December 9, 2008

How the Board of Supervisors is spending your money

Merced County Supervisor Kathleen Crookham gave up her bid this week to hand a big chunk of county money to the Merced Theatre Foundation. We ran a story about it Wednesday. Since then, I've gotten several calls and e-mails suggesting the Sun-Star take a closer look at the policy that gives each supervisor $100,000 a year in "special district funds" to dole out as they see fit.

Merced County Supervisor Kathleen Crookham gave up her bid this week to hand a big chunk of county money to the Merced Theatre Foundation. We ran a story about it Wednesday.

Since then, I've gotten several calls and e-mails suggesting the Sun-Star take a closer look at the policy that gives each supervisor $100,000 a year in "special district funds" to dole out as they see fit.

Actually, the Sun-Star published just such a story in May. With it we ran a complete list of how each supervisor has spent his or her special district funds over the past few fiscal years.

That list is here.

And here's the story:

Every year, board members get a pot of money to dole out

By Corinne Reilly

published May 17, 2008

A Merced County supervisor's request to hand a quarter-million dollars in county money to the Merced Theatre restoration project has created a rare divide among the board's five members.

It also raised the question of whether large sums of taxpayer money are being used for parochial purposes or for spending that would benefit most Mercedians.

The controversy started at this week's Board of Supervisors meeting, where Supervisor Kathleen Crookham presented a request to spend $250,000 in "special project funds" on the ongoing restoration of Merced's most recognizable landmark.

Each year, each supervisor gets a pot of taxpayer money -- this year it's $100,000 each -- called "special project funding." Each supervisor is allowed to allocate the money to community projects in his or her district, as long as the majority of the board approves the expenditure.

Typically, supervisors split their money in smaller amounts among several projects: $1,000 to help re-roof a community center, $5,000 to clean up graffiti, $2,000 to fix the high school pool and so on.

The board also usually approves special project expenditures with little discussion.

But at a quarter-million dollars, Crookham's request raised objections. She's been saving her special project money for a few years, intending to give a sizable sum to the theater, she said.

But it appears that plan is dead.

Three of the five supervisors -- John Pedrozo, Mike Nelson and Deidre Kelsey -- said they wouldn't support the expenditure. Supervisor Jerry O'Banion said he would.

Ultimately, the board voted to delay a decision until its next meeting on Tuesday.

Crookham's request has focused attention on how special project funds should be used and about their overall worth.

Supervisors opposed to the expenditure say it's not in keeping with the intent of special project funds. They say it's too much to spend on one building, especially one that doesn't belong to the county and especially when the county could be facing a sizable budget shortfall.

"When I first saw this, I thought it was a typo," Pedrozo said. "I support the Merced Theatre Foundation, but in these tough budgetary times, my concern is that it's excessive."

Nelson echoed Pedrozo's concerns. "In this time of a budget crunch, I'm not sure what kind of message this sends," he said. Specifically, he questioned how the board could justify the expense when the District Attorney's Office and the sheriff's department are asking for more staff and other vital county programs could be cut altogether. "I'm just not sure that dollar amount is defensible," he said.

Kelsey said she has the same concerns, among others. "My problem with it centers around the original intent of the fund," she said. "When we started this up, the intent was to spread the money around in your district to remedy things that would otherwise never get attention. I really try to spread the money around in my district."

Kelsey said most of her allocations have been a few thousand dollars each. Last month she asked for $1,225 for new curtains at the Winton Community Hall and $2,500 to replace a fence at the Merquin Cemetery.

Kelsey said most of her expenditures have also been for county buildings and programs; the Merced Theatre belongs to the city. "It's just a lot to give to a noncounty facility," she said. "When the (county) Human Services Agency is applying for $2,000 grants for programs for foster kids, a quarter-million just seems like too much."

Crookham said she doesn't understand the controversy. "I guess I don't see what's so wrong with saving your money," she said in an interview Thursday. "If other board members want to spread their money around more, that's fine, but I never understood that to be the rule."

She argues that spending her special project funds on the theater makes sense because it means the money will go further; the theater restoration project won a $1.9 million matching grant from the state last year, and time to meet that $1.9 million is running out.

Even though times are tough, she said, the theater is a worthy cause. "If I had enough money to build the D.A. a new building, I'd do it right away, but I don't," she said. "A lot of the people who've contributed to the theater in the past just don't have the money right now, and I think it would be very unfortunate not to find a way to preserve it."

Crookham added that the theater's restoration will benefit the entire county. "I'd understand the opposition more if it didn't have such a broad appeal," she said.

O'Banion sided with Crookham. He said she shouldn't be punished for saving her funds for one project.

The county has allocated special project money each year since 1999. Before that it was used intermittently; if the county could afford it, the board was given special project funds.

In 1999, each board member got $10,000. That amount has steadily grown to this year's $100,000. The policy the board approved nine years ago states that the money should be used for "minor maintenance needs, capital or special projects within the supervisorial districts."

Of the eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley, two others besides Merced have such funds. In Tulare County, supervisors get $25,000 each per year in what they call "good works funds." Supervisors in San Joaquin County get $500,000 each per year.

Madera County's chief administrative officer, Stell Manfredi, said Madera once had a similar fund but did away with it decades ago.

Manfredi said he hopes it's never resurrected. He criticized special project funds as inappropriate. "Funding priorities should be set on a countywide basis where everyone's needs are competing on the same level," he said. "When you take the decisions out of that realm, it allows individual board members to set criteria for how money should be spent. That criteria might be valid, or it might not be."

Local county officials said the policy makes sense. "I think it's incredibly beneficial to the entire county," Supervisor Kelsey said. "These are needs that would never get funded otherwise."

County spokesman Mark Hendrickson said the way the fund has been historically used has meant important improvements across the county. "This is money that's gone to schools, children, seniors, community centers and other very worthy causes," he said. "These are very positive, very direct impacts."

Hendrickson added that decisions about how to spend special project funds are always made publicly and always at the discretion of the entire board. "These expenditures are always agendized, and nothing can be spent unless a majority of the board supports it."

Of the five supervisors, Pedrozo has spent the most in special project funds this fiscal year: about $101,000. He's followed by Kelsey who has spent about $92,000, O'Banion who has spent about $52,000, Crookham who's spent about $33,000 and Nelson who's spent about $24,000.

O'Banion has the most remaining in his special project fund: $307,000. That's followed by Nelson's $283,000, Crookham's $270,000, Pedrozo's $83,000 and Kelsey's $50,000.

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