During debate about the fate of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Mt. Diablo Health Care District (MDHCD), which culminated in a Contra Costa LAFCO Commission vote to dissolve the agency, County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff advocated naming a county agency to assume the health care district’s duties under the direction of an advisory body.  Ultimately, the Commission voted to support Mitchoff’s idea and is scheduled to consider implementation details at its March 14 meeting.

While the Commission’s decision to dissolve the health care district was justified, its intent to designate a successor agency to continue district services is unresponsive to public demand for improved government efficiency and economy.

Reconstituting the district’s board in a different box on an organizational chart and “continuing District operations” under a new banner renders the long-awaited dissolution a sham.  The fact that current MDHCD Board members would be eligible to serve on the new advisory body illustrates the point:  naming a successor agency to continue services risks déjà vu all over again.

The Commission’s decision is yet another case of political gamesmanship trumping the public interest.  Consider the following:

1) Plea to Dissolve District a Call for Reform

 Government monopolies inevitably attract mischief in the form of inefficiency, waste and abuse – doubly so for invisible agencies that the public doesn’t know exist.  Continuing to deliver health care district “services” via a different governmental structure — albeit one embedded within another agency — is unresponsive to public demand for streamlined government.  This is why four county grand juries, the county taxpayers association and hundreds of residents have called for the district to be dissolved completely.  Taxpayers demand that the district’s structure be dismantled, its services cease and tax revenues redirected to essential services countywide.

If elected officials are unwilling to decisively end the services of a tiny agency that everyone agrees has outlived its purpose, what hope is there they can tackle really big problems?  The fact that cities, schools, special districts and counties continue to squeeze residents for more taxes and borrowing reveals a chronic “business as usual” mindset that plagues local government.

2) Good Intentions Fuel Government Growth

Predictably, at the January LAFCO meeting most public testimony came from grant recipients who profit from the district.  But government cannot underwrite all worthwhile ideas.  Demands for government services will always outstrip available resources.  Likewise there will never be a shortage of those who seek to profit from government grants and service contracts.

Regardless of the praiseworthy services this money might provide, the overhead costs required to continue district services through a successor agency are unjustified.

3) Time is Money

Government oversight costs money.  In this case, the health care district’s tax revenues are small – less than $250,000 annually.  This is an insufficient sum to warrant continuing discrete “district services” which involve giving tax money away as community grants.

Public agencies must assign staff to each citizen advisory board to organize meetings, take minutes, write reports and ensure compliance with open meeting laws.  Government employees are expensive; benefits for Contra Costa county (non-safety) workers cost taxpayers about 81 cents for every dollar of payroll.  Notably, at the January LAFCO meeting a representative from county emergency services — a potential successor agency — indicated no desire to absorb the district due to the staff demands required.

In Contra Costa alone there are 19 cities and a whopping 78 special districts, each with its own set of advisory boards and commissions, each requiring staff attention.  It’s easy to see how advisory groups can multiply, get politicized and become a drag on staff productivity by diverting attention from mission-critical work.

Creating a standalone advisory body to oversee spending of a relatively miniscule sum is an unnecessary expense government can ill afford – and taxpayers don’t want.

4) Political Games Breed Voter Cynicism

Mitchoff’s desire to retain health care district tax dollars in her area – and retain power to make appointments to an oversight board – is understandable.  Politicians instinctively covet turf.  But scoring political brownie points is not a legitimate reason to burden taxpayers with unnecessary red tape and long-term overhead costs.  Such game-playing indicates tone deafness to the growing public interest in meaningful government reform.

LAFCO Commissioners should revisit their decision to name a successor agency to continue district services and, instead, appoint a successor agency only for the purpose of winding up the district’s affairs.  Doing so will be responsive to public desires and demonstrate the bold, common sense leadership needed to reform California local government.  At least it would be a start.