Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 12, 2007

Hard not to say ‘I told you so’

Do you think parks are Santa Clara County’s top priority?

I don’t.

I believe that mental health treatment, homeless programs, drug rehabilitation services, and many others are higher priorities than parks.

Don’t get me wrong, I love parks. But they are a luxury compared with necessities like keeping people physically and mentally healthy and housed.

But last June, Santa Clara County voters told county supervisors that no matter what else happened, they had to fund county parks.

That’s when voters overwhelmingly passed Measure B, which forces county supervisors to transfer an amount equal to “$0.01425 per one hundred dollars of assessed valuation of all real and personal property” from the general fund to the county parks fund for “the acquisition, development, maintenance, and operation of parks.”

Now, one year later, while the county is struggling to close a record $227 million budget deficit, the county parks department isn’t tightening its belt.

Instead, as the San Jose Mercury News recently reported, “it’s hiring a new deputy director ($182,778 a year), a natural resource technician ($101,345) and … intern ($15,000)” and paying for “a new restroom and shower facility at Mount Madonna County Park ($350,000); a 4×4 front-loader tractor ($57,000); and 60 new hand-held two-way radios … ($11,500).”

Meanwhile, advocates for the homeless, the mentally ill, the poor, and those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction are begging county supervisors to spare their programs from the budget ax.

They’re justifiably alarmed that the health clinic in San Martin is set to close, that outpatient mental health services for 6,000 adults will be dropped, that 800 children will lose access to mental health services, that public high school health services and birth-control resources will be eliminated, that drug and alcohol services will be slashed, and that 500 people will lose access to transitional housing programs.

Here’s how I explained my “No” vote on Measure B last year:

“Consider the threats that face us today – bird flu, West Nile virus, earthquakes, floods, terrorism, to name just a few – to which we rightly expect our government to quickly and effectively respond. I’m hard pressed to see the wisdom in building inflexibility into a system that needs to be nimble.

“I love parks and expect that as conditions permit our county supervisors will continue to fund them appropriately. If they don’t, I won’t vote to re-elect them.

“But if they need to spend funds on a higher priority with little notice, I want county supervisors to be able to move funds quickly and legally.”

Today, I’m having a hard time resisting the temptation to tell the 71 percent of voters who approved Measure B “I told you so.”

But really, given the county’s record budget crunch, wouldn’t that extra measure of fiscal flexibility come in handy now?

It didn’t take a natural or man-made disaster to plunge the county into budget chaos. It just took shortsightedness on the part of county supervisors (who unsuccessfully sought voter approval of a half-cent sales tax increase when a quarter-cent increase was sufficient), falling revenues, increasing costs, and unfunded state and federal mandates.

New Almaden Quicksilver County Park Association president Kim Monahan supported Measure B, and because it’s in place, she told the Mercury News that the days when “we had to go to the board of supervisors and fight, fight, fight” for parks funding are no more.

Instead, folks who advocate for the least among us – those who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and physical and mental illness, the poor, the homeless – must go to the board of supervisors and “fight, fight, fight” to protect critical programs.

This week, Santa Clara County supervisors are conducting hearings on closing the budget gap. They hope to adopt a $3.7 billion budget by Friday, two weeks ahead of the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

But, thanks to Measure B, they don’t have the flexibility to defer spending on hiring new parks department bureaucrats, toilets, showers, tractors or radios so that they can fund higher-priority programs.

In an ideal world, we’d be able to fully fund luxuries like parks and necessities like mental health services.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world that requires that we set priorities. And in the Santa Clara County corner of the world, apparently parks are priority number one.

Much as I love parks, those priorities are out of whack.

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Responses

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