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WatchSonoma Watch

County cuts 177 jobs; more reductions to come

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors Monday voted to eliminate about 177 filled and unfilled county jobs, a decision that will result in the layoffs of about 83 health, planning, agricultural and maintenance workers.

But board members said they will try to save a handful of veterans service and child welfare jobs and find nearly $600,000 to maintain funding to help the low-income and homeless.

In more than five hours of budget hearings watched at times by a standing-room-only crowd, the five-member board gave informal approval to the layoffs as part of 20 percent across-the-board spending cuts for most county departments starting July 1. The measures, which covered about two dozen departments, set the stage for substantial cuts in county services to help offset about half of a $61.6 million deficit in the county’s general fund for the next fiscal year.

Services for at-risk pregnant women and teens, mental health counseling for adults, land-use planning and permitting, agricultural inspections and upkeep of county buildings are expected to take a significant hit, officials said.

“We wanted to position the organization for a more sustainable future,” said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson. The cuts reflect a need to bring services in line with a now-precipitous two-year decline in the county’s property tax revenue, she said.

The $395 million general fund, which is the largest part of the proposed $1.18 billion budget that supervisors directly control, is down 8 percent from the current budget, reflecting mostly a 4 percent drop in the value of the property tax roll over the past year, officials said Monday.

What that means for public safety departments, including the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and Probation Department, will be discussed Wednesday in what promises to be another closely watched batch of hearings.

Those departments account for more than half of all general fund spending. At stake are 62 unfilled positions. Within the Sheriff’s Office, the proposal would eliminate 31 unfilled positions, including 11 deputy slots, and lay off 12 employees, mostly correctional officers.

Today’s hearings will cover impacts to regional parks and farm and open space conservation.

Monday’s hearings put a diverse human face on the impacts of social services cuts, as supervisors heard from dozens upon dozens of people who benefit from county programs, including veterans and foster children, or who administer services through nonprofits.

Windsor resident Sharon Spaulding was among more than two dozen foster parents, many with infants and toddlers in tow, present to urge the board to restore $187,000 in funding for foster care and related programs.

The alternative, she said, is the possibility of a jump in the number of troubled kids and increased costs for criminal and substance abuse services down the line.

“One way or another we’ll be paying for these children,” Spaulding said.

Even more speakers rose to support the Human Services Commission, an appointed body that hands out nearly $600,000 each year to 19 nonprofits offering help to the homeless and low-income residents. Officials had proposed eliminating the commission, along with its funding.

In a nod to the public outpouring, however, supervisors indicated they’ll look to use $1.2 million in federal stimulus funds meant for health and social welfare programs. That would preserve the commission at no less than 80 percent of its funding, and retain five positions in child welfare, veterans assistance and adult protective services, plus two in in-home care for the elderly.

Board chairwoman Valerie Brown and Supervisor Shirlee Zane also recommended the board use about $370,000 from a $21 million delinquent property tax reserve account to fill the remaining 20 percent of funding for the Human Services Commission and save an additional eight positions, including a veterans claim job and foster and in-home care positions.

Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Paul Kelley both voiced some concern about dipping into the property tax reserve, which officials are proposing to tap for an additional $6.6 million to balance the budget. Officials have not recommended touching the county’s primary general fund reserve of $35 million to balance the budget.

Outgoing Supervisor Mike Kerns split the difference between the two camps, saying he had to suppress a “desire to give everybody what they want because I won’t be here next year.”

He later appeared to back the increased funding for the social services programs, saying to the audience: “Thank you for coming here and reminding us about this most important segment of our community — the vulnerable.”

Monday’s informal votes, and those related to hearings today and early Wednesday will be finalized in a board session tentatively set for Wednesday afternoon.

That final vote will come after supervisors discuss how they might save a priority list of 68 jobs — totaling nearly $9 million in costs — through money they hope to get back from employee wage concessions.

So far, four employee groups, including department heads and the union representing probation officers, correctional workers and emergency dispatchers, have signed onto a deal calling for a total of 20 furlough days over the next two years.

Closed-door talks are continuing today and Wednesday with the remaining employee groups. If a majority sign on, the county stands to save $6 million this year through the furloughs. An additional $668,000 has already been contributed through voluntary concessions by vendors.

Those savings, plus about $1.8 million that the board can assign to projects of their choosing could be applied to the job list.

The money for the eight social services jobs and 20 percent funding for the Human Services Commission sought by Brown and Zane would likely be last on that long priority list.

“This is the reality check,” Brown told the audience.

“I don’t want you leaving here gleeful that you’re going to get everything that was discussed.”





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