By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County government expects to eliminate 223 jobs, resulting in 63 layoffs, to help plug a $43 million gap in the county budget for the coming fiscal year.
Those preliminary numbers, released for a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, would cut the size of the county’s workforce by almost 6 percent and touch nearly every department. The reductions account for about $25 million of the savings needed to balance the 2011-2012 county budget.
The plan would wipe out nearly all of the county’s 240 vacant positions, leaving 19 open jobs when the fiscal year begins July 1. County officials insisted the reductions did not come solely by eliminating vacancies, though they were not able to give a precise breakdown of filled and vacant positions to be cut.
Previous estimates called for 300 to 500 jobs to be shed from the county’s 3,800-member workforce and a much larger number of layoffs. Incentive-driven early retirements and other spending reductions, along with an increase in the fees charged by some departments, helped reduce the number of projected job losses somewhat, officials said.
“The initial estimate was the worst case scenario,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo said in an interview Monday. Supervisors are set to hear a report Tuesday on the reductions, which are contained in a proposed budget to be released Friday.
Supervisors will determine the precise number of layoffs and job cuts in budget hearings set to begin June 13.
“There is no question that we’re still going to see a significant impact from these job losses,” Carrillo said.
Public safety staffing, including frontline jobs in the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices and the probation department, are proposed for a larger share of the cuts this year than in the past two years of county budget woes. Together, the three departments account for nearly half of the proposed job cuts and more than 40 percent of the layoffs.
Officials said that was because the departments and another associated with the justice system — the Public Defender’s Office — account for more than half the spending from the county’s projected $377 million general fund, the discretionary pot within a larger $1.1 billion overall budget. In years past, the four justice departments had smaller savings targets, but for this coming fiscal year they were asked to meet the same 25 percent savings goal as other county divisions.
Come July, that means the possibility of a smaller corps of deputy sheriffs, correctional officers, criminal investigators and juvenile hall counselors overseeing day-to-day justice duties, county law enforcement officials said.
The officials acknowledged the impact of those cuts: less specialized services for the general public and individuals in county custody. As examples they cited two high-profile programs slated for elimination, the sheriff’s helicopter Henry 1 and the Sierra Youth Center, the probation facility for girls.
“The real issue is the programs we’re losing,” said Bob Ochs, chief probation officer, listing other alternative detention programs that could be cut.
Preserving the level of patrol and jail staffing remains a top priority, the officials stressed. And supervisors could save the high-profile justice programs in their deliberations next month, they said.
“We don’t know the final numbers yet,” said Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas. He added, however, that the proposed reductions were “the hardest we’ve been hit ever.”
Ed Clites, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, said that toll came as no surprise to his group, which was looking at 40 layoffs under the initial estimate but now stands to lose 19 workers by July 13, including correctional officers, juvenile counselors and investigators in the District Attorney’s Office.
“With all the cuts over the last two years, there really wasn’t a lot left to cut besides criminal justice,” Clites said.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to transfer some jail, court security and probation services to counties might bring some relief in the form of funding for new county jobs, sheriff’s and probation officials said.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said state budget proposals were not factored into the latest county workforce reductions.
Other county divisions, such as planning and parks, are also set for large workforce reductions between 10 and 20 percent.
A proposed single-year staffing cut of 20 percent at the Permit and Resources Management Department, combined with a 27 percent reduction over the previous two years, will mean slower turnaround times for permit processing and building inspections and a suspension of long-range planning efforts. The office also will go from a five-day week for walk-up services to a four-day week, spanning Monday through Thursday.
“There’s really not any section that is spared,” said planning director Pete Parkinson.
A nearly 12 percent reduction in park staff will be felt mostly in administrative and office duties as well as reduced ground maintenance around county buildings. No park closures or reduction in hours are planned, said Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart.
County leaders said the proposed cuts were harder to find than in the past two years of budget woes, when employee concessions, reserve funds and job attrition were used to balance the budget. Most of those moves have been ruled out this year in favor of job cuts and a more straight-forward budget.
For the second year, the county solicited early retirements with a one-time payout of up to $20,000 for full-time employees. This year 135 workers took the offer, eight fewer than last year and 44 less than the county was hoping to get. Still those departures are expected to generate annual ongoing savings of $15.6 million.
“Our ideal goal would be to have nobody walking out the door July 12,” said Ferguson. “But I’m proud of what we did to try and bring down (the number of layoffs and job cuts).”
The remainder of the budget gap, about $18 million, would be met through reduced spending on outside contracts and revenue increases from fees, administrators said.