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It shouldn't be this hard to find out how your money is spent

This past week, I spent probably too much time and stress trying to learn the nuts and bolts of how San Mateo County spent its initial phase of Measure A tax money. In the end, what I learned boils down to this: tens of millions of dollars went to an alphabet soup of agencies and programs.

How exactly was this money spent? That’s an excellent question, and I wish I could give a better answer than what I ultimately summarized in the Review last week.

Web Link

It’s a decent story, and I would encourage anyone to give it a read. But as far as keeping an eye on the public coffers, it fell short of my hopes.

Let me backtrack briefly to explain the genesis of this story. About three weeks ago, I came across an audit from the county’s Measure A Oversight Committee for fiscal year 2013-2014. This report detailed the first, full budget year since the tax measure was approved by voters in 2012, so it seemed like a good opportunity to look at where the money went.

The report listed various programs that spent money, such as $328,000 for “library summer reading programs,” $139,000 for “school safety” and $1 million for something called the “HEART local housing trust fund match.”

My idea was to grab some of these vague earmarks and get a breakdown of how they spent their Measure A money. How much was spent on staff, travel, pencil erasers? It is your money, after all.

I approached the county manager’s office and four departments asking the same questions. After some friendly first contacts, I was pointed time and time again to the county’s special tracking website for Measure A, performance.smcgov.org/measure-a. I was assured the site had the specific answers I needed.

The site does feature an abundance of information, but not about how the Measure A money was actually spent. As an example, look at the $11.3 million given to the Seton Medical Center, the largest single allocation from FY 2013-14. The site linked to a 2013 county report that explained that those millions were given to the hospital for seismic upgrades and to ensure low-income patients could receive long-term health care.

Few would dispute the good intentions of those goals, but how was the money actually spent? Did the county pay for an architect to study seismic improvements? Was the county covering doctors and nurses’ salaries to help the destitute?

The site contained no further information. The county health system referred me to the county manager’s office. The county manager’s office reiterated to me that the money was for seismic upgrades.

Another curious item was the $1 million listed as going to the HEART local housing trust fund match. The Measure A site makes no mention of this. Some basic Web searches clued me in that HEART is the Housing Endowment and Regional Trust, an affordable-housing partnership. The HEART annual report for 2013, the latest report available, makes no mention of this county money. If that money was allocated by a supervisors’ vote, nothing comes up when I perform a search for it on the county’s website.

I was able to get better information by contacting some individual departments. County Parks staff, in particular, was very helpful. It was the only department that could provide exactly what I requested. Parks Director Marlene Finley sent me a breakdown showing how her department spent $807,000 in Measure A funds. The answer: salaries and benefits for seven positions ($577,162), a variety of listed special projects ($220,627), travel costs ($7,015), meetings and conferences ($887), training ($359) and office supplies ($93). By comparison, other county officials seemed puzzled that I wasn’t getting my questions answered by the website.

Look, the answers to my questions are out there somewhere. I’m sure if I had all the time in the world, I would eventually find them. The precise expenditure I’m looking for may be hiding on Page 39 of some departmental budget document or an obscure warrant report. But I know I wasn’t able to collate that data together to make my deadline, and most county staffers chose not to spare the time to make my job much easier.

This information should be easier to access. The county has done good work to make reams of other data readily available online. The county’s Measure A website has plenty of information and nifty graphs showing how the various social programs are developing and performing. It just seems odd that the same sense of accountability and transparency isn’t applied to where this public money is spent. Isn’t that the most important question when it comes to public money?

With 30 separate programs already launched in its first year alone, Measure A is an extremely complex package, and it’s only going to become more confounding as it ramps up in the coming years. If the county can’t show how its first $24 million was spent, then that doesn’t bode well for the upcoming $900 million expected to come from this tax measure.


Comments

Good job with the initial evaluation and the article.

I haven't much trust in the county tax measures after they dropped the EB 92 passing lane and Skyline interchange in the original Measure A ....

Web Link

...and the straightening of 92 from Pilactios Creek westward.

Web Link


Great post Mark.

And...

Welcome to my world.

I hope Clay allows you to keep digging. The only way these mysteries get revealed is through persistence, time, and a certain desperation to find the truth, however inane it may be.

Thanks again for your efforts,

dce


Good job Mark at your partially successful attempt at real investigative reporting. No it shouldn't be that difficult to find the answers you are seeking. Many of us out here are hopeful that more of you working at the HMB Review will be encouraged to do this and move the Review along toward becoming a real change agent! keep digging!


Mark, Thank You

You are the ONLY reporter who has even looked at this subject and at only $24M.

Remember the SMC Grand Jury stated that our Leaders were misleading the public.

That explains the just go to the website with fancy graphs and no information.


Excellent work, Mark, and very informative. The information that wasn't available was more telling than what was found. We deserve better than that and the County Manager has some 'splaining to do.

Measure A funds are too important to allow this sloppy accounting; of all the County positions being created, one should be a high profile Measure A manager with the authority to demand details of the type that Parks Director Marlene Finley was admirably able to provide. Perhaps she could give other department managers lessons on how it is done.

