That’s What They’re For

This is op ed was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on Monday, April 11, 2022. What you see here is slightly different from the print version because the Journal objected to me identifying the Council member who made the quote I cited1. I don’t agree with their position2 but it is their newspaper so they get to set the rules 🙂3

A major part of the reason I am not supporting Laura’s bid to join the County Board of Supervisors is her philosophy on government, as evidenced by her position on the 2020/2021 budget. Government exists, in part, to help the community it serves through the bad times. And not to worry about whether lending a helping hand might delay some future projects or force a re-prioritization of expenditures.

Words said by Councilmember Laura Parmer-Lohan before the San Carlos City Council approved the city’s 2020/2021 budget as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging and our community was shut down to protect itself. Apparently, deficit spending beyond the $2 million in the budget alarmed her. Despite the fact the city had tens of millions of dollars in reserves.

I never forgot those words. Because in the months leading up to that vote I’d publicly advocated we do more. For individuals and families being hurt by the shutdown. For businesses reeling from a lack of customers. For San Carlos’ public schools, which were thrust into jeopardy by the pandemic.

I failed in that effort. I voted against the budget – the only time I did so while on the Council — because it did not do enough. The city’s reserves were far more than its immediate needs and, because of good work done years prior, grew significantly year after year and could be expected to do so in the future.

That budget made no sense to me then and makes no sense now. You spend less than you take in during good times so you have resources to get through the bad times. Worrying about using reserves during a crisis – which COVID-19 surely was – is like not wanting to open your umbrella during a rainstorm because it might break.

My aim here is to spark a conversation so San Carlos can be better prepared for the next crisis. Let’s start by reviewing the financial situation that existed back then.

On July 1, 2020 San Carlos had $19,400,000 in reserves which could be spent on any lawful purpose a majority of the Council wanted. It would’ve had over $33,000,000 if it hadn’t previously spent $14 million prepaying pension obligations (prepaying a liability you are reasonably sure you can pay off out of future income would make most financial executives cringe – it’s not a wise use of capital).

A year later, on June 30, 2021, the City had $20,100,000 of easily-deployable reserves. And that didn’t include about $9,000,000 of promised Federal support which came through shortly thereafter.

While that infamous budget projected spending $2,000,000 more than revenues, the city ended up spending $500,000 less. Put another way, the Council could’ve spent $2,500,000 more helping the community and been no worse off than it thought it would be. There’s an element of 20/20 hindsight here. But that $20,000,000 reserve could have, should have, provided the confidence more could be done without risking the city’s future.

If you add in the promised Federal support –intended to help communities help their residents recover from the pandemic — the extra spending could’ve exceeded $10,000,000. Granted, that money wasn’t in the pipeline until after the 2020 national elections. But those same large reserves would’ve supported taking a risk – to help people – in advance of it arriving.

Think what that would’ve meant to people struggling to get through the pandemic. To help them keep their homes and make ends meet after being laid off. Or to businesses trying to survive. To kids who needed a computer and internet access to keep up with school. Or to a school district struggling with a sudden shift to at-home learning. With a loan the City could’ve easily provided the District might’ve found a way to keep kids’ education more on track, protecting their futures, and making their parents’ lives a lot less stressful.

In fairness, it’s human nature to hesitate when confronted by radically changed circumstances. But leaders, particularly elected leaders, must be able to find a way to do what needs to be done despite being uncertain or afraid of the future. Public service is a bigger challenge than those who haven’t undertaken it may realize: you’re frequently damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But being effective requires you accept that as a given and work through it.

I’m not angry about the choice that was made even though I believe the Council didn’t protect San Carlos as well as it could have. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. Particularly in the face of something unprecedented.

But I hope our community weighs in on this. And demands its Council do more when the next crisis strikes.

Because helping people sometimes means taking chances, even if it risks reserves. That’s what they’re for.

  1. and also because the printed version contains an edit proposed by the paper which I thought we’d agreed to forego but still ended up in the final version, the first time that’s ever happened to me 

  2. they want to keep their op ed pages “under control” by not naming candidates running for office in the months leading up to an election 

  3. they did acknowledge I was using what Laura Parmer-Lohan said to make a point about San Carlos’ response to the pandemic and not to undermine her candidacy for the County Board of Supervisors. Which is something. 

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