In our culture of deficits, cutbacks and layoffs, few government expenditures escape careful scrutiny.
The days when boards would casually approve six-figure purchases with little or no discussion are long gone — as they should be. Even state largesse, once accepted without question by grateful counties and cities, can raise eyebrows.
Two recent news items illustrate this new reality and the problems that can come with it.
• Bus stops: Proposition 1B, a $19 billion road bond passed by California voters in the better financial days of 2006, has been a pretty good deal for Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. It has paid for big chunks of the Angels Camp Bypass and of the pending second phase of the East Sonora Bypass, and has provided millions for much-needed road maintenance.
The latest allocation, however, gives pause: $640,000 ($500,000 to Tuolumne County, $140,000 to Calaveras) for bus-stop improvements. We’re all for public transit, and convenient, comfortable bus stops could increase ridership on the heavily subsidized county bus systems.
Still, in a tough economy in which teachers are facing layoffs, school programs are being cut, cities and counties struggle to provide even basis services, and jobs and homes are still being lost, bus stop improvements seem something of a luxury.
When, for instance, was the last time you heard the regulars down at the coffee shop carping about the poor condition of the county bus stops and asking when something will be done about them?
Yes, the language of 1B may tightly limit spending to a long list of pre-determined line items, but in times like ours a little flexibility would be welcome.
• Parking lot: Who could blame Tuolumne County Supervisors Randy Hanvelt and Evan Royce for voting against buying a quarter-acre Jamestown parking lot for $195,000 in contingency funds? After all, County Administrator Craig Pedro had just briefed the board on on the county’s dire budget situation.
If “the world is ending,” as Royce paraphrased Pedro, how can such a purchase be justified?
So the two dissenting votes — because a four-fifths’ majority is necessary for a withdrawal from contingencies — killed the plan.
Here’s the rest of the story: Brothers John and Ernest Viglienzoni have since the mid-1990s leased the 30-space lot next to Rocca Park to the county for a dollar a year. The understanding, said John Viglienzoni, was that the county would eventually buy it from them.
In fact the $195,000 price was the product of negotiations between a county staff committee and the Viglienzonis.
Budget ills notwithstanding, Pedro and board majority supported the purchase, saying the parking spaces were good for downtown business and for Jamestown’s economy. In these times, they asked, what is more important?
Royce, meanwhile, insisted the brothers were “holding the county hostage” with an unreasonable price.
So who is right?
There are shades of gray here and the answer may be somewhere in the middle.
District 1 Supervisor Liz Bass may have touched on it when she suggested that a fee collected from the benefiting local businesses to at least partially offset the costs of the lot might make the proposal more acceptable.
Meanwhile, we hope the county and the Viglienzonis can reach agreement and that the now-blocked off lot can reopen.
Ideally, Proposition 1B would include a pot of cash earmarked for purchase of parking lots in Tuolumne County. But that, of course, would be too good to be true.