Since the council recently gave the OK for the city to make the first distribution of fire relief money donated to Crestmoor residents after the Sept. 9 fire, Vice Mayor Michael Salazar and Councilwoman Irene O’Connell have said they wanted to make sure the rest of the donations are given out fairly and to those who need it the most.
As the two council members who sit on the subcommittee responsible for making that decision, both have expressed the desire to see that process carried out in a timely manner, especially since the when the relief money first started coming in.
Now their challenge is to keep the momentum going.
While both council members have said during public meetings about the donations that they are making progress, their efforts are still facing red tape—this time involving restrictions in the way the subcommittee can handle donation requests.
“Unfortunately, there is a layer of bureaucracy that we’re dealing with,” said Salazar, who is chair of the committee. “But we’re trying to make it work within these constraints.”
The subcommittee, which in addition to the two council members is composed of three residents from the Crestmoor neighborhood, has been given the charge to distribute about $47,000 in amounts of up to $2,000 for each household that applies. The money was set aside after the city gave out checks from the $395,000 in donations collected in total.
So far, the committee has met twice and has already received about two dozen applications. The needs have included wanting help with paying medical bills, repairing property damage not covered by insurance and needing assistance because of unemployment caused by the fire. The committee will continue to take applications from residents affected by the fire until May 1.
The committee, however, has faced some setbacks in making any final decisions because the language used in the applications and the criteria used to distribute the money need to first be ironed out by the city attorney—a step Salazar said will probably delay their ability to distribute the funds for another week.
“It’s taking longer than we’d like,” he said. “We don’t want to hide anything, and we’d like have all the cards on the table. But we just want to make sure the cards on the table are not going to get us in trouble.”
Some skeptical of how donations being handled
The ongoing delays with the city’s donations have made some in the neighborhood skeptical of the entire process.
Neighborhood advocate Kathy DeRenzi, whose home was damaged in the pipeline explosion, said she has been displeased with how the city donations have been handled.
Residents in the neighborhood were misled at first, she said, when the promise was made to have three residents aid the council subcommittee in deciding how to initially distribute the relief money.
The council then gave out the funds—unfairly to some, DeRenzi claims—and added the residents to the committee after the fact, which upset a number of people.
“After the fact, they…sent us each a letter asking us to basically beg for some money,” DeRenzi said. She added that she submitted a request for the extra $2,000 in relief money, but that wouldn’t even begin to cover the costs to repair damages to her home caused by the explosion.
“Now, what will they base their decision on? Or will they say, ‘Oh, their insurance or PG&E will cover their loss?” DeRenzi asked. “That will not be fair because they should have thought that way in the beginning and distributed the money evenly and fairly between all who live in Crestmoor 2.”
Salazar said he realizes the process has been difficult, but he feels the residents on the committee represent a good cross-section of those affected and that they will help the council members address all of the neighborhood’s concerns.
The residents on the committee include Gene O’Neil, whose home was destroyed in the fire, Sharon Baum, whose home was yellow-tagged, and Bob McNichol, whose home was green-tagged.
Without bureaucracy, others organizations give out donations quicker
Salazar said he has also been observing how other local organizations have been handling donations to see what kind of methods could be incorporated into the city’s process.
He pointed out that both the San Bruno Lions Club and , which both received donations for the fire victims, waited a while before distributing any funds.
Just like the city is doing, the Lions Club has taken applications from residents in the neighborhood and has already been able to give out donations to 20 households.
The organization wanted to make their process as easy as possible, said Councilman Ken Ibarra, who is also a member of the Lions Club, so they decided to distribute relief money—they received nearly $80,000—only to those who were either displaced by the fire or injured.
Salazar said the committee would be taking into consideration those factors when approving their applications.
He added that he knows the city won’t be able to please everyone with the process, so his focus will remain on distributing the relief money in the best way possible.
“No matter what we do, some people are going to feel they’re not getting their fair shake,” he said. “So the best thing to do is to come up with policies for the people who need the money the most.”