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Quality of San Mateo County's financial disclosures is questioned

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A grand jury report released in early June criticized the quality of San Mateo County's financial disclosures, which the jury said are so voluminous and abstruse that few laymen could possibly understand them. That lack of transparency has become a hot-button issue for the county administrators, suggesting that San Mateo County is somewhat behind the curve when it comes to dispensing and clarifying information.

Members of the grand jury looked at several budgetary road maps and found key information either buried or missing altogether from all of them. A 2013 fiscal budget came to a whopping 336 pages and included information about 1,200 separate accounts into which about $1.9 billion was being funneled. Two 2012 reports from the controller's office — one a 183-page comprehensive budget, the other a 10-page County Popular Annual Financial Report — were equally problematic. The shorter document was meant to elucidate budget details in a comprehensible way, but fewer than three of its 10 pages actually pertained to county finances, the grand jury complained.

Among the information missing: The $400 million county payroll and the anticipated $53 million in excess educational revenue augmentation funds, which are generated when local property tax revenues exceed the amount required to fund schools. Those figures constitute two of the largest line items on the budget, and they're crucial for anyone trying to track what's happening to the public purse.

Public policy advocates at the California Public Interest Research Group have taken a bullish stance toward financial transparency at the state, county and municipal levels. In a January report, CALPIRG's education fund argued that clear finance reports are essential for any democracy, since they help the public monitor corruption and keep tabs on leaders.

But county officials say their hands are tied, because better budget reporting would only increase the number of pages in each report. It also would cost time and money, says county spokesman Marshall Wilson, who dismissed the jury's suggestion that county officials provide easy-to-read "top 10 lists" of expenses by category and department.

"Creating all those lists takes resources," Wilson said. "Do we really want to put time and money into creating budget documents?"

Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley agreed that condensing thousands of items into two pages isn't that easy, and that it's not helpful for residents to see where all the money goes if they don't also have performance metrics to see whether it's effective. If it's not clear how many people are using social programs, or how quickly the Sheriff's Office is responding to crime, or what the clearance rate is for investigations, or whether the roads are being fixed, or whether county hospitals have a medical backlog, then the whole budget just exists in a vacuum, he said.

But CALPIRG senior analyst Phineas Baxandall pointed out that many states and municipalities — including San Francisco, New York City and Texas — have searchable, transparent, online financial reporting systems, even though their budgets are more complex than the county's, if not more so. The one in New York City even includes special tools to raise red flags for over-budget contracts or other problems.

Wilson said that San Mateo County is currently modernizing its websites and that all its budget documents are, indeed, available online — albeit in the format that bedeviled the grand jury. He said the county is trying to put its documents online in an easy-to-search format, but it won't happen overnight.