By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sheriff’s Office helicopter Henry 1, an investigative team specializing in domestic violence and sex assault cases and a probation center for girls were among a number of high-profile services Sonoma County supervisors said on Monday they would try to save this week.
In their first day of informal votes on the county’s proposed $1.2 billion budget, supervisors agreed to consider restoring $5.9 million for prominent public safety programs, as well as efforts to aid at-risk youth, veterans and the mentally ill.
If approved later this week, however, those moves would eat up all the money in special emergency and sales-tax pots set aside by county administrators for last-minute budget restorations.
The scenario raises the stakes for other threatened services set to come before the board today. It also increases the likelihood that supervisors may tap several one-time funds totaling nearly $65 million — the county’s main $35 million reserve among them — to avoid politically unpopular cuts in this third straight year of reduced county spending.
“In the past two years, we talked about doing more with less,” said board chairman Efren Carrillo, who called the cuts “agonizing.”
“Today, we find ourselves in an environment of doing less with less,” he said.
High-profile cuts before the board today include those to rural road upkeep, fire and emergency services, planning and building oversight and the elimination of $22,000 for school crossing guards. If saved, the combined development and administrative services and construction projects would add $2.8 million to the county’s ballooning restoration list.
Decisions on what remains on that list as well as a final formal vote on the budget could come Wednesday.
Supervisors are seeking to fill a $42.8 million gap in the general fund — the county’s main source of discretionary money, projected to be down 4 percent over the current year to $379 million. Under the proposed budget, the deficit would be filled almost entirely with cuts, including the elimination of 223 jobs and 63 layoffs.
Even with those moves, because of property tax declines and rising costs, the county could still face a $14.6 million general fund deficit this time next year, administrators reported Monday.
The first day of hearings included presentations by Sheriff Steve Freitas and District Attorney Jill Ravitch, both of whom declined to sign off on the 16 percent spending cuts County Administrator Veronica Ferguson proposed for their offices.
Ravitch pressed her case that the 10 percent staff reduction envisioned for her office — including four investigators, one victim advocate and four attorneys — would push prosecutor caseloads beyond their current all-time peak of more than 400 per year.
“It goes beyond what we can absorb at this point,” Ravitch said of the cuts. “All that translates to justice delayed is not justice served.”
Supervisors gave no extra ground, consenting only to consider saving three positions — an investigator, the victim advocate and an attorney — jobs already identified in the add-back list.
Supervisor Valerie Brown, the board’s lone two-term veteran, pointed to the deeper 20 percent to 25 percent cuts absorbed by non-public safety services in the current and upcoming fiscal years.
“We have protected the Sheriff and District Attorney to the maximum extent,” she told Ravitch. “I just can’t go beyond the three (jobs) on the list.”
Several speakers praised supervisors for once again trying to save the Sierra Youth Center, the probation camp for delinquent girls. The facility, which serves 15 girls at any one time, at an annual cost of $1.1 million, has been a regular on the chopping block in previous years.
Several speakers said its elimination would send more girls to uncertain futures in group homes or jail.
“It was a sanctuary for me,” said Sondra Gilbert, 26, a Guerneville resident and Sierra graduate who said she was training to be an herbalist.
“It gave me my life back.”
Other programs proposed for preservation included:
–The Sheriff’s gang unit, with partial funding of $292,000.
–A supervised release program for low-risk, pretrial offenders, at partial funding of $390,000.
–Five juvenile hall positions, overseeing programming and security, totaling $634,000.
–Two assistant positions within the Animal Care and Control division, totaling $69,000.
In an earlier informal vote on a budget supplement, supervisors also restored funding to the Sheriff’s bomb unit, code enforcement efforts and 4-H and master gardener programs.
The same vote eliminated the Human Services Commission and transferred oversight of $300,000 — about half the current annual allocation for grants to 26 community groups serving the needy — plus $80,000 in administrative dollars to the county’s Community Development Commission.
The money for those moves came from state and federal grants, unused county fees and reimbursements for government services, and from shifting funds from one county department or account to another.