|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.
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.