Guest opinion: Wrong kind of budget in an emergency

Mark Olbert

GUEST OPINION

BY MARK OLBERT

I see the city of San Carlos appears on track to continue its habit of significantly exceeding budget projections. Overall revenues were higher than expected while costs were lower. What great news!

But what about all the local business establishments which have had to curtail or shutter their operations? Yes, the restaurants are active although I bet they’re still hurting. Sadly, if you ask the other retailers you’ll hear far worse stories. How might they have fared with more help?

Let’s also remember all those San Carlans struggling to make ends meet. How might their lives have been made less challenging if the council had been more flexible in its thinking? Being fiscally sound over the long haul is important but temporary flexibility ­— say, lowering garbage or sewer fees during the pandemic — would no doubt have been appreciated.

That’s what I wanted to see happen when I pointed out to my former colleagues we were focusing more of what little fiscal support we were providing on local businesses rather than residents. I wanted to see us help everyone more, both businesses and residents alike. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Helping the schools

And what about all those parents who, even if they were lucky enough to remain fully-employed, struggled with the impact of schools being closed? The council never discussed providing meaningful support to its sister agency, the San Carlos School District. Granted, the school board didn’t support having such a discussion, either, for reasons which were never clear to me.

The city has enough cash it could prepay $14 million in pension liabilities, helping secure the personal finances of city staff, and still have tens of millions in reserves remaining. And while council members historically don’t like to say this next bit publicly, the city’s fiscal success has a lot to do with the health and attractiveness of the local public school system.

That makes it in the city’s interest to help the district through this crisis. Unfortunately, having one agency — the city – grant or loan money to another – the district — is rarely done, and requires out-of-the-box thinking which hasn’t been all that common from the council during this crisis.

I vividly recall sitting on the dais last summer when we were approving the budget, listening to arguments that we should take a conservative approach in the midst of a major crisis because we didn’t know what the future held.

Yet crises are precisely when communities rightfully expect their government to step up.

Reserves are rainy-day funds. And a pandemic is a rainstorm of epic proportions. A once-in-a-lifetime crisis ought to evoke a once-in-a-lifetime response. Sadly, that didn’t happen in San Carlos. Although it did in some neighboring communities.

I used to say the way San Carlos responded to its recent fiscal success meant our community was going to be a truly fabulous place to live in the 2030s. And hopefully those of us living in the present would get to appreciate it. I guess that wonderful future is even more secure now.

Council should have done more

But I have to say I wish the council had been less hesitant to do more, today. Besides being the right thing to do it would’ve been consistent with our community’s values.

Those values were demonstrated by the enormous outpouring of support for the Community Foundation of San Carlos. The foundation arguably did more to help the community during the pandemic than the council did despite having much smaller resources.

Olbert is a former San Carlos City Council member and mayor.

2 Comments

  1. Funny how in a recession or “emergency,” the city’s employees all keep getting paid—and even get raises. Two different worlds, private and public sector.

  2. I was a 5th generation Californian. I moved my family from San Carlos after 43-years and moved to a state which has a balanced budget, taxes are low and services and schools are great. San Carlos does not currently reflect the ideals that made it a wonderful place to grow up and raise a family from the 1960’s until the early 1990’s.

    Because of those moving to the City that immediately wanted to be in charge by running for the Council and enact “change” without understanding what made the town great, you’ve now lost your Police Department, Fire Department, DPW and even Public Works. That includes the author of the “guest opinion.”

    Good luck when the first economic downturn hits, which should be in about eighteen months to two years. The vast majority of those living in San Carlos have never experienced a significant economic downturn.

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