By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A sheriff’s unit that specializes in bomb disposal, another dedicated to solving community crime issues and a panel that hands out nearly $600,000 annually to groups caring for the needy are all slated for elimination under the proposed Sonoma County budget released this week.
From tax collection to park maintenance, pest control to road upkeep, the proposal unveiled by County Administrator Veronica Ferguson would slash spending and services at most departments, affecting programs large and small.
Those include the Sheriff’s Office helicopter Henry 1, at a $1.9 million annual cost, and $22,000 the county provides for crossing guards at five school districts — Mark West, Forestville, Sonoma Valley, Petaluma and Roseland. Both programs would be axed to help fill a $42.8 million gap in the county’s 2011-2012 general fund.
Other efforts that have been cut in previous years or kept whole at the last minute would be trimmed. They include programs targeting domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault crimes, and those offering assistance for veterans, the mentally ill and substance abusers.
The spending plan is driven by a second straight year of declining property tax revenue, the main source of county funding. Together with a drop in other tax and interest earnings, total general fund revenue is projected to be down more than $11 million from the current year.
Ferguson, who is now into the second year at her post, called the spending plan the most difficult in a three-year string of reduced county budgets. Her hope, she said, was to preserve core county services.
“They are all terrible,” she said of the cuts.
The proposal would reduce spending from the general fund — the county’s main source of discretionary money — to $379 million, down 4 percent from the 2010-2011 figure of $395 million.
It does so by taking a bigger bite out of law enforcement and justice services, the single largest destination for general fund dollars. Spending at those four departments, including the Sheriff’s, District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices and the probation department is set to drop by 16 percent.
Sheriff Steve Freitas and District Attorney Jill Ravitch refused to sign off on the cuts, saying the reductions for their offices would jeopardize public safety.
“At some point you go past the point of fat and meat and you start cutting into the bone. That’s my concern,” said Ravitch. Like Freitas, she said supervisors could restore some high-profile programs and positions in their budget hearings two weeks from now.
Ferguson downplayed any rift with the sheriff and district attorney, saying she understood the reason for their stance. But she said she was not prepared to ask other departments to cut more from their budgets to bail out high-dollar public safety programs. Already those divisions, including administrative departments, planning and parks, among others, have slashed 20 to 25 percent of their spending. The same departments also took larger cuts, by percentage, in the 2010-2011 budget.
Other funding alternatives haven’t been put on the table. Ferguson recommended supervisors not touch the county’s main reserve fund of $35 million or use special one-time funds of about $30 million, both of which have been used to balance past budgets.
Employee concessions are also limited this year to five days of furloughs, expected to save the general fund about $1.6 million.
Instead, Ferguson’s proposal is a nearly all-cuts budget, relying on 223 job cuts and 63 layoffs. Those moves, which would cut the county’s workforce by almost 6 percent, are expected to generate about $30 million in savings. The remainder of the gap, about $13 million, would be closed through reduced spending on outside contracts, revenue increases from fees and other program cuts.
The proposal does not include changes that could result from the revised budget released last month by Gov. Jerry Brown. Some of his proposals could mean even deeper service and job cuts for the county, officials said. A closer look at those state-related effects will come next week in a supplement to the county’s budget proposal.
Proposed cuts outlined in the 314-page document released Tuesday included:
–Consolidation of the sheriff’s domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault unit with the violent crime unit, resulting in $831,000 savings but limiting investigations to felony crimes.
–The loss of four investigators, one victims advocate and four attorneys at the District Attorney’s office, including a prosecutor assigned to child abuse cases.
–Elimination of the Sierra Youth Center, the juvenile probation facility for girls, along with a pair of alternative detention programs.
–Elimination of one of three claims workers in the Veterans Service Office, resulting in about $2.5 million less each year available to local veterans.
–Elimination of the Human Services Commission, including the $588,000 it was to hand out this coming fiscal year to 26 community groups serving the needy and $243,000 in administrative funds.
Supervisors considered the same move last year with the commission before saving it with one-time stimulus funding. The possible elimination this year has nonprofit leaders nervous.
“It puts all of our contracts at risk,” said Katrina Thurman, executive director of West County Community Services. The group was set to receive $45,000 to help with its mental health counseling and emergency food and shelter programs. Without the county funding, those efforts and others might be shuttered, Thurman said.
“I could certainly make the case that this is the worst of all times to be cutting the safety net out from under people,” she said.
The $1.2 billion overall county budget, including state and federal funding, is up 2 percent over the current year due mostly to an accounting shift — the incorporation of taxes collected by the county’s open space district — and a small $1.8 million bump in state funding for health services and roads.
The budget proposal is available online and in print at the county administrator’s and auditor’s offices.