All the best as we close out 2018, and wishing you an even better 2019!
At our November 13th meeting, staff presented the audited financial results for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018. The Council ultimately ended up accepting staff’s recommendations as to how to allocate the surplus to various reserves.1
But the more interesting part of the story was in the size of the surplus: nearly $7,000,000, the largest such single-year surplus anyone on staff can remember San Carlos ever producing.2
Equally surprising, to me at least, was what came next. Ron Collins proposed we grant staff a 5% bonus, in recognition of all the hard work they’ve done, and for their willingness, about a decade ago, to accept salary reductions to get the city through some fiscal challenges. It’s estimated such a bonus would cost nearly $500,000.
I’ve always supported compensating staff fairly, and I believe in rewarding employees for doing good work.3 And it’s true staff has worked hard on a number of big initiatives this year, including the revision of single family zoning rules and the firearm store moratorium. I’m less supportive of “paying back” salary reductions, because we’ve used that same argument for years to support negotiated salary and benefit increases that were on the more generous side of what we might otherwise have pushed for. It’s also worth remembering we just invested $7,500,000 in pre-funding employee pension costs. That reduced the risk salaries might have to be cut in the future to cover increased pension contributions. While not something you can spend, it definitely benefits staff, and should count for something, too, I think.
But the most surprising thing is a group of people who didn’t get mentioned: our residents.
It’s true staff’s hard work played a part in generating our recent surpluses.4 But most of the surplus is the result of heightened residential and commercial development, and commercial activity, that has negatively impacted many residents. I frequently hear from people unhappy with traffic, congestion, difficulty finding parking spaces, Laurel Street’s frenetic pace, you name it.
When considering a financial reward made possible by all this development and commercial activity, shouldn’t our residents be first in line?
When the Council meets to discuss granting staff a bonus I will propose doing something comparable for residents. If we can afford to spend $500,000 on a well-deserved bonus, we can afford to give back at least $1,000,000 to the people who make San Carlos what it is.
Distributing funds to residents can be a challenge, because the city does not maintain an up-to-date registry of everyone who lives in San Carlos. In addition, a direct distribution is complicated by having to set rules that can quickly become complex or divisive.5
But there are some simple, broad-based, reasonably fair things the Council could easily do:
- Declare a one-time reduction in taxes to be paid in 2019 under a city-wide parcel tax or bond measure6.
- Declare a one-time reduction in garbage fees in 2019;
- Declare a one-time reduction in sewer fees in 2019.
There may be other approaches that would benefit almost all residents, too.
If you are interested in seeing this happen, I hope you’ll take a moment to share your views with the Council.7
Just make sure you do so before the next Council meeting, scheduled for November 26th. That’s when the staff bonus proposal will come back for review.
I received a well-written email from a Central middle school 6th grader on a topic which I would never, in a million years, have expected to receive. I thought you might be interested in both the issue and my reply. Because it was a great opportunity to talk about being the change…
Here’s the email (name withheld, for the sake of a minor’s privacy):
Mr. Olbert and Mr. Grassilli!
How are you? I am XXX, sixth grade at Central Middle School. I was walking home from school a week or so ago and noticed that a bush of Mexican Sage flowers was just buzzing with honey bees.
I personally adore honeybees. What’s not to like
about them? They’re fuzzy and cute, help the environment and only sting when
you bother them! When left to their own devices, bees are an exceedingly
important part of the ecosystem. Without bees to pollinate flowers, where would
we have all the beautiful wildlife that San Carlos houses? Where would I get
the honey that I mixed in with my oatmeal this morning?
Bees are beneficial insects. Without them, many
plants and flowers would not be able to reproduce and would slowly go extinct
within our town. Unfortunately, a great quantity of bees die each year because
of a number of different elements including disease, habitat loss and
pesticides. We wouldn’t want many innocent lives to be harmed, would we? Especially
such useful ones! This leads us to my main point.
It is my wish that the fake Halloween cobwebs – the
stretchy white “cobwebs” typically made out of a cotton/polyester
blend – are made illegal from San Carlos.
