And This One Time at … Family Camp

Did you go camping over the three-day weekend? Camping is a time to enjoy nature and the adventure of the great outdoors. Last week, I attended a community meeting about San Jose Family Camp. There were approximately 25 residents who all appeared to be Family Camp boosters. They expressed support for Family Camp, recalling fond memories that for some dated back approximately 30 years.

The City of San Jose started providing this campground in 1974 and it is located just outside of Yosemite. Family Camp is not in the City Charter. However, neither are crossing guards for schools, which have been provided since 1944. The city of San Jose does not own the land;  instead it leases the land from the federal government and has built structures for camping—much like some ski resorts that lease land from the federal government and build structures. Of course, if the fees for skiing do not cover the costs to operate and maintain the ski resort than it would cease operations.

By direction of the City Council last year, the nightly rates were increased for campers so that the city could get the camp to be revenue neutral, or 100 percent cost recovery. In 2007, Family Camp was 67.4 percent cost recovery and this year the forecast is for 95.7 percent.  On average, 5,000 people partake in Family Camp each year and 70 percent of them are San Jose residents.

Getting to cost recovery is good, because this would remove the subsidy from the general fund. However, the camping structures need to be repaired and modernized. That money could come from the general fund, but it is unlikely since those dollars compete with police and library staffing. The Measure P bond fund—passed by voters to pay for park improvements—can only be used on city-owned land, so that rules out spending the money three hours away from San Jose.

This leaves the Construction and Conveyance Tax (C&C), which is generated from the buying and selling of property in San Jose. These funds are restricted in the City Charter for park equipment, library materials and fire station equipment. A small portion of C&C revenue funds park maintenance, but the bulk is put aside to pay for physical things. Allocating these revenues to Family Camp would remove funds from replacing park equipment, new books or computers for libraries or new equipment for a fire truck. The challenge for Family Camp boosters is to explain to San Jose residents who do not utilize this unique facility on why tax revenue is better spent outside of San Jose instead of within San Jose.

To the credit of the Family Camp boosters, they have volunteered many hours to making improvements at Family Camp by donating material and labor, including doing advanced electrical work. However, there is a limitation to their good deeds. That limitation is an estimated $9-16 million in improvements to physical structures at Family Camp. 

The standard alternative (like many other things in San Jose) could be to rely on voluntary contributions from San Jose residents, camp lovers and corporations. However, $9-16 million is a much higher bar than $6,000 for the fountain at the Municipal Rose Garden, or $60,000 city-wide for dog poop bags as examples. From my perspective, it would be fine by me if a company logo was required on each camping tent for monetary donations.

Another alternative would be to partner with other cities in the county to make the improvements, so that we have one joint facility. Yet another option may be charging campers a fee above and beyond the 100 percent cost recovery and committing those funds to the capital improvements, which would take a long time and possibly discourage campers.

Finally, the last option would be to walk away from Family Camp and let it close.  If no other organization wanted to take over the camp, the city of San Jose would be on the hook for dismantling the camp, which is estimated in the millions. If this were to transpire, I would suggest not answering the phone when the Feds call.

Sometimes I am approached with an idea from a person who thinks the city should provide a new service. I think it is best to manage expectations and let people know up front that adding a new service will not happen while the current portfolio of services is being cut.


  1. Time to walk away, and make this a community funded event.  Sorry, time to pull the free give a ways and get back to fiscal responsibility.  QUIT FUNDING SPECIAL INTERESTS AND GET BACK TO CORE ISSUES!

    Do I need to list the endless list of crap the city spends money on!

    • > Do I need to list the endless list of crap the city spends money on!

      It probably wouldn’t hurt to mention it once or twice more.

      Or even three hundred thousand times more.

  2. “Sometimes I am approached with an idea from a person who thinks the city should provide a new service. I think it is best to manage expectations and let people know up front that adding a new service will not happen while the current portfolio of services is being cut.”

    Funny you should say that since you want to lower the speed limit around schools to 15mph.  I’m not saying I’m against that, but do you think changing signs will make people slow down?  Only thing that will slow down people around schools is heavy traffic enforcement….which won’t happen since our police force is already stretched thin.

    • “but do you think changing signs will make people slow down?”

      Yes.  If I see a sign for 15MPH, I would slow down.  Would’t you?

