Opinion: Why Santa Clara County employee bonuses are a misuse of public funds

Money could have been better spent on housing homeless or reducing hunger

Originally published by the Mercury News.

By Matt Mahan.

Last week — amidst unprecedented local need to feed families going hungry, house those sleeping on our streets and recover from crippling school and small business closures — the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to spend $76 million in federal relief funds on one-time bonuses for all county employees, including senior management and top bureaucrats.

Worse than tone deaf, this is a misuse of public funds.

Santa Clara County received $187 million in American Rescue Plan dollars from the federal government, specifically intended to offset the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our community. Instead, it went to bonuses.

Times are truly hard for our community. The pandemic and ensuing economic downturn have uprooted all of our lives, especially those of our most vulnerable neighbors: countywide, 8,000 people sleep on the streets every night; hundreds of small businesses have been forced to shut their doors; students have, on average, fallen 4 to 5 months behind on their education, with greater learning loss in low-income households; and 39,000 families continue to struggle to make rent each month.

In a move profoundly disconnected from reality, the county opted to spend our scarce one-time relief funds on themselves.

More than 4,500 county employees make more than $200,000 per year in salary and benefits. They all will receive a $2,500 check in the mail, courtesy of taxpayers. For the thousands of top bureaucrats who have been able to comfortably transition their work to their homes, a blanket “hazard pay” bonus is indefensible.

Tremendous good could have been done with $76 million. While the following figures are estimates, each represents the scale and basic tradeoff inherent to the county’s poor decision. For the cost of these bonuses, we could have accomplished any one of the following:

● Ended hunger in our county for eight months, according to data from Feeding America.

● Paved every one of the 62 miles of expressways operated by the county.

● Built low-cost modular apartments for 506 people currently sleeping on the streets.

● Made county parks free for 21 years, replacing the $3.5 million per year the county collects in fees.

● Bridged the digital divide in our communities — we need only a fifth of what the county is spending on bonus pay to purchase sufficient internet connectivity and devices for our low-income neighbors.

● Forgiven rent debt for all 12,800 households in San Jose that are behind.

I encourage readers to use our interactive “How Would You Spend $76,000,000?” tool on my website to tell the county board how you would spend those public dollars to better our community.

County employees, like all of us, have been impacted by the pandemic; many have had to take on new roles, work in new ways and handle new responsibilities. I have great respect for the arduous work that our public sector employees have sustained to keep us safe during this pandemic. I believe those workers who took on truly hazardous work deserve hazard pay. A nurse or public health outreach worker who has logged many months of overtime work on the front lines deserves every dime and more. But that’s far from every county employee.

It’s unsurprising that the county has continued its pattern of severe fiscal mismanagement, handing out indiscriminate bonuses regardless of circumstance. Taxpayers may recall the $4.5 million spent on valet parking in 2018, the $5 million allocated in 2019 for statues and monuments that haven’t been built yet, or more recently the $233 million planned psychiatric hospital with just 77 beds — a cost of more than $3 million per bed.

We face an increasing crisis of confidence in local government. The challenges facing our communities seem to be worsening just as our government is spending more than ever. Blanket payouts to 22,000 county employees cost us a great deal more than $76 million — they erode public trust. We deserve better.

Matt Mahan represents District 10 on the San Jose City Council and is a candidate for mayor.

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