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!
I occasionally get asked about whether or not the City has rules requiring that new homes, or significant remodels, have to fit into a neighborhood. The short answer is yes…but they probably don’t cover what many people mean when they talk about a home fitting in to a neighborhood. There are reasons for that, which I’ll try to explain below, based on some conversations I had with San Carlos’ planning staff.
All land use regulations (which includes the rules governing what kind of home you can build) are fundamentally limited by the fact that, in our system of governance, private property rights are pretty fundamental. They are not absolute — we won’t let you live on a residential lot in San Carlos without a functioning bathroom — but they come quite close. That’s because, while we live in communities, we live in them as individuals, with individual rights. Those rights protect us not only from what “the government” might do, but also what our friends and neighbors might do to keep us from enjoying our own property.
The “functioning bathroom” rule illustrates why private property rights are not absolute. We are regulated as individuals from doing things, or not doing things, which might either inflict harm on others, or could be reasonably expected to inflict harm on others. Not having a functioning bathroom creates not only a nuisance for neighbors, but could also cause them to become ill. So the community can and does impose a requirement that constrains your freedom to use your property as you see fit, and which has the weight of the legal system behind it.
There are other, less obvious, examples, too. San Carlos, like most communities, has regulations limiting how much noise you can create on your property, and under what circumstances you can create it. Noise won’t make your neighbors sick. But it creates harm of a different sort, by damaging their quality of life.
These rules also evolve over time. It’s been lawful to build large homes on almost all the lots in San Carlos for many, many years. But, until recently, when the price of land got sky high, not that many people did. The Single Family Home Advisory Commission (SHAC) was set up by the Council to make recommendations on what, if any, changes to our land use regulations should be made now that the economic environment is leading to more large homes being built.
But all these rules have one thing in common: they are balancing acts, compromises, between preserving individual rights and protecting neighbors.
As with all compromises, there is no one, analytically-determinable “solution”. So the specific balancing point a community sets is a political decision (within the broader confines of the Constitution, and Federal and California law).
Some communities, like Hillsborough, require, in addition to the typical home construction rules, that designs stay consistent with a single architectural style. Not necessarily a particular, mandated style; just a single one. So you probably couldn’t put a Tudor front on a fundamentally Mediterranean design, even if that’s what strikes your fancy.
Other communities, like Atherton, have nothing other than basic setback and lot coverage rules. I was surprised to learn this…but on reflection it makes sense. Lots in Atherton are quite large by San Mateo County standards (and apparently can’t be subdivided below a pretty large size). So whatever impacts a design might have on the neighborhood is significantly mitigated by how far apart the homes are, and how far they are set back from the public right of way.
San Carlos falls in between. We have setback rules, lot coverage rules, etc., like Atherton (and Hillsborough, for that matter). We don’t have rules specifically governing what I’ll call the visual style of a home (so you can build something oddball like a Mediterranean with a Tudor front). But we do have rules that target what architects call a structure’s “massing”. For example, we can require that long walls are “broken up” by articulating the surface (i.e., creating recesses or “pop outs”).
Note that I said “can require” not “do require”: some of our rules are triggered only if either the neighbors or the Residential Design Review Committee ask for a design change.
As to why we don’t go further, or why we’ve gone as far as we have, that’s a different question, whose answer grows out of choices made a long time ago. If I had to summarize them, I’d say San Carlos chose to preserve a fair degree of individual choice on design, except when choices create an “overbearing impact” on a neighborhood, irrespective of the visual style of the proposed home.
You might really dislike Tudors while I can’t get enough of them, or I might love to have our neighborhood filled with Arts & Crafts homes while you wish another one would never be built, but we can both agree that having a 25 foot long unbroken wall next door, even one properly set back from a common property line, is too overbearing, regardless of its visual style.
Personally, I think San Carlos’ philosophy seems reasonable. Your mileage, of course, may vary.