Ballot-box budgeting is bad public policy, and the Santa Clara County parks department demonstrates that principle perfectly.
According to Sunday’s San Jose Mercury News, the Santa Clara County parks department has approximately $85 million gathering dust in bank accounts.
How can that be, you might ask, when every other county department is slashing programs and wondering what’s left to cut in the face of yet another huge county budget deficit projected for next year?
Blame ballot-box budgeting. That’s when voters earmark government revenue for specific purposes, circumventing the normal budget process involving their elected representatives.
“Since 1972, the parks department has received 1.45 cents per $100 of all property tax assessments,” the Mercury News reported. “The agency has collected more than $30 million a year from the tax in recent years.”
Santa Clara County voters overwhelmingly approved a 12-year extension of this funding scheme in 2006.
Now folks are angling to make sure that their pet projects get a share of that $85 million. Since we’re stuck with this ill-advised scheme, I have an idea, too. It’s one that the Dispatch editorial board floated in an editorial in July: The city of Gilroy should partner with the county parks department to buy and operate Gilroy (formerly Bonfante) Gardens.
The county parks department is flush with cash, the city of Gilroy is not.
The county parks department has expertise in maintaining large-scale parks, the city does not.
The city’s main interest is in ensuring that undesirable development (the oft-invoked mythical Hecker Pass Tire & Brake, for example) doesn’t come to pass should the ever-struggling theme park finally close. A city-county partnership accomplishes that goal.
The park would be an ideal home for the also-struggling county fair, in the heart of the county’s only remaining agricultural region.
Plus, the partnership would free city funds for other priorities, like fixing crumbling sidewalks or building a new library or arts center.
But such a partnership only makes the best of a bad policy. Voters ought to learn to resist the temptation of ballot-box budgeting.
Why is ballot-box budgeting bad? Because it limits flexibility and funds governmental activities out of context.
Oakland Tribune columnist Byron Williams wrote last year that ballot-box budgeting “assumes a static world,” noting that it “masquerades as direct democracy, when in actuality it transforms the electorate into part-time legislators.”
He added, “What was once reserved as the work of elected officials who have the benefit of hearings, staff analysis and institutional memory has been given to voters to make what is tantamount to a snap decision.”
He’s exactly right.
Voters elect trustees, council members, supervisors, assembly members and the like to study all of a governmental agency’s duties, prioritize them and then fund them accordingly.
But most voters don’t have the myriad responsibilities in mind when they head to the polls. Instead, they simply think “parks are good” and vote overwhelmingly for ballot-box budgeting measures like the one that gives the county parks department more money than it needs while other, equally or more important programs are starved for funds.
The Mercury News quoted one county resident who was asked if she resents that “tax dollars are building up in park coffers.” She does not.
“You can’t have too many parks, as far as I’m concerned,” Gill Colloff said.
She’s exactly wrong.
You can have too many parks, if paying for them means that other, equally or more important programs must be slashed, as is now the case in Santa Clara County.
Because Santa Clara County voters have since 1972 said that parks must be funded at the rate of $1.45 cents per $100 of property tax assessments no matter what, county supervisors’ flexibility in setting priorities in the face of a changing economy and shifting needs is severely limited.
That’s a big part of why mental health programs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, homeless programs, and public safety services are likely to be cut even more as supervisors try to close a projected $200 million budget deficit next year.
That’s why the county is spending $65,000 to see if voters might approve a sales tax increase next year.
Meanwhile, the county parks department is sitting on $85 million, thanks to ballot-box budgeting.
The next time you’re faced with a ballot-box budgeting measure, ask yourself if the program it funds is now and will forever be the agency’s top priority. If your answer is no, your vote should be no as well.
Because ballot-box budgeting is bad public policy.