The San Mateo County Harbor District has been fighting off recommendations it be dissolved for 40 years and faces a review now that could once again lead to the same recommendation.
But this time, the district has a new champion touting its necessity in Sabrina Brennan, the president of the Harbor District Board of Commissioners that manages and owns Pillar Point on the coast and operates Oyster Point Marina/Park in South San Francisco.
The former general manager is gone, Peter Grenell, and two new commissioners elected in November, Nicole David and Tom Mattusch, give the Harbor District new life and direction that Brennan believes should keep it from sinking into oblivion.
The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission has just started a municipal service review of the district using an outside consultant to examine a whole range of activities related to its financial well-being.
Brennan had requested the review be delayed with the knowledge the district’s interim general manager, Scott Grindy, wanted to return back to his old job as harbormaster.
The agency is currently searching for a new executive to lead the district but it’s quite likely the new general manager will not be in place until after the LAFCo review is completed, Brennan said.
The district’s Human Resources director, Marietta Harris, also announced at the board’s Feb. 18 meeting that she is resigning from the agency March 6, two days after the board’s next meeting.
Although the departures come at a bad time for the district, Brennan has confidence the district can weather the storm even without a captain at the helm.
Filling the general manager’s position with the right person is key to the district’s success, Brennan said.
“I’d like to see the Harbor District become an example of what a highly-functioning special district can be,” Brennan said.
It could be an uphill battle, however, as the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury recommended last year that the district be dissolved and turned over to the county in a report titled “What is the Price of Dysfunction?”
Although the district collects fees, it still receives $5 million a year in local property taxes. It has approximately 30 employees in South San Francisco and at Pillar Point.
“It is abundantly clear that the citizens of the county would be best served, both financially and in terms of better service, if the district were dissolved and its operations assumed by the county and other successor agencies,” the grand jury wrote in the report.
The report detailed the district falling into disarray by operating with significant yearly losses and the need to have a police presence at district meetings.
The report also highlighted accusations of records destruction and excess benefits paid to commissioners and lawsuits charging harassment between a commissioner and the district’s former general manager.
The Daily Journal, however, could not confirm any commissioner sued the district for harassment.
In 2006, when the district was last reviewed by LAFCo, the agency recommended dissolution just as it first did all the way back in 1975.
But even LAFCo’s Executive Director Martha Poyatos would tell you it’s a rare occasion when a special district is dissolved based on the agency’s recommendation.
The Skyline County Water District, which served 490 water customers, charged the highest water rates in the county once and was recommended by LAFCo to be absorbed by the private California Water Service Company, which provides the city of San Mateo with its water.
The water district applied itself to LAFCo to dissolve but it’s unlikely that the Harbor District will do the same if confronted with the same recommendation.
Brennan, however, has never favored dissolution but remains upbeat even if it does.
“Whether they recommend dissolution or not, I know we will get some good information out of the review,” Brennan said.
The district has already moved toward being more efficient, she said, including the consideration to stop leasing a property near the Oyster Point Marina.
“It’s $7,500 a month and only five employees work there,” she said.
The district is also paying down its debt at a good pace, she said.
In 2006, the debt was $19 million and now it is down to $7 million, which is expected to be paid down by 2018.
The LAFCo review will take about four months from now, Poyatos said.
It will include a hard look into the district’s financials, capital programs, conditions of infrastructure, opportunities for rate restructuring, cost recovery, resource sharing and management efficiency, Poyatos said.
The final report will also include governance alternatives, she said.
The county could take over the entire district including its assets, employees and liabilities if it initiates dissolution, she said. South San Francisco could also take over Oyster Point, which it currently leases to the harbor district.
“The LAFCo study doesn’t assume services would cease and recognizes employees have special skills that a successor agency would benefit from their services,” Poyatos said.
Brennan ran on a platform that the Harbor District needed reforming and that’s what she intends to do, she said.
With new faces on the board and a new general manager on the way, the district can become a model for what other special tax districts should be, she said.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102