Saturday, June 19, 2010

Grand jury sees need to consolidate Marin's government entities

Richard Halstead
Posted: 06/18/2010 09:00:31 PM PDT

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury added its voice to those calling for consolidation of Marin's 130 local governmental entities.

In a report issued Friday, the grand jury noted that many sanitary, fire and other districts provide similar services. For example, 16 districts or municipalities provide fire service and 23 districts or municipalities provide sanitary service.

"With shrinking dollars and a faltering economy, it is definitely time to look at exactly how much it really costs to govern the county," the grand jury said.

The cost of local governance totals more than $1.4 billion a year, amounting to $5,422 per resident, according to the grand jury.

Unlike typical grand jury reports, which contain a list of findings and recommendations, the governance report merely attempted to document the number of government entities, their cost and duplication of services.

"What we were trying to do was look at the big picture, to help citizens get an idea of the total expenditures," said Judy Chapman, the jury's forewoman. "Because consolidation has been talked about for ages, we were trying to think of a way of approaching it that would be different."

The report noted that in addition to county government there are 57 advisory boards, 11 municipalities, 19 school districts, a community college district, 33 special districts and seven special purpose districts.

According to the grand jury, district budgets account for about 30 percent of the $1.4 billion cost of governance, while county government accounts for about 30 percent and the municipalities account for about 19 percent.

The governing boards representing the county's 130 governmental entities are composed of 664 members, most of whom receive compensation for their service, the report stated. Compensation includes salaries and/or payment for attending meetings plus reimbursement for expenses such as travel and parking. Some members receive life insurance and health benefits.

The grand jury said it found no evidence that individual compensation of board members was excessive. It did, however, document substantial differences in compensation between districts. For example, the annual cost for Novato Sanitary District's five board members is $72,862 while the cost for the San Rafael Sanitary District's five board members is $3,400. The annual budget of the San Rafael Sanitary District is $4 million larger than Novato's $9 million annual budget.

June Brown, an administrative services manager with the Novato Sanitary District, said board members there receive $225 per meeting and are eligible for health and dental benefits, even though not all board members take advantage of the perk.

Novato Sanitary District manager Beverly James said the comparison with San Rafael may be misleading.

"It's not clear from the report that everybody was reporting the same expenses," James said. "San Rafael is part of the Central Marin Sanitation Agency so some of their board expenses are covered under Central Marin."

In addition, the $72,862 expenditure was for 2007-08. "At that time we did have some extra committee and board meetings because we were embarking on the construction of a new treatment plant," James said.

Often in the past talk of consolidation has amounted to just that - talk.

In 2007, a proposal to merge fire departments in the Ross Valley was dropped after a consultant's study concluded the move could cost an additional $2 million a year.

A study that same year found that San Anselmo and Fairfax could save a total of $430,000 annually by combining their police departments. But the two towns haven't even been able to agree to share dispatch services. Negotiations broke down in 2009 over where those services would be located.

Late last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 1232 authored by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, which gave the Marin Local Agency Formation Commission the power to merge the six districts of the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin regardless of any local vote on such action.

Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan, who serves on the commission board, said Peter Banning, the commission's executive officer, has been meeting with SASM members and discussing ways the districts could share resources to boost operational efficiency.

But McGlashan said "political" consolidation still appears elusive. He said one sticking point is pensions and health benefits for district employees.

Pat Guasco, who was re-elected to the Ross Valley Sanitary District board in November, said, "I'm not so sure it would be of any benefit to the Ross Valley Sanitary District to get thrown into a pile of other agencies that are having real financial and budget issues. I want to make sure we protect our Ross Valley ratepayers."

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at

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