Let's hope this investigation begins an ongoing interest county-wide with calls for major improvement. A suggestion that Mark's article and this thread could remain visible if linked on the online Review's home page "Talkabout Featured Topics" section.


Mark, you have been around here for a very long time. You have done some nice work over the years and made strong efforts to dig into things that matter. This piece and the effort you have expended is a good example, and it is much appreciated.

Mark is absolutely correct with; "It shouldn't be this hard to find out how your money is spent." - yet it is. One can only ask a one word question; Why?

It has been my experience that when asking for data like this, many who work in government seem to fall into two categories; 1) they feel threatened and are indignant at the very idea that anyone would question anything or 2) they really don't know, never thought about it and don't care.

Even going up the food chain doesn't always work.

The problem is that it seems that some, maybe many, forget who pays their compensation and who they are ultimately responsible to. They worry about themselves and their fiefdom and don't appreciate folks sticking their noses into their world.

Working together for common goals and objectives is so easy. Further, many working together can be so much more productive than one alone; but it seems a lot of bureaucrats don't get that ... so long as they can drink from the trough and plan out their retirement with the benes we fund. Drives me nuts.

I guess the long and short of it is: Thanks Mark for the effort and story - but we've seen this story so many times that some have become immune to it, and that is not only sad, but the root of the issue. It becomes the norm and that is dangerous.

It takes folks like Mark and others, asking the simple but apparently hard questions to beat down that wall. And it also takes determination and unfortunately a ton of time, which is where they get us. How many have the time to do the bureaucratic two-step to the tune of Chase Your Tail?

Your work is much appreciated Mark. Thanks.


We got what we voted for.

Everybody knows or ought to know that catch-all measures like A are there so tax money can be used in manners we would not approve of if we knew how the money was to be used.

We vote for them anyway.

We get what we vote for.


San Mateo County Manager John Maltbie is 100% responsible for hiding this information.

He is responsible for the website that misleads the public.

Several years ago you could go online at the County site, look up Supervisor meetings, see who spoke from the public, what the issues were, and even watch a video of the full meeting.

The New and Improved website does not allow that. We are part of Silicon Valley

Don't forget the GJ Report.

Again Thank You Mark


SMC County Manager John Maltbie letter to the Grand Jury regarding "misleading the public"

report.

Web Link


"We get what we vote for." Barnus, you are so right, but there is an important point that needs to be recognized as an important part of that statement; we have only those that are official candidates to choose from. The gene pool is extremely narrow.

Without public involvement, those on our ballots can say and do just about anything they wish, from campaign promises which more often than not is just pandering to get votes and money (in other words, empty promises) to what we see here - hiring those that protect themselves over our interests and concerns.

The screening process, from local to national needs to be much tougher, but the level of participation towards better government needs to be much more robust and inclusive.

Most, particularly the ones with the background, intelligence and genuine interest don't have the time or interest to step up and run ... and that's a shame.

Being a part of elected representation for most just isn't worth it, so we end up with stories like this one, where everyone looks out for themselves first - and provide the rest of us with guessing and the old bureaucratic two-step while they eat and drink from the public money trough, usually with impunity.


Thanks for the link Mr Stogner. Interesting perspective, but one we have become accustomed to, particularly here on TA; mis-direction and shoot the messenger.

Great posture; way to embrace constructive criticism and those he works for (that pay his compensation as well as all his staff, office supplies, expenditures, the roof he works under and all the materials he has at his disposal). Always good to see someone in an admin position step up to public concerns.

When all else fails, re-direct attention away from criticism and issues and go after those that question. So 'normal', unfortunately.

I often wonder why I constantly feel that, when dealing with government at any level, it is an us versus them attitude.

I'm sure it must just be me....


Has anybody heard from Mark recently, I've heard from one source that he is no longer with the Half Moon Bay Review. Does anybody know for sure? I hope he's not gone.


Sure hope not. Mark has talent, integrity and guts.


I heard yesterday that Mark is gone from the Review. It's likely that the information path to me is very different than the information path to Michael Stogner. If Mark was still around, I'd expect him to post here and say so. Which leaves only the question of why? Did someone pressure the Review? We know that never happens around here.


I can't go into details, but there is no grand scheme here. I spoke to Mark a few weeks ago, and from that discussion I take it that he found a better opportunity, or one that he was looking forward to in any case.

I obviously cannot confirm or deny this to be the case, but it seems likely that this is what happened, and in today's print edition he doesn't appear- and Clay has been pretty damn busy writing all the stuff that Mark usually writes.

Hopefully this helps.

dce


If Mark has found a better opportunity, good for him. Bad for us but can't hold it against him.


Hi - just making a comment that I thought Mark Noack was an excellent investigative journalist. I appreciated his attempts to get information and get into places that he (we) should be allowed accessed to. The way journalism is suppose to be.... all our best to you, Mark! You are missed!


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