Treating The Public Right

People don’t like it when a business nickel-and-dimes them. They like it even less when their own government does it. Obviously the services government provides have a cost, but at a time when too many folks regard their government as “you people” or even worse, as the enemy, we can’t afford to undermine the public’s trust in the public institutions that are meant to serve them.

Over my more than 30 years in elected office, many of my colleagues and I have worked in what ways we could to restore our constituents’ belief that government can and will do the right thing. This work is not always glamorous or grand in scope. Often, it’s about fixing small but meaningful problems in routine, even quotidian, interactions between people and their government.

For example: until last year, our County, like a lot of local agencies, charged people a fee to pay their property taxes online with an “eCheck.” The fee was anywhere from $15 to $27. When County staff looked into the actual cost of processing these online payments, they found it was far lower: 81 cents, to be exact. Staff then recommended that we charge people that 81 cents to pay online, which we on the Board of Supervisors declined to do. Instead we eliminated the fee entirely.

We’ve taken other small steps like this locally, including another related to property taxes. Until recently, if you believed that your Santa Clara County property assessment was too high (above fair market value), you had to pay a $40 fee to appeal that assessment, which the County would keep regardless of the outcome. In other words, the County was saying, “We messed up, but you have to pay us to fix our mistake.”

I brought this issue to my colleagues on the Board, and initially proposed refunding the fee for people who prevailed in their assessment appeals. The initial reaction from some County staff was, essentially, “That’s too complicated.” I found this argument unpersuasive and troubling, but ultimately changed my proposal to simply remove the $40 fee entirely. That proposal passed in early November, a year after I first raised the issue.

It takes effort and perseverance to make even these small changes, but that’s our job: to make government work, and to treat the public right. It also requires engaged citizens. The assessment fee issue was brought to my attention by a constituent at a local farmers’ market. The converse of this, of course, is that local officials must be prepared to listen. Is it worth the effort? It is. Because it’s our job to treat the public right; and, because when we don’t, we undermine the public’s support for the important work of government. And in the long run, the public’s support for that work is worth a lot more than 81 cents.


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