      • Yes, I would, same with the sign that says STOP. I will admit to not fully obeying all traffic laws, but when it comes to speed limits around schools, neighborhoods, and coming to a complete stop at the STOP signs, I do.  However, living in the vicinity of two schools, I see on a daily basis, people running STOP signs, and travelling well above 25mph.  Unfortunately, the signs don’t walk out into the middle of the street and slap these people in the head with a fine.

      • It doesn’t work with 25 MPH signs. Why would it work with 15 MPH? Without enforcement this is an idea that is a waste of time and resources.

  3. Family camp is a wonderful facility that brings together families in San Jose. However, with our current fiscal realities, it needs to pay for itself. The obvious answer is to outsource it and raise the fees enough to pay for needed improvements. That is a zero cost solution that preserves a city service. If if doesn’t work out, they we have to walk away. It is however worth a try.

    • > The obvious answer is to outsource it and raise the fees enough to pay for needed improvements. That is a zero cost solution that preserves a city service.

      Umm. No.

      It is NOT a zero cost solution.

      It is a cost on those paying fees.

      Now explain why those paying the fees should bear the cost for this luxury benefiting a small number of people.

  4. I completely agree with Richard2, above.  I’ve stayed at SJ Family Camp twice, love the experience, but this is a very simple, no-frills kind of place. $9m to $16m in upgrades? For what? I think you could build the whole camp from scratch for less than that. What is the minimum expenditure needed to maintain the status quo and keep the camp running?

  5. Found the draft master plan on the city’s website. Hard to count how many times I thought to myself – “you’ve got to be kidding me!” I think they should hand the whole thing over to the friends group with some one-time funds for only essential improvements. The friends could get these impts. made for much less cost.

  6. OK Mr olivero what pride of the city event or program or department do you not want to get rid of…. You come into city government with no experience, and talk like you know something about everything .  A jock of all trades but master of none type.  And if you dont get your way then you will go to any means to get what you want…. Please do us all a favor and shut up and sit down til you term out.

    William R. Smoke
    City government employee 33 years

  7. I think that the scope of improvements needed at the camp needs to be more closely reviewed. This is just a family campground, not club med. Can you provide any details?

  8. Please Pier, if there is any chance that the City of San Jose tattoo removal program, Mariachi festival, or unused city owned golf courses might lose their funding, I implore you to close down a gem like the San Jose Family Camp just as soon as possible. Never mind the civic and community pride of having the San Jose Family Camp when a parolee needs to get the teardrop tattoos removed from his face. We need to fully fund the tattoo removal program, since 5,000 parolees are being released to Santa Clara County over the next year as part of the court order.

    You, the mayor, and most of the other city council members have your heads where the sun don’t shine.

  9. The city of San Jose loves to waste tax payers money. Here is a short list.

    1) airport terminal 1.3 billion. Cost to run annually, ” 1 billion a year.” theirs bang for your buck, and now they want to build high speed rail.
    2) 500 million city hall, maybe more.
    3) 75 million for Happy Hollow petting zoo.
    4) 100 million for FMC property. It’s already been stated that they will sell it for about 70 million. Tax payers lose 30 million on the deal. Lou Wulf,and Cisco, SJ Earthquakes make out again, tax payers lose.
    5) 30 to 40 million dollars for land for ballpark stadium. Mayor keeps stating that this will not cost the tax payers. I guess RDA money is not tax payers money, according to him. But look at the bright side, we get the money back in 15 to 20 years with no interest.
    6) Incubator program. Millions and millions for creating jobs. Yeah right, sounds like money laundering to me. Heads should role over this one, but Chucky wants to keep it quite, why?
    7)Downtown business association and RDA. Hundreds of millions of dollars and nothing to show for it. Scott Kneis, a broad executive stated in a letter to the mercury that cop’s should give more of their benefits to pay for things downtown. Maybe we should put qualified people in position that know what they are doing and not waste another dime.
    Why go downtown when you could go Santana Row? Explain that one Scott.
    8) 92 million for a police building we will never use.

    The list goes on and on. Golf courses, Hayes mansion, Mexican heritage complex, movie theaters, companies forgiven on rent and that the tip of the iceberg.

    I wonder why the city has been a deficit for 12 years.