Our View: Why a special projects fund?

The Merced Theatre didn't get the quarter of a million dollars that Supervisor Kathleen Crookham wanted to give it. Instead, 13 good causes in Merced County will get a little extra.

Crookham's saving habits are to be commended. Socking away $270,000 from her special projects fund over several years showed discipline.

The county sets aside some money each year -- this year it was $100,000 each -- so that the supervisors can each spend on community projects and causes in their district. The full board must approve the spending.

In May, Crookham announced that she had saved $270,000 and wanted to give $250,000 to the Merced Theatre Foundation that has been restoring the 1930s downtown theater.

Crookham's expenditure, rightfully, raised questions among her fellow supervisors, who balked at spending that much on a project for the theater, which is owned by the city of Merced.

The supervisors first rejected her request in June. She cut the gift to $150,000, and it was rejected again. After a $100,000 gift was turned down last month, Crookham last week presented a plan that split the money among the 13 projects. But no money went to the theater.

This is how the money was dispensed: $60,000 for carpet at the main county library; $25,000 for the Mercy Medical Center Merced building fund; $25,000 to the county nonviolent drug offender treatment program; $20,000 to the American Legion hall; $20,000 to the fairgrounds; $20,000 to the Steven Stayner & Missing Children's Memorial Fund; $15,000 to the Merced Assembly Center; $15,000 to the Valley Crisis Center of Merced; $10,000 to the Castle Air Museum; $5,000 to the Boys and Girls Club; $5,000 to the Merced Multicultural Art Center; $5,000 to the Challenger Learning Center Inc.; and $1,000 to the Merced County Food Bank.

All these are good causes, but the question has to be asked: Why is the county dispensing funds in this way?

When the special projects fund was started in 1999, each board member got $10,000. That amount has steadily grown to this year's $100,000.

Of the eight counties in the Valley, two others have such funds. In Tulare County, supervisors get $25,000 each a 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 used to have a similar fund but did away with it decades ago.

"Funding priorities should be set on a countywide basis where everyone's needs are competing on the same level," Manfredi 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."

Supervisor Mike Nelson opposed the funding because of the tight budget and recent economic downturn.

But even if the budget prospects were rosy, why should the supervisors be dispensing money in this manner? This is $500,000 in tax money, an enormous amount by any measure. The board needs to do some serious thinking about whether this is the best way tax money should be spent.