The body governing San Mateo County’s special districts still favors dissolving the Harbor District and handing its duties to the county and the city of South San Francisco but wants to wait until after finishing a service review.
The Local Agency Formation Commission agrees with a civil grand jury recommendation to initiate a service review by Dec. 31 and, in its proposed response, suggests doing so before moving ahead with any dissolution plans. LAFCo members will vote on the recommended reply at its Sept. 17 meeting.
In July, the county’s civil grand jury released a scathing report on the Harbor District which operates Pillar Point Harbor on the coast and Oyster Point Marina/Park in South San Francisco. The report tackled issues ranging from finances to board dysfunction and ultimately concluded the special district would be better off dissolved.
LAFCo, the body that evaluates special districts, was named in the report and therefore required to respond in writing within 90 days. However, the grand jury reports carry no legal weight so any push to end the Harbor District is in the hands of any city, district or voting majority although the latter has a very high percentage threshold.
A future municipal service review of the district could look at the potential of San Mateo County becoming successor to Pillar Point Harbor and South San Francisco taking on the duties of Oyster Point Marina.
Ideally, an interested successor agency will be the one to prompt the dissolution, said LAFCo Executive Officer Martha Poyatos.
Poyatos said the county’s response to the grand jury, which has not yet come to the Board of Supervisors for approval, might provide some insight into whether it is interested in pursuing dissolution. The upcoming municipal review will also have updated information on the district’s use, need and accountability along with other analysis to drive the discussion.
“The municipal services review will have a lot of the answers,” Poyatos said.
The reviews are typically conducted in order but Poyatos said the Harbor District will be pushed up slightly to begin the process by the end of the year as requested. If the commission agrees to hire a consultant for the work as recommended by Poyatos, the review could be completed by next June.
Although the Harbor District currently remains intact, LAFCo has recommended its dissolution for decades dating back to 1977. The commission has reaffirmed the position — formally known as an adopted sphere designation of zero — periodically, most recently in 2006. However, several attempts to follow through have failed.
The zero designation is not a reflection of the district employees, their services or even discord within the governing board, Poyatos wrote in the proposed grand jury response. Instead, it is based primarily on overlapping services with the county like finance and administrative capabilities. In other words, the county — which shares the exact same boundaries as the district — already has the infrastructure in place to take on the district’s duties and provide the same services.
The position, and LAFCo’s position in its jury reply, largely echoes past assessments.
“Not a whole lot has changed,” Poyatos said.
What might mean the difference now is the district’s heavy reliance on property tax to offset operating costs which is different than the legislative intent of Proposition 13. Special districts once used property tax for services like police and fire but some like the Harbor District are using it to recover service costs. County taxpayers pay the same amount but don’t necessarily reap the benefits equally.
The district operates on a $10 million budget with about half coming from property tax.
“I think that this might be a time when more people want to look at it much deeper,” Poyatos said.
Although board dynamics also don’t rate in the LAFCo designation, they have made headlines as members bicker amongst themselves and with the general manager who announced his retirement last week.
For its part, the Harbor District Board of Commissioners did not take kindly to the grand jury’s dissolution recommendation. In its own reply to the grand jury report, the members disagreed with the idea although each offered an individual perspective.
The complete LAFCo response is available at lafco.smcgov.org/commission.
LAFCo meets 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17 in Board Chambers, 400 County Government Center, Redwood City.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102