshing out the details of the fund; the working concept is that it would be mainly dedicated to legal aid, and relevant organizations would have to apply for the funds.
Words of caution
County Manager John Maltbie, who formally proposed the budget, wrote in the document that the county's fiscal situation is generally rosy.
The county received $17.1 million in unspent ERAF money, or dollars from what's called the "Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund" -- a pool of tax revenue that's automatically deducted by the state from jurisdictions' property tax revenues to help it pay for local schools, unless there's enough property tax funding to cover a base amount. In such circumstances, the state gives the money back to the jurisdiction. And property tax revenues have continued to rise for an "unprecedented" nearly nine years straight, Maltbie said.
"We've enjoyed in the last several years a very robust increase in property tax," he noted.
However, he emphasized, it behooves the county to exercise prudence since it has a big five-year capital improvement plan and increasing labor costs. And like all times of booming economic growth, there is the cautionary "looming specter of a future recession."
Even a small reduction in the county's property tax revenue growth rate could spell fiscal trouble for the county, he said. For example, a 2 percent decrease would likely mean a revenue decline of $8 million a year, Maltbie said. By contrast, giving county workers a 2 percent increase in their salaries would cost the county an estimated $14 million a year, he noted.
Maltbie said he asked each county department to trim its budget by 2.5 percent, and expenditures that were deemed unnecessary were trimmed from the budget. That yielded a reduction in net county costs by $13.4 million, he reported.
Another wild card: The county is, demographically speaking, one of the oldest if not the oldest county in the state, Maltbie said.
Horsley said that the county provides health care to the indigent – people who do not have or are not eligible for health insurance or other health coverage – and that changes to the federal Affordable Care Act could increase county costs. Medicare coverage for people in skilled nursing facilities also can fall short of the full costs, he said.
"Those are costs we have to anticipate," he said.
Maltbie also questioned whether county residents will continue to stomach tax increases. One big question is what will happen if the state's new gas tax, Senate Bill 1, gets repealed. A repeal would leave the county short on funds for fixing roads. In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the county plans to use those funds for street reconstructions in North Fair Oaks, West Menlo Park, Emerald Lake Hills, El Granada and Colma, among other locations. If the gas tax stays, it is expected to bring in about $9.6 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year. According to the budget document, the existing gas tax -- not counting Senate Bill 1 -- can keep overall pavement conditions at their current levels but won't cover emergency repairs or discretionary improvement projects.
The regional housing crisis is another continuing challenge for the county, Maltbie said. Exorbitant housing costs continue to make it challenging for the county to hire and retain a quality workforce, he said.
Costs for retirement and "post-employment" benefits are also expected to continue to rise, he said.
In 2015, the board identified its top three priorities: to end homelessness, improve reading proficiency and ensure that all foster children graduate from high school and complete the equivalent of two years of college or vocational training.
According to Maltbie, the county is seeing a decline in the number of unsheltered adults, but there has been a shift from people living on the street to people living out of vehicles. On the children's literacy front, he said, a countywide effort called the "Big Lift" -- aimed at helping at-risk kids boost their reading skills -- is narrowing the knowledge gap that can develop during the summer if some children don't practice the skills they've learned during the school year while others get access to enriching activities. The Big Lift started as a federally funded program in which the county was given five years to demonstrate "proof of concept," but funding decreased under the Trump administration. Now, the county and its partner agencies have to make up for that funding gap to keep the program running, according to county Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell.
Maltbie also reported that fewer children are going into foster care, and of those that do, more are graduating from high school or receiving their GED certificates.
Another key area of county spending is affordable housing. Maltbie reported that the county's "Home for All" program has resulted in $103 million being invested, and 1,715 units being built, preserved, under construction or "in the pipeline."
On the infrastructure front, the county plans to spend its Senate Bill 1 funding on road maintenance and rehabilitation projects. It currently costs about $1 million to repair one mile of road based on current construction costs in the Bay Area, Maltbie reports. Some of those projects are to reconstruct some streets in West Menlo Park on or near Croner Avenue, and to reconstruct parts of 7th Avenue in North Fair Oaks. According to Horsley, the county is also working on plans to improve safety near the Santa Cruz Avenue/Alpine Road/Alameda de las Pulgas intersection.
With the countywide half-cent sales tax, called Measure K, the county expects to spend a total of $143 million on a range of public safety, housing, and social services. About $49 million of that will go to the county's new Regional Operations Center under construction in Redwood City, $16 million to specific affordable housing initiatives and $8.9 million toward projects laid out in the North Fair Oaks general plan.
The county also set aside $1.1 million for a restoration project at Tunitas Creek Beach on the Coastside. Funds will go toward the restoration and toward hiring two new park rangers and a capital project manager.
Maltbie, who plans to retire in November, included in his written and verbal budget remarks a farewell of sorts to the Board of Supervisors. He wrote: "As I think about the future of this County I hope this Board maintains your sense of urgency. Resist the temptation to rest on your laurels," and later said, "It's great to shoot high, but the real test of those policies is where the rubber meets the road: Are people better off?"