I know this sounds rather rash; I realize that simply
banning products is not very simple.
Oh! And I haven’t told you why I had wanted these
cobwebs banned at all yet! Well, as I was walking past this bush, I noticed
that bees – my friend and I counted one hundred and four – were stuck in this
webbing while trying to get to the flowers. Most were already dead; they had
died struggling to free themselves, but I assume they eventually died of thirst
or starvation. Many of the the bees were fighting to disentangle themselves
from the web but were failing. After spending much time trying to cut the bees
free with my friend’s scissors, we decided that we needed to get home for some
homework. Since then, we have devoted a couple minutes of our days trying to
help the bees, but there are so many, getting more and more tangled as they try
Bees fly with their sense of smell, and have no idea
that the webs are there until they tangle themselves in it. Sure, they
make good Halloween decorations, but there are other decorations that work as
well, such as spiderwebs with ropes that are spread far apart so they don’t
trap animals and are reusable. Pumpkins, skeletons and lights also spread the
Trapping bees aren’t the only downside of these
decorations, either. They are used once a year and then are tossed into
landfill and reside there for a very long time. They can also be swept away to
the oceans and trap sea animals, as well as contribute to trash collections in
the oceans such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is now twice the size
of the state of Texas. You know, when I was in about second grade (four years
ago) it was around the size of Texas. This is simply an example of how much
trash is affecting our Earth.
Back to my point. I know it may be difficult to ban
these webs, and if a petition is needed I will be glad to create one. Or, at
the very least, you could help me educate the San Carlos public about the
dangers of these webs, perhaps by posting something on the newsletter. I have
given my views and I hope they give you a cause to help me on my journey to
help our community- and the environment while I’m at it!
Thank you so much!
Here was my reply, lightly edited for readability:
I enjoyed reading your email, which was
very well written, and clearly explained your concern. I admit it’s not an
issue that I’ve ever heard about before.
Elected officials are called upon, a lot,
to enact new rules controlling what the people they represent can or can’t do.
Defining the rules which the community chooses to live by is the primary reason
government, of any kind, exists.
Some rule requests seek to correct an
obvious or compelling problem (e.g., setting up a neighborhood parking permit
program, because people using the train to get to and from work are trying to
avoid paying to park at the train station, and are instead using up all the
parking spaces in nearby neighborhoods). Other rule requests are more a matter
For what it’s worth, my sense is that
your request that we ban holiday/Halloween webs falls more in the second
category than the first. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t important, just that it
may not be important enough to enough people to make a ban reasonable. That’s
important, because – and this may come as a surprise to you – the most
important enforcement tool in public affairs doesn’t wear a uniform; it’s the
public’s willingness to go along with the rule, and police its own behavior.
Put another way, a rule that doesn’t seem reasonable to “enough” people is so
prohibitively expensive to enforce that it’s generally not practical to put it
on the books.
So my suggestion is that you start a community outreach effort to educate people about why people shouldn’t put up those webs. That effort could also include, at some point after you’ve gotten enough momentum going, a petition effort to document just how important the issue is to many people. At that point, you’d be in a much better position to lobby the Council to take action. And, whether or not the Council ever did anything, you’d have educated a lot of people on the importance of an issue they might never have otherwise considered.
I hope you don’t find this response too
disappointing. Many people believe that government should, on its own
initiative, simply do what is right. The challenge is that, in a diverse and
complex world where we try to maximize the ability of individuals to pursue and
enjoy their lives as they see fit, determining what’s “right” often becomes
But all change has to start someplace,
and generally with a small number of concerned individuals. Good luck on being
the change for what you believe in!
At last Monday’s Council meeting, a discussion requested by Matt Grocott, to consider changing how much council members are paid, took place. Although no specific dollar changes were proposed, all four of us (Bob Grassilli was out of town) agreed to bring such an item forward for action at a future meeting, although for different reasons.
