The Accomplishments of the Community Service Fund

FOR YEARS IN Marin County there’s been a mostly under-the-radar budget item with the sweet-sounding name of the Community Service Fund. Each year, hundreds of thousands of dollars are doled out by county supervisors to fund their pet projects, and in the process, opponents claim, supervisors garner considerable political favor. Two county civil grand juries have opposed this fund, the Marin Independent Journal labels it a “slush fund,” and first district Supervisor Damon Connolly strongly campaigned against it in his overwhelming 2014 defeat of incumbent Susan Adams. And to make matters look worse, no similar county in California has such a cache of cash available to elected officials.

Who could possibly endorse this kind of political favor-giving?

I can.

I strongly support the Community Service Fund. So do a majority of the current Marin County Board of Supervisors. Here’s why.

Yes, the Community Service Fund (CSF) does involve hundreds of thousands of dollars, $300,000 to be exact — or a minuscule .6 percent of the county’s $465 million budget. Here is how it works. Say the San Geronimo Valley Community Center has four acres of dry brush surrounding its facility, summer is approaching, the center’s budget is dry, and estimates to bushwhack the area are running $3,000. Are you going to just ride out the danger of a wildfire engulfing this venerable community gathering spot? Of course not. But you need help and need it fast. The first person you might think to call is your county supervisor. Isn’t that why you elected him or her? Your supervisor can put in application for Community Service Funds to help fulfill your urgent request, that’s one reason it exists.

And yes, the civil grand jury did in 2001 and 2013 criticize the county’s CSF for its lack of transparency and its potential for abuse as an obvious way of courting political patronage. In response, the county made adjustments such as requiring the county administrative office to approve all grant applications; restricting grant amounts for any one organization to no more than $10,000 in a year; and stipulating that the money come from the county, not an individual supervisor or the board of supervisors.

On the positive side, “I saw what the Lynwood Literacy Program at Lynwood Elementary School was doing in Novato,” says fifth district Supervisor Judy Arnold. “It’s an after-school/evening program that needed laptops and staffing funds and we were able to come up with $1,500 to help them out.” Other recent grants were $8,000 to the Bolinas Community Center for a village and beach cleanup project; $1,000 to enable Fair Housing of Marin to host a conference; and $3,000 to repair a buckled deck at Novato’s Sunrise House. In all, $78,500 was distributed to 22 different agencies in this fiscal year’s second round of funding and, because $100,000 was distributed in the first funding, $121,500 remains to be disbursed.

As part of the application approval process, the county administrators office sees that the $300,000 is equally dispersed among the county’s five supervisorial districts — that’s but $60,000 per supervisor per year — and that money not allocated in any one year is returned to county coffers, not rolled over into the following year. As for no other similar county having a Community Service Fund, Supervisor Arnold is quick to respond: “Marin is the only county in California to do a lot of things. We were first to support the governor’s call for pension reform, the first to have an organization like MALT and the only suburban county to have 85 percent of its land as open space. These are the things that make Marin Marin, and we shouldn’t lose any of them.”

I completely agree. Marin’s Community Service Fund is a worthwhile resource that makes government responsive with relatively small amounts of money. No credible evidence has ever shown it’s been employed in anything other than a responsible manner, and those who rail against it during a supervisorial campaign might just be the ones playing politics. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Marin Magazine and its staff.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Small Change“.