Community Opinions

COMMUNITY OPINION: The economic future and quality of life in San Benito County

Resident Bill Lee writes about how all the pieces of the local economy—sales tax, housing, people, jobs, etc.—fit together.

This community opinion was contributed by Bill Lee. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.

My name is Bill Lee. I have been a resident of San Benito County for 30 years. I hold a bachelors degree in Economics and an MBA from Santa Clara University. I founded a successful national manufacturing and distribution company of window shutters and employed 100 persons here in San Benito County up until just a few years ago when I sold the company to a group of investors. San Benito County is my home, and I understand how business works. I am very concerned for the future of San Benito County because there is a popular movement making noise that is based upon fears and a lack of understanding of how things work. I am writing this to try to help the residents of San Benito County better understand how the pieces all fit together.

Back in the 1970’s, a group of frugal farmers were running San Benito County. They did a very good and efficient job and managed to take good care of the county and didn’t utilize all the state property tax money that they received. They shared that surplus with the local schools and San Benito County had superior schools. Then, when Proposition 13 went into effect, San Benito County was capped at the level that they had been spending to run the county and the extra money they weren’t using was taken away from the schools. It was an inequitable situation, as counties that had been using all their funds, got to keep all their funds. But that was how the law behind California’s famous property tax reform was written. To this day, San Benito County receives only about half of the percentage of property tax as do most all other counties in California.

That has left San Benito County seriously underfunded compared to almost all of the other counties in California. It must be very difficult to be a San Benito County Supervisor. They must run the county with only about ½ the money that they should have to operate the county. That leaves us short of funds to maintain our roads, fund the district attorney, sheriff, health department, and so forth. It’s like trying to feed a family of four dinner when you only have one can of beans and nothing more.

So, if that is the problem, what is the solution? The solution is that we need sales tax money to bridge that gap. Right now, we have very little retail here in San Benito County, so we all drive to Gilroy and spend our money (think Costco, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Kohls, and so forth). That sales tax fills the coffers of Santa Clara County and city of Gilroy and allows them to have extensive program services, law enforcement, road maintenance and so forth. That is why when driving on a county road out of San Benito County and crossing into Santa Clara or Monterey County, you notice our roads are in bad shape and theirs are in good shape. They are getting the sales tax money spent by our citizens to maintain their roads and more. We need more retail businesses to drive that sales tax. We need hotels, and stores alike as they all collect tax that goes to our local coffers, and they create local employment as well. Local retail and employment also creates a reduction in commuters on our roads going in/out of town.

The popular movement right now wants to keep San Benito County the way that it is. However, the way San Benito County is, it is slowly dying from insufficient funding for operations. Our quality of life has been eroding ever since Proposition 13 passed, and without more tax dollars in our local government, our roads will continue to erode, and the law enforcement of our community will suffer due to insufficient funding. Growth doesn’t bring bad things to our community. To the contrary, without funding, we risk ending up like Stockton or San Bernardino. It will take more than just opening businesses to solve our problem. Businesses need customers and without sufficient population, corporations will not open operations in our community. So, while we like to complain that our roads are full, if we do not have enough residents, we will not gain the retail businesses, and that in turn will prohibit us from having the sales tax money to sustain our local government operations.

The road situation is another problem. Expansion of CA 156 is already approved, designed, and funded. They are slated to begin construction in 2020 and that will give us a brand new four-lane road (in addition to the existing two-lane road) to get in and out of Hollister and connect to the US 101 corridor. Once that is completed, it will end the traffic jams on CA 156 and allow many residents along the 156 and Union Road corridors to get to San Jose via CA 156 to US 101 instead of using CA 25. Furthermore, if the roads don’t get crowded, the state of California won’t expand them. These are state highways, and the state is responsible for their widening and maintenance. Our local government doesn’t have funding to expand these roads, and won’t until we have enough sales tax dollars. On top of that, we voted a special sales tax a year ago to put money to CA 25, so our local part of the fix is already in the works and those local dollars will be used to entice the state to put their dollars into that road to get it widened.

So, those that say we have sold out to the developers simply have it wrong. We burden developers to contribute more than $50,000 per house that they build to help build our community infrastructure. By the way, that simply raises the sales price of new houses. Furthermore, we get them to expand roads, build sidewalks and bicycle lanes, parks, and much more. No developer is getting a free ride, and in fact, the infrastructure our community badly needs is paid for by these developers.

In conclusion, to fund our local government, we need sales tax and to get sales tax, we need retail businesses. And to attract retail businesses, we need enough residents, so we need more houses. Please help others in this community understand how this all works. We need to push for retail establishments and well-planned residential development. If we do this and do it right, San Benito County will prosper. If we shut the doors to such progress, we risk letting San Benito County sink into financial collapse. Next time you have to drive to Gilroy to buy something or find a place for dinner, remember, those dollars should be getting spent at home (without commuting), and if you will help your friends and neighbors understand how this all works, then that can become reality.


Bill Lee