Long-established state law requires that, if a city pays its council members, it can1 pay them at least $300 per month for each month the Council is in session. Back in the late 80s, the San Carlos City Council adopted an ordinance, effective 11/19/1989, paying council members that minimum. It has not been changed since.
This salary is not necessarily the only benefit a city can provide its council members. Many, including San Carlos, allow them to enroll in city health insurance plans, and pay only what a full-time employee would. Many, also including San Carlos, pay their council members an “alternative medical insurance benefit”, if they provide proof that they have medical insurance from a different source2. These medical insurance benefits can be substantial: privately obtained medical insurance costs thousands of dollars a year, and the alternative insurance benefit currently clocks in at over $800 per month.
The salary San Carlos councilmembers earn is currently the lowest of all the cities in San Mateo County which compensate their councils3:
|Half Moon Bay||$697.50|
|East Palo Alto||$323.00|
State law allows cities to increase the salary component by up to 5% per year since the last time a change was made4. For San Carlos, this means the maximum increase is 145% (29 years x 5% per year). If enacted at the maximum level, council members’ monthly salary would increase from $300 to $735.
I mentioned at the outset that all four of us supported bringing an action item back, although for different reasons. I won’t try to detail my colleagues’ views5, but, in general, the following arguments were made in favor of an increase:
- It’s been a long time without a change
- All our neighbors who pay council members have increased
it over the years
- Not paying more might discourage people from
seeking positions on the Council
- Paying more would remind everyone, residents and
Council members alike, that being a Council member is a serious responsibility
None of these motivate me to make a change. Here’s why:
- In all the years I’ve been a local elected official6, I know of only one person who, after learning a position was unpaid, declined to run7. I just don’t believe it’s an issue. Case in point: the San Carlos School District has never paid its trustees8, but plenty of people still vie for the positions.
- Doing what other cities do simply because they’re doing it doesn’t make sense to me. There must be a substantive reason for San Carlos to do anything.
- I can’t imagine any community our size paying its council members enough to justify the work they need to do if they want to be responsible community leaders. Instead, the compensation is in civic recognition and the opportunity to move up from the Council to a higher-level, full-time elected position (e.g., county supervisor, assembly member, state senator) which provides more robust compensation.
A seat on a city council in a community like San Carlos is an entry level job. In fact, it’s even more like an internship: you get to do a bunch of interesting things, and if you do a good job you earn respect and the opportunity to apply for a full-time, fully-paid job.
- Unless you’re appointed its hard to get elected to our Council. You must craft and hone your platform. Recruit, manage and motivate volunteers. Raise money. Run a campaign. Design, print and send out mailers and flyers. Knock on doors. Compete for endorsements. No one who has gone through all that will ever doubt how important a role it is. They’ve worked way too hard to get it!
That last point raises a more important issue. Based on my experience, the real constraint on who is willing to run for the Council isn’t how much council members get paid; it’s how much it costs to run.
It’s not uncommon for a successful campaign to spend at least $20,000 – $25,000, and some recent ones have even, I believe, spent significantly more9. Council candidates have to be either really good at asking people or businesses for money or be willing to commit a good chunk of their own resources to a campaign, or both. Not surprisingly, that’s a pretty big deterrent for a lot of people.
If the Council really wants to increase the pool of potential candidates, it’d be better off addressing the cost of campaigning than the compensation paid to council members. But that’s a complex and thorny issue which I don’t want to sidetrack this article into.
Besides, for me, the biggest issue on the topic of council member compensation involves equity and fairness. There are plenty of part-timers, interns and volunteers who work for the city and don’t have access to the city’s health insurance programs. Some don’t get paid at all. What about them? Shouldn’t the Council demonstrate a commitment to fairness, and do unto others as you’d have them do unto you?
Which is why I supported bringing this action item forward despite not agreeing with the idea that our compensation should be increased. I want to try and redress that discrepancy, either by offering more to those who currently aren’t as rewarded as my colleagues and I, or by reducing what we get to be consistent with what those other positions get.
As always, whatever your views, I encourage you to share
them with the Council. Thanx for taking the time to read this.