BenitoLink has shone the spotlight since 2017 on the often contentious debate over what services the local government had agreed to provide County Service Areas (CSAs). The right to road maintenance, particularly in gated communities, was a hotly contested issue in which documents eventually proved the county’s stance was wrong.
The county, and in particular Supervisor Jerry Muenzer, was found not only to be grossly wrong, but had he or someone with the county bothered to look at its own records they would have discovered the error years ago. That would have freed up hundreds of thousands of dollars being held in county coffers, designated to pay for much needed road repairs.
After the mysteriously missing record was ferreted out of the county’s files, the county finally began repairing roads in five CSAs–Hillcrest/El Toro #5, Bonnie View #8, Ridgemark #9, Simmons/Barnes Lane #11,and Union Heights #35–last November, at a cost of $516,200.
Jack Murphy and Richard Ferreira, two former leaders of CSA #9 and #35, credited Supervisors Mark Medina and Jim Gillio, as well as San Benito County Clerk of the Board Janet Slibsager, with convincing the Board of Supervisors to recognize and act upon the 30 year old agreement.
By March 2018, only 31 of 55 CSAs were still active. Members of each of those service areas paid 1% of their property taxes toward services the county was contracted to provide, including street sweeping, landscaping, PG&E utility bills and road maintenance, according to Joe Paul Gonzales, the county clerk-auditor-recorder. At the time, former Resource Management Agency director John Guertin said there was more than $3 million sitting in county accounts.
The main contention was over whether the county should provide road maintenance for gated CSAs like Ridgemark and Union Heights. Even though the largest of the two, Ridgemark Homeowners Association CSA #9, which was formed in 1972, had accrued a balance of more than $550,000 in its restricted reserves account, former supervisor Jerry Muenzer was adamant that the county could not provide road repairs because its residents lived behind gates.
Jack Murphy, who has lived in Ridgemark since 1996, told BenitoLink in March 2018 that CSA #9 had tried to determine how the funds were being utilized because it wanted to spend a portion of them for maintenance of the nine miles of roads it controls.
Likewise, Richard Ferreira, a former developer who built the Union Heights subdivision where he lives and also worked on its agreement, wrangled with Muenzer and a succession of RMA directors on a regular basis.
According to Ferreira, CSA #35 was the only county service area that he knew of that had a written agreement with the county. But Muenzer continued to insist there was no such document, and no one seemed capable of or interested in finding it, Ferreira told BenitoLink.
By June 2018, after county supervisors announced they intended to increase CSA fees, Ferreira said it was just the “latest in a long series of mismanagement, neglect and lies.” He also said that the move to raise fees could lead to a class-action lawsuit that would involve multiple CSAs in San Benito County.
Ferreira kept hammering away at Guertin, who resigned March 20, to find the agreement. Days before supervisors were scheduled to discuss disbanding some of the CSAs, Ferreira asked the board of supervisors and Guertin why someone couldn’t simply walk across the street to the San Benito County Superior Court and ask Judge Stephen Sanders what he knew about the agreement. No one ever did.
“He was the one who put it all together,” Ferreira said of Sanders, who was the county attorney 30 years prior when he helped draw up the agreement.
“I went in to see the county clerk and asked her to look up the Union Heights CSA agreement. I thought that would be the first thing they would look for when I kept saying there was an agreement. Before I got back to the office, she called me. She had it. It took 15 minutes.”
After that, Ferreira and Murphy said things changed almost overnight. Murphy said that before Gillio ran for supervisor against Muenzer, he had contacted Medina about the situation.
“I was gaining some traction with him under the heading that these were taxes paid by resident homeowners and they were sitting on a fund that was not doing anything and wasn’t even gaining money market interest,” he said. Murphy said he and Ferreira spoke at several supervisor meetings and also met with County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa and his staff.
“This really came to a head when [county counsel] Barbara Thompson and the legal staff realized there was a mechanism for those monies to be utilized for road maintenance,” he said. “It was really the push that Jim Gillio made in looking into county documents with [current RMA director] Harry Mavrogenes right behind him. CSA #35 has around 25 residents and CSA #9 has around 900. It became the focal point because of the gross amount of money involved [more than $600,000].”
The road work contract completed in November involved the five CSAs in order to accomplish an “economy of scale,” said Murphy.
“It was a slurry overcoat that filled the cracks and created a robust surface, and road striping and stop signs on the road,” he said of the work done in Ridgemark. “We had a meeting and the people are happy. Our task now is to finish the balance of CSA #9 as our restricted reserves continue to accrue. We’re going to meet with Harry and his staff to get an estimate when that might happen. They repaired around three miles. The budget was around $400,000 [actually $327,883]. It grows by about $70,000 a year.”
Murphy said the CSAs’ relationship with the county has “changed diametrically with the arrival of Gillio, Medina, and Mavrogenes.”
“Gillio’s philosophy is, rather than dealing with us as residents they deal with us as customers,” Murphy said. “And they’ve demonstrated that. We’re viewed as part of the county’s customer base, not its tax base. That’s radically different from Jerry Muenzer. He was wrong. He acted on something that he didn’t know was true or not.”
As for Union Heights, Ferreira said some work has been done on the road through the subdivision.
“We still have some other issues with the county that we’re working on,” he said. “The main thing is drainage and retention ponds.”
In an end-of-the-year newsletter and in a conversation with BenitoLink, Gillio credited Murphy, Ferreira and others with helping the county resolve the service issues.
“We also adopted an ordinance documenting the processes for providing services in all our various CSAs, including road work,” Gillio said. “In my humble opinion, this is a huge deal that has been languishing in county government for far too long and thanks to all of your hard work, as well as the leadership of Mark Medina, we have brought this to a resolution. We need to continue to monitor this and make sure to hold me accountable to ensure the services do not degrade again.”
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