UPDATE: Santa Clara County caps spending for district projects
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in the meeting chambers at 70. W. Hedding St. in San Jose. File photo.

In light of looming budget challenges, Santa Clara County supervisors will cap how much money they give to various organizations in their districts.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors today voted to cap community spending per district at $1 million. They also directed county employees to come back at a future meeting with options on how to distribute an additional $2 million to Districts 1 and 2, which have higher needs.

Supervisors voted 3-1-1 with Susan Ellenberg, Sylvia Arenas and Otto Lee in favor. Supervisor Cindy Chavez, whose district represents some of the poorest areas in the county, voted no, and Supervisor Joe Simitian who represents some of the wealthiest cities abstained.

Ellenberg said the amount of money spent in individual districts in the past has been unlimited and gone unchecked.

“I believe the board has an opportunity to demonstrate fiscal responsibility in this time of economic uncertainty,” Ellenberg said at the meeting.

As part of the vote, supervisors directed employees to standardize the process for nonprofit applications for the community grants.

“I’m hoping to shift that practice,” Ellenberg said, “and create new opportunities for community based organizations to access funding for services they need.”

Supervisors acknowledged the spending process gives overlooked nonprofits another funding avenue. They mulled whether community spending should be viewed in silos — or whether it could cross boundaries of need.

Simitian said he approached district spending in a way that would apply to the other districts outside of his community.

Arenas and Ellenberg spearheaded the proposal amid tough budgetary projections that will ask county departments to make hard choices about spending cuts in the next fiscal year. County officials expect a budget deficit of $158 million by fiscal year 2024-25.

Arenas said her concern is ensuring that nonprofits are effective with the money and accountable.

“I still have one agency that hasn’t signed their contract because they won’t agree to provide me with updates on their activities,” Arenas said.

Chavez said inventory items are the fastest way for her to respond to emerging issues in her district. She said county employees tend to be slow to respond to supervisors’ direction on community investments — even when the direction is clear.

“Our organization isn’t yet, in my opinion, responsive enough to the board by the fact we vote five-nothing and it’s still not moving,” Chavez said.

Simitian said he was skeptical about committing to a specific allocation per district. While he agreed restraint should be applied, he said inventory spending comprised a small drop in the county’s $11 billion budget.

“The inventory process is less than one-tenth of 1% of the total budget, when individual supervisors can finally lean in and say, ‘Let me say what I think,’” Simitian said.

Past attempts to crack down on district spending have sparked controversy.

During the height of the pandemic, Ellenberg in 2020 requested an inventory cap on district spending at $500,000, arguing that COVID’s extraordinary fiscal challenges led to budget volatility beyond anything the county had experienced.

Supervisors approved that policy in May 2020, effective for one year. But it drew backlash at the time from organizations such as HousingforAll Alliance and five San Jose councilmembers, in letters to the board. They argued that an equal cap for all districts ignored actual needs throughout the county that were unevenly distributed.

Lee suggested that colleagues allocate any of their unused spending to other districts.

“I think that’s a bit of flexibility that could be helpful,” Lee said.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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