San Mateo County supervisors’ priorities are backwards

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

My jaw dropped when I learned that the San Mateo County supervisors were sitting on $700 million, and planned to spend it mostly on office buildings for county employees.

We don’t need more offices for county employees, we need housing.

I don’t think there’s any argument that San Mateo County is in the grips of a terrible housing crisis that is forcing long-time residents to leave.
The county supervisors can’t plead ignorance. They appointed a 54-member task force that found that the county added 54,400 jobs between 2010 and 2014 but only built 2,200 homes during that period. The task force also reported that 62% of the workers in the county live elsewhere and commute to their jobs.

Amazingly, the supervisors have higher priorities than housing.

More office space

At Tuesday’s meeting, they approved a five-year plan drawn up by County Manager that calls for a five-story office building in Redwood City, a new parking structure, IT improvements to government buildings, seismic upgrades for the county hospital in San Mateo and converting the old Maguire jail into new offices for the sheriff’s department, freeing up a lot of space in the Hall of Justice for more bureaucrats.

Given the magnitude of the housing crisis, you’ve got to wonder why none of the five supervisors objected. They all supported last fall’s Measure K, the sales tax extension that was supposed to fund more housing. Actually, Measure K will bring in $85 million a year, but only $10 million of that will go for housing. Some of the Measure K money will be used in this massive building spree for IT work.

One of the supervisors should have said, “Hold on, we’ve got people losing their homes and we’re worried about how comfy the cubicles are for well-paid unionized county workers?”

I think the supervisors believe at some level that their constituents are the county government employees, not the people who elected them. I can’t imagine a plan that has fewer benefits to county residents than this one.

And where are the social justice warriors who show up to public meetings demanding things like rent control, free housing, no evictions and heavy regulation of landlords? Not one of them bothered to speak at Tuesday’s meeting when this $700 million gravy train started rolling.

But this plan isn’t final. The supervisors can still pull it back and make changes. I think the improvements to the county hospital make sense, though the price tag of $100 million strikes me as exorbitant. Ditto for the $101 million plan to rebuild the Cordilleras Mental Health Facility in Redwood City.

A great place for homes

However, the five-story office building planned on Hamilton Street, across from the Hall of Justice, should be dropped. Replace it with housing. In all directions, new housing is going up in Redwood City, so apartments at that location would fit into the neighborhood. And why can’t the old jail be turned over to a developer who would convert it to housing? It’s happened in other cities. These moves alone wouldn’t solve the housing-jobs imbalance, but it would be a good start. The county bureaucracy doesn’t need to grow by five-story leaps and bounds.

I’d put the rest of the projects on hold until the housing situation is stabilized.

I’m not crazy about the government building public housing. I’d rather see the private sector do it. But in this case, the county has both the land and the money to get something accomplished. Let’s figure out a way to build more homes through some sort of public-private partnership that won’t result in rundown public housing a few years after it’s built.

Voters not told the whole story

It’s interesting that the county didn’t advertise that it had $700 million available before last fall’s election. Instead, they pleaded with voters to approve the measure extending the regressive half-cent sales tax until 2037, saying the funds were desperately needed for housing. Now, five months after the election, we find that the county has $700 million available, and intends to lavish that money on county employees through fancier offices.

The residents of San Mateo County ought to be outraged.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears every Monday. His email address is price@padailypost.com.