I retired at the end of September and after a few days of yelling at kids to get off my lawn, my wife insisted I find more constructive uses for my time. I thought about it and decided to become an informed citizen by reading the newspaper cover to cover each day.
I opened the paper to the seemingly uplifting story on the front page that our Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed to use the first $76 million installment of its American Rescue Plan largesse for “hero pay” to the entire 22,000 strong county workforce, equating to $2,500 for every full-time employee.
Supervisor Susan Ellenberg expressed the board’s rationale as “…the reason our county is leading with some of the lowest transmission in the U.S. is a combination of the leadership of our public health officer, the willingness of our residents to adopt the health orders and the tireless and extraordinary efforts of our county workforce.”
I read the article further to see if any of the $76 million might trickle down to me through better county services, since according to Supervisor Ellenberg I’m kind of a hero—after all, I willingly endured the public health officer’s lockdown, stayed away from my friends, wore my mask and got my vaccine. Alas, the board made the tough decision that hundreds of thousands of residents like me are not as big of heroes as the 22,000 people who work for the county. I’ll just have to remain contented with the supervisor’s glib thoughts.
Could it be true that all 22,000 employees worked tirelessly and extraordinarily during the pandemic? I went to the county’s website to educate myself on what the county does and where all these heroes work. As it turns out, the county does a lot of things, including fire, the jail, sheriff and hospitals. Admittedly, there are probably many heroes in those functions. But there are pages of other offices and divisions where the argument for COVID sainthood seems less compelling.
One small example—the county employs the staff of the library system outside of the cities of Santa Clara and San Jose. My recollection is that the libraries closed for a long time during the pandemic. Nothing against librarians, but it feels like they got a multi-month taxpayer-funded vacation and now a bonus for not working. A more imaginative board would have envisioned equipping these folks with personal protective equipment and spending money on better ventilation in the libraries during the pandemic or in anticipation of the next COVID wave.
It doesn’t seem the board has the will to identify who really deserves the cash or areas of real need or lasting impact for this money. No, they would prefer to just abdicate their responsibility to be stewards of the voters’ tax dollars to a self-interested county bureaucracy who shamelessly recommended that the best use of the honeypot was to enrich themselves.
Thankfully, County Executive Jeff Smith and the five supervisors agreed it was a bad look to write themselves a check, bearing in mind $2,500 is a rounding error to their county compensation. I’m sure voters appreciate them taking one for the team.
Supervisor Otto Lee limply abstained from this participation trophy approach, cautiously observing that the bonus was “almost overly generous.” Uh, do you think?
Let’s hope the board spends some of the next round on a spine infusion, starts pushing back on the greed and laziness of county management and insists on more productive uses for the next round of free money from the feds.
Brian Allen is a retired accountant and disillusioned independent voter who yearns for elected officials to insist on accountability from county management.