A Conservative Budget in a Crisis Is Not a Good Thing

This is an op ed I wrote which was published in the Daily Post on April 26, 2021 under the title “Wrong kind of budget in an emergency”. Both titles are catchy, IMHO, so go with the one you prefer :). I’ll post a link to the Post’s website once they publish the piece online. In the meantime, pick up a paper copy of the Post — they’re free — because many of their articles and opinion pieces are never published online. Note that the Post made some minor changes to what’s shown here to meet space requirements.

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 a different story. 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 very much 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.

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 support for taking 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 forward and step up.

Reserves are rainy-day funds. And if the pandemic isn’t a rainstorm of epic proportions it’ll do until something worse comes along. 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.

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.

As demonstrated by the enormous outpouring of local support for the Community Foundation of San Carlos. The Foundation arguably did more to help the local community during the pandemic than the Council did despite having much smaller resources.

Food for thought in that, I think.

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