A piggy bank on its side with coins spilling out of it
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It’s budget time for government.

Few have worked in the public sector. Fewer still understand how taxpayers’ money is spent. But here are some reasons why funding is a mess for the many government jurisdictions that exist.

The May spending spree. Government agencies, departments and programs are spending as much as possible in order to empty their budgets. There is no reward in government for efficiency. If a department fails to spend all of its money, the reaction is it didn’t need all it got. So department heads have learned to justify their budgets they must spend all they have and seek more in the next year.

Public property pyramid. Another dirty secret is that taxpayers pay numerous times for the same property. For instance, if a surplus school site is sold, the property must be offered to another public agency first. But the government selling the property can do so at market rates. If another public agency wants the property, they pay for it out of their agency budget.

The result is taxpayers end up paying for the same property several times, just with different tax dollars. Of course, if the property is sold to a private entity, the government retains the profits. Thus, you have competing public entities buying and selling property, with an ever increasing need for tax revenue to buy land they already own.

Pensions. Most of the outrageous pension plans were negotiated when raises were scarce decades ago. Employees bargained for higher pensions in exchange for taking lower wages. The public couldn’t afford the pensions, but those who negotiated the contracts knew they would be gone when the payments came due. Not their problem. But now it is our problem.

Executive compensation. Senior government salaries have skyrocketed. Current city and county executives and their teams make extraordinary salaries. As executive salaries in private industry went out of control, government executives claimed they were unfairly paid and could make more in the private sector. In addition, cities hired headhunters for executive positions and these government jurisdictions compete for executive talent.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has a salary of $218,556 and administers the entire state. The city manager for Santa Clara makes $418,220 a year and administers one small city.

Too much government. Many departments and agencies are duplicative and unneeded. Education is a simple example. We have a federal Department of Education, a state superintendent of schools, 1,019 school districts and until former Gov. Jerry Brown axed the position, a state secretary of education. One school district, LA Unified, has nearly 530,000 students or roughly 10% of the school population. That means 1,018 districts represent the other 90%.

Vacancies. All public agencies have vacancies. Almost all public agencies claim to be understaffed and overworked. This is a true statement for many. But the budgeted positions remain, even if no one fills them. This leaves a positive balance for many department budgets at the end of the year.

But this money must be spent in May or departments could not justify next year’s funding.

Let the budget games begin.

San José Spotlight columnist Rich Robinson is a political consultant, attorney and author of “The Shadow Candidate.” His columns appear every fourth Wednesday of the month.

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