The Coastal Post - February, 1997

The Golden Age of Agencies


We have reached a point in our on-line culture where there are so many regulatory agencies that it is very difficult to do anything, a point that might be called "agency gridlock."

For example, let's say you wanted to remodel your home and add a bathroom. The first permit you need is a building permit, so you go to the Building Department and pay the required fees. Then you're off to the Department of Health and Human Services to get a permit from them. It, too, comes with appliances and fees. Of course, there are the calculations for insulation values that must be met and drawn up by an expert for yet another appropriate fee. And on and on it goes until it is possibly more expensive and time-consuming to satisfy all the agency requirements than to remodel your home!

Two years ago the College of Marin decided to repair their dock across the street from their Marine Biology Lab in downtown Bolinas. The original bid was $10,000, and many community people donated generously. The dock has been open for public use for over 40 years. Somehow, the actual price of repairing the dock doubled in the past two years, primarily because of permit requirements. The County of Marin required $1,100 for a permit, the Coastal Commission got $500 for another permit, and the Farallon Sanctuary got $250. An additional architect was paid another $2,000, and there you have it- a good example of our public agencies grabbing money from community colleges that provide low-cost services to us all. There is a transition happening that is changing well-meaning agencies into businesses. Something is very wrong with this picture.

The life cycle of any agency begins in good faith. We need someone to protect or manage something, or we need to protect ourselves from ourselves. Then somehow the inevitable complication arises that needs special attention, so a committee is formed to look into it. Soon this committee is found to be essential in dealing with this continuing problem. Before you know it, the committee becomes an agency of its own, complete with paperwork and fees. This new agency spawns another committee and on its goes. Sooner than anyone thought possible, we get what we have now, the Golden Age of Agencies.

If a project is difficult on a small scale, like remodeling, imagine how potentially difficult a big project could be. I haven't brought up the great love affair all agencies have for the ever-popular "study." Before any project can even be talked about, it has to be studied first. This is of course a sound way to approach any project, but sadly the study is as far as the project ever gets. The study is handsomely funded but the project itself dies from neglect. Ten years later another similar project is proposed and guess what has to happen first? Another study!

The Bolinas Lagoon restoration project is a perfect case in point. A dozen agencies, all having their own special study requirements. Studies that have gone on for 30 years, and now the study to end all studies that will only cost $2.5 million dollars of your money.

How did all this happen: Is there any way to stop it, or even slow it down? Who could we write to voice our opposition? There must be some agency that can deal with a problem like this. I'll bet we could, if nothing else, at least generate enough interest in the problem to study it, and make some more recommendations.

How does an agency, like the Coastal Commission that was created to protect our coastline, justify charging a community college money to repair a dock, especially a dock that was standing before they were even a dream in a conservationist's mind? And how does the County of Marin get to charge the College of Marin $1,100 to repair what was ours to begin with? Our public agencies are becoming revenue-grabbing businesses, and there must be some way to slow them down.