By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In its second day of budget hearings, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday tentatively approved job and program cuts for the last batch of seven county departments.
The moves, if formally approved today to help fill a $42.8 million deficit, would result in general fund spending reductions of 23 to 25 percent for county planning, fire and emergency services, transportation, community development and three other departments.
Supervisors also agreed Tuesday to consider saving $2.7 million in funding connected to some of those departments, including money for a trio of long-range planning positions, an emergency operations job and an additional $120,000 for grants to homeless shelter, emergency food and counseling programs.
Those moves added to the now-$8.6 million list of restorations the board is set to consider Wednesday in an all-important hearing before supervisors sign off on the proposed $1.2 billion budget.
Programs at risk range from the $1.1 million Sierra Youth Center, the probation center for girls, and the Sheriff’s Office helicopter Henry 1 — now slated to operate on a reduced, five-day schedule with a halved budget of $900,000 — to a $22,000 allocation for crossing guards at five local school districts.
In between are an array of public safety programs aimed at gang prevention, domestic violence, sex assault and child abuse cases, aid programs for veterans, the mentally ill and the needy, and positions dedicated to animal care, elections and road upkeep.
In their preliminary discussions so far this week, supervisors mostly agreed that each of those programs and jobs deserved another look.
“These are all essential services,” said Supervisor Valerie Brown, the board veteran.
Today’s formal votes, however, could reveal conflicts, starting with how to allocate the county’s dwindling general fund revenue.
As the main pot of discretionary money, the general fund supports public safety and administrative services, and to a lesser degree other local programs. Spending is down more than 11 percent in the past two years to $379 million, due largely to historic property tax declines. The combination of projected flat property tax revenues and rising county costs next year means an estimated $14.6 million deficit by next June, likely extending what has been a three-year scramble among departments for shrinking resources, county leaders said this week.
“Unfortunately, the five-year projection isn’t rosy,” Veronica Ferguson, the county administrator, said Monday.
A second issue is whether the board should again dip into special reserves, as it has in years past, to support programs and jobs that could be back on the chopping block next June.
If they want to save the entire $8.6 million restoration list, supervisors will have to tap $2.7 million of those one-time funds, which are intended to cover property tax delinquencies, capital projects and retirement costs. Together, the funds come to nearly $30 million.
The remainder of the list would be covered by $5.9 million set aside in special emergency and sales-tax accounts.
Brown said she supports using one-time funds to avoid cuts. “We’ve done it before to a much larger degree,” she said, citing the $11.7 million used from the same funds last year to help fill a nearly $62 million deficit.
At least three other supervisors said they were not inclined to tap the special funds, which are separate from the county’s main reserve of $35 million.
“This was the year that we really needed to tackle the structural deficit,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “No gimmicks.”
Some of those one-time funds may be needed for about $4 million in county programs that would be left unfunded if a tax extension on vehicle licenses isn’t approved by state legislators and voters, Rabbitt added.
“It’s such a huge gamble,” he said about spending reserves on existing programs.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo, the board chairman, said they were worried the county won’t be any better off next year, especially if the necessary cuts aren’t made.
“At this point I think we need to stick to our guns and make the hard cuts,” Zane said.
Carrillo added that one-time funds could extend some vital services that next year could be phased out or funded, partially or fully, through non-county sources.
An effort to secure outside financing, including private donations, is already under way to preserve the Henry 1 helicopter.
Supervisor Mike McGuire, meanwhile, said he would take a wait-and-see approach on the use of one-time funds.
He has proposed cost-cutting and smaller dollar amounts for program and job restorations throughout the budget hearings, urging county leaders, he said, “to find a new way to work.”
“This year is the year of sacrifice,” he said.