After a scathing civil grand jury report that called for the dissolution of the controversial San Mateo County Harbor District, the Board of Commissioners submitted a detailed response officials said they hope will set the record straight.
The district submitted a 13-page response to San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak dated Aug. 22. In it, the board states its broad range of duties is within its purview, its financial practices are sound and many of the civil grand jury’s concerns will be addressed through the strategic business plan it’s currently developing.
The report “What is the price of dysfunction?” alleges the special district, which operates on a $10 million budget and collects about half of its revenue from countywide property taxes, is mismanaged and its duties would be better served by the county and its Board of Supervisors.
“I think that’s ridiculous that they think of dissolving the district. The grand jury is comprised of well-meaning individuals that do the best they can. But they’re not professional investigators and that’s the hard thing,” Commissioner Jim Tucker said. “I thought it was very political and I think it’s unfortunate that it’s come to that.”
Commissioner Sabrina Brennan said she was disappointed that each commissioner’s responses weren’t submitted to the judge and will submit her own minority report that will include their input verbatim.
Brennan said she questions whether the district should continue its current path.
“I disagree with dissolution as a recommendation at this time. If the November 2014 elections substantially changes the makeup of the board, a new reform board could change policies and fix the problems which the grand jury identified,” Brennan said.
The district has come under strict public scrutiny after a stack of uncashed rent checks surfaced, commercial fishing industry representatives claims that they’re misrepresented and commissioners slinging insults in public forums.
According to the response, the district openly acknowledges the criticism over a lack of collegiality among commissioners and has hired a facilitator to help.
The district also states it recognizes there is always room for improvement, but wants to clarify misconceptions that paint it in an unfavorable light.
A broad role
The district has a myriad of duties; it owns Pillar Point Harbor, contracts with South San Francisco to run Oyster Point Marina, works with the U.S. Air Force to maintain the West Trail near Mavericks, runs an RV park, sponsors the dredging of Surfer’s Beach and other responsibilities. The district is also the first responder on the coast to more than 100 ocean search and rescue calls per year, according to the response.
The report suggested divestiture of some of its duties, however, the district response said it serves as a county asset and these activities are within its legal purview.
“The county is surrounded by the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean and these two bodies of water, while both are separate, are so connected in terms of ecosystems, watersheds and for transportation and food supply,” said Pietro Parravano, president of the Board of Commissioners. “These are very important aspects that get lost in the discussion of the Harbor District about why it’s needed in terms of importance and existence.”
Brennan said she’s long been concerned about the district’s financial transparency and accounting practices.
“I agree that the Harbor District has a structural deficit,” Brennan said. “I’m not an accounting expert and I would like an audit of all finance processes to determine whether or not the district is meeting [Governmental Accounting Standards Board] reporting requirements.”
The district’s response states it provides financial data throughout the year and is available at request.
Grenell and Tucker added the district had a more than $19 million loan from the state’s Department of Boating and Waterways, which it is set to pay off a year early.
The report highlights the district’s reliance on property taxes, which accounts for about half of its revenue. It suggests the district wean itself off county funds by developing more revenue-generating activities.
Parravano noted some of the reports suggestions are already in the works, including hiring a consultant to help it create a long-term strategic business plan.
The civil grand jury also recommended differentiating its financial reporting based on enterprise and non-enterprise activities.
The district responded it would be impractical to directly link property tax revenue to specific expenses and instead produces a districtwide budget that includes all revenue and expenditures.
General Manager Peter Grenell said there is a legislative basis that provides mandates for the district’s ability to use countywide property taxes and it was important for the commissioners to highlight how it serves the community as a whole.
Parravano said the district uses property tax money to help manage some of the county’s coastal and Bayside assets, which benefits businesses and the public.
“Residents can be assured that when they visit these facilities, they’re going to be recognized as one that they can call their own. This is something that’s part of the county structure,” Parravano said. “They can have access to a lot of seafood, transportation, coastal trails, kayaking and a lot of things that are really beneficial in offering a quality of life for the residents of San Mateo County.”
To read the Harbor District’s response to the civil grand jury report visit www.smharbor.com.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106