By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Fixing Sonoma County’s budget woes could cost hundreds of county employees their jobs this year and cut more deeply into a wide array of government services, especially public safety programs.
Community policing and gang prevention efforts, correctional facilities for youth offenders and required legal representation for some criminal defendants are all on the line, officials said.
The job and program cuts, which could affect up to 13 percent of the county workforce, are potential outcomes of a preliminary budget proposal that would slash county spending at all departments by 25 percent.
Of about 500 potential job cuts, 300 could come from departments supported mainly by county funding, including primarily public safety, while the remainder would come from health and human services, transportation and public works and other departments, which are supported largely by state and federal dollars.
The county’s overall budget exceeds $1 billion, with about $377 million of that classified as county generated and controlled dollars.
Unlike cuts in recent years, most of the positions at risk are currently filled, officials said.
Sheriff Steve Freitas’ 640-member office could bear the largest of the cuts, losing up to 100 jobs, including sworn personnel. He called the plan “dramatic,” saying it would take his office “back to basic patrol functions.”
Freitas and other county leaders cautioned that the proposal was a starting point in the budget planning process, which begins today at the Board of Supervisors meeting and will stretch through June, when supervisors are set to approve a budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.
Today: Budget workshop
Feb. 15: Adjustments to current budget
April 19: 3rd quarter review and fee hearings
April 26: Decision on retirement incentives
June 1: Proposed 2011-2012 budget released
June 20-June 24: Budget hearings (and following week if needed)
Still, any final proposal along the preliminary lines would significantly reduce staffing and services in the criminal justice system, including the jails, courts and probation, law enforcement leaders said.
“We wouldn’t be able to handle the (current) caseload,” said John Abrahams, the public defender, whose 50-member office would lose up to a third, or 11, of its attorneys. “This is the beginning of an ongoing discussion.”
Already that discussion differs from preliminary proposals in the previous two years, which sought to close deficits while avoiding deep cuts to public safety.
Those moves, and a grab bag of other solutions used to close past budget gaps are either no longer sufficient or available, officials said.
“The sooner we’re able to confront this new fiscal reality, the better off we’re going to be in the long term,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo, who called the coming budget year, “the worst that Sonoma County has ever faced.” Job cuts and layoffs numbering in the hundreds appear likely, he said. “That number is yet to come. Not every department is going to take that 25 percent.”
But law enforcement and justice-related departments likely will share more in the cuts than they have in previous years, county officials and others said.
In the past two fiscal years, deficits of roughly $62 million and $22 million, respectively, resulted in the elimination of nearly 300 jobs, but only about 95 layoffs. For those budgets, public safety departments were asked to take cuts of about 10 percent or less, while most others slashed 20 percent from their spending. The majority of the lost positions were vacant.
“We’ve cut so far into other programs, there’s almost nothing left but to cut into public safety,” said Ed Clites, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, which represents more than 500 employees in the Sheriff’s Office and probation department.
Also, because public safety accounts for more than half of all money from the county’s general fund — the pot filled mostly by property tax revenues — it has to account for a larger share of the cuts, officials said.
By the latest estimate, the county’s general fund, which also supports administration and fiscal services and pays for staff and programs throughout county government, is short $36 million.
The actual deficit could be higher, in excess of $42 million, if supervisors decide not to tap into special reserves.
Last year, supervisors used $11.7 million of those funds, including tobacco tax money and property tax penalties, to help close a nearly $62 million general fund budget gap.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson has recommended the current board not touch the remaining special funds.
Other tools used to close previous budgets may also not be available, Ferguson said.
Expansion of a furlough agreement expected to save the county about $6.5 million over this fiscal year and next is unlikely because the county won’t be in contract negotiation with the majority of its employees, she said.
A freeze on staff training dollars, which saved about $1.5 million this fiscal year, is also set to expire, she said.
Two other tools, eliminating unfilled jobs first and offering a package of retirement incentives, will both be explored, Ferguson said. But cuts to the now 3,700-member workforce, which accounts for up to two-thirds of county costs, will remain the central solution, Ferguson said.
“This is a year to take a look seriously at what services we’re going to continue to deliver,” she said about the downsizing. “I think this could set the new baseline for the county.”
State and federal funding reductions and the shift of some services to local governments could compound the problems.
Chief Probation Officer Robert Ochs faces a state proposal to transfer all state youth offenders to county control. At the same time, under the county proposal, his department could lose 77 of his 290 employees, plus the Sierra Youth Center for girls, the Probation Camp for boys and a number of alternative detention programs.
The Sheriff’s Office faces a related state proposal to transfer low-level state offenders to the county jail system.
“We’ve been asked to look at what that would mean,” Ochs said of the county and state proposals. “It’s still a little too early to tell.”
District Attorney Jill Ravitch could not be reached Monday for an interview about the county proposal.
Unions are certain to oppose layoffs and press their case for more cuts where they say the savings are greatest, at the managerial level.
“We need to explore efficiencies at all levels of the organization,” said Caroline Lopez, a field representative for SEIU Local 1021, the county’s largest union, with more than 1,800 workers. “We can’t balance a budget on cuts alone.”