Council Poised to Approve $250k Donation, Budget with $300k Structural Deficit

Note: An update on this item appears at the bottom of the article.

In its meeting tonight, the Town Council is poised to approve a $250,000 donation to the John Muir Land Trust ("JMLT") as part of the upcoming budget that contains a ~$300k operating deficit "backfilled" with federal COVID relief funds.

Let that sink in for a second, recognizing that no effort was made to eliminate the operating deficit (approximately equivalent to staff and management raises just granted) and instead grabbing federal COVID relief funds to plug the unsustainable hole.

Understand further that this likely $250k donation to JMLT as part of its acquisition campaign for Harvey Ranch arose unexpectedly and without notice to the public at the Council's last meeting a couple of weeks ago. During that meeting, a number of [coordinated] advocates for the donation called in and wrote to the Council asking them to add the item to the Town's $20 million operating and capital budget under review (which had previously been reviewed and disclosed by the Audit & Finance Committee and Town Council without any mention of this third-party donation.

Whether one believes (or doesn't believe) the Town should donate its/residents' money to an unrelated third party in general or to JMLT in particular, this process is not good governance. There was no discussion or notice whatsoever of a money transfer of this unprecedented magnitude prior to it being raised - also without notice - at the prior Council meeting during the budget discussion. Nor has there been ample notice or communication since: the only mention being a single sentence buried in the About Town newsletter.

Curiously and ironically, another agenda item this evening is for the council to consider and develop a process for deploying Palos Colorados developer fees ("Fund 100"), which is precisely the piggy bank the Council would use for the JMLT donation.

That process and criteria should occur before any discussion of quarter-million-dollar donations occurs. Further, a donation of this magnitude merits its own "headline" agenda item so residents are actually aware of its existence. A recent donation to the Moraga Chamber of Commerce - 1/10th the size - had its own agenda item, staff report and discussion. This item should, too.

Here's the letter we sent to the Council:

Dear Councilmembers, The consideration to provide the John Muir Land Trust, a third-party entity, $250,000 of the Town’s funds is premature and is not being handled in an appropriately transparent fashion. The process doesn’t reflect good governance and any decision should be deferred so appropriate community input can be received and an informed decision reached. Here’s why: - The JMLT is raising funds through year-end. There is no urgent need for the Town to decide whether or how much to contribute. Ample time remains for the Council to consider such a large donation. We also note the donation is being contemplated as part of a budget with a $300,000 operating deficit being plugged with ARPA funds. This doesn’t seem a financially prudent decision in that context. - The Town/Council has no defined process or criteria for Palos spending, particularly for transferring Town monies to an unrelated third party. Indeed, this is evidenced and acknowledged by tonight’s other agenda item (9B: Process to Identify Potential Uses for Fund 100). Any consideration of giving a quarter million dollars of the Town’s Palos-derived money to a third party should be done after a process for Fund 100 spending is defined and implemented. - The possibility of providing such a large sum to an unrelated third party has not been sufficiently noticed or communicated to the broader community for input as to its appropriateness in general or specific target of JMLT in particular. There has been no mention in previous budget iterations before the Council or Audit & Finance Committee and the sole mention of this potentially occurring has been but one sentence in About Town. - When the Council considered providing the Chamber of Commerce funds for business recovery, a separate agenda item existed that appropriately called out for consideration the transfer of funds to a third party. This JMLT item, however, appeared unexpectedly during the Council’s broader budget discussion during its last meeting. The nature and amount of this merits a “headline” consideration that is noticed, agendized and discussed as a standalone item; not buried in an almost $20 million budget. - There are a number of latent concerns about JMLT's follow through that some residents have expressed. This includes the delay in providing any promised improvements to Painted Rock (the only improvement being a short, limited trail recently cleared) after over 2 years of ownership. Additionally, the JMLT Carr Ranch “acquisition” has not benefitted from any improvements whatsoever according to neighboring landowners and users. For these reasons, the $250,000 donation to JMLT should not be approved as part of the budget and any decision deferred until the aforementioned items have been sufficiently addressed

Update: The proposed budget, including the discretionary $250,000 JMLT donation, was approved 4-1 with Mayor Woehleke not in favor. Woehleke primarily was concerned with (1) making a large, discretionary expenditure using funds that in part will be needed to cover the infrastructure, traffic and safety impact of the Palos Colorados development without understanding the approximate financial requirements to do so, and (2) the lack of participation and input from critical Commissions (i.e. Parks & Rec) along with the manner in which the item was added to the budget and without sufficient time allowed for resident awareness and comment.