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Social services brace for cuts

By BRETT WILKISON

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Last month, John Records made the difficult call to close a 35-bed homeless shelter that he oversees as executive director of the Petaluma-based nonprofit Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS.

Now, amid steadily declining public and private funding for social service charities, COTS faces the prospect of another big hit to its $2.5 million budget.

As Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors begins budget hearings Monday to decide how to solve a $61.6 million general-fund deficit, one of the many belt-tightening proposals before them will be to eliminate funds the county’s Human Service Commission hands out each year to 19 groups that serve about 11,000 low-income and homeless people. Next fiscal year that figure would be about $588,000.

For COTS, $72,000 is at stake, enough to fund two positions and care for about 110 needy families, including 185 children.

“This population is already devastated,” Records said. The county’s proposed cut “is like closing an emergency room during an earthquake.”

County officials think they may have found a last-ditch option to preserve at least 80 percent of that funding as well as some jobs in veterans assistance, child welfare and adult protective services by tapping $1.2 million in federal stimulus money meant for health and social welfare programs.

But tougher fixes will be required to fill the remaining deficit in the $395 million general fund, which shrunk by nearly 8percent since last year, a reduction that county officials say hasn’t been experienced since the Great Depression.

County Administrator Veronica Ferguson’s proposal to bring costs in line with slumping revenues, released last week as the proposed budget, called for across-the-board cuts of 20 percent for most departments, 95 layoffs and the elimination of 165 vacant positions.

Ferguson called the proposal, which supervisors will consider in their deliberations, “transformative” and a “fundamental realignment of county government.”

“A lot of thought went into this budget,” she said. “We didn’t take it lightly.”

Job and program cuts, which account for about half, or $31.2 million, of the deficit-cutting measures, affect substance-abuse and juvenile probation programs, land-use planning, park maintenance and agricultural inspections.

Hardest hit are the county’s Health and Human Services departments, which stand lose more than 60 workers from county budget cuts. Loss of state funding for those services, currently estimated at $50 million to $60 million, could result in another round of layoffs later this year when Sacramento’s budget-wrangling is expected to wrap up. County policy generally prevents the use of general-fund money to replace lost state or federal revenue.

Last week, supervisors approved a plan to reduce county spending on alcohol and drug treatment by $1.8 million by shifting some of those services, including a detoxification program at the Orenda Center in Santa Rosa, to community organizations. Eighteen county positions, most of them filled, will be lost by the moves, which officials said would result in similar and more efficient levels of care.

Union officials disagreed.

“The county is letting these people go who are experts,” said Bill Robotka of Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20 IFPTE, which represents some of the affected workers. “It’s short-term thinking. It really does not address the greater good of the county.”

In a format switch this year, supervisors are set to address in one vote early Monday most of lower-impact cuts before presiding over presentations by department heads and public comment on the tougher cuts. The latter deliberations are expected to last through Monday and into Tuesday. A final vote could happen as early as Tuesday, although hearings could last into next week, officials said.

Much of what supervisors decide next week, however, will depend on the progress of closed-door negotiations with employee unions. The county has asked for $26.2 million in concessions from employees to help avoid some of the layoffs and service cuts.

The terms of the request include 12 days of furloughs — up from five days this year — a continued halt to staff development spending and, according to unions, double-digit pay cuts.

Two groups, one representing department heads and the other probation officers, correctional workers and emergency dispatchers, have reached deals with the county, extending their contracts to 2012 in exchange for a combined 20 days of furloughs over the next two years, but no outright salary cuts.

The same furlough deal was on the table for the remaining employee groups, who had until Friday to accept. Furloughs from all 3,755 employees this coming fiscal year could save nearly $6 million in general-fund spending, with an additional $1 million in savings from the freeze on staff development funds. Voluntary concessions from the county’s vendors could add another $1 million in savings.

No employee groups have consented to salary cuts at this point, Ferguson said.

If they choose to, supervisors could use savings from employee concessions to restore, next week or later on, some of 68 priority positions in various departments. The total cost of those positions is nearly $9 million.

To account for the remaining $30.4 million deficit, Ferguson has recommended supervisors tap $11.7 million in tobacco settlement funds, delinquent property tax penalties and money from a retirement savings account. Additional money would come from hiring and salary freezes, a $3.5 million increase in sales tax revenue, a reduction in the contingency funds that supervisors allocate annually to community groups and projects, and $2 million the county expects to save by selling a long-term, low-interest bond to refinance $670 million in retirement-system investment losses in 2008.

Ferguson advised supervisors not to use the county’s $35 million reserve fund to help offset the deficit, even in this unprecedented budget cycle. That reserve has fallen below the recommended level of 10 to 15 percent of the general fund.

Supervisors avoided dipping into the primary reserve account in last year’s budget hearings, during which Supervisor Paul Kelley said that spending the emergency fund “is analogous to eating your seed corn.”

Ferguson concurs. “You can never tell if something catastrophic is going to happen, which is why you have the reserve fund in the first place,” she said.





2 Responses to “Social services brace for cuts”

  1. Zuma says:

    Salary reductions for everyone in the county govt is mandatory. Our Supervisors seem to unwilling to face reality and instead dance on the head of a pin.

    We cant afford the current salaries and retirement bennies now given to employees!
    It isnt going to get better next year or in the future years. The county is not willing to do what is necessary!

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  2. Patrick Band says:

    John is absolutely right. Cutting funds from the Human Services Commission will save some money this year, but the downstream effects of those cuts will be felt by those left out in the cold without services for months and years to come.

    A single dollar cut on these programs can, because of matching federal and state funds, and lost savings of preventative care, can equate to an additional $7 or more down the road. In their strategic planning documents, the County specifically outlines and enthusiastically supports what are called “upstream funding sources,” which provide for those same programs that are now potentially facing the chopping block.

    It is my sincere hope that the Board realizes how absolutely critical this small pot of money is to thousands of residents of Sonoma County who desperately need a helping hand.

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