By BRETT WILKSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday signaled its intent to support an additional $8.5 million in spending to save a number of high-profile programs and jobs from the budget ax in the coming fiscal year.
In their third day of hearings on the county’s proposed $1.2 billion spending plan, supervisors tentatively restored funding for two big-ticket services: the Sheriff’s Office helicopter Henry 1 and the Sierra Youth Center, the probation center for girls.
Henry 1 received $900,000 to go along with $500,000 already budgeted or shifted around in the Sheriff’s Office to cover the helicopter’s operations through next June. The $1.4 million total will support a five-day work week for the all-purpose aerial crew that until recently was on call seven days a week.
Sheriff Steve Freitas praised the informal vote backing the helicopter program. “It’s a huge benefit to the citizens of this county and the people that come here as tourists,” he said.
The Sierra Youth Center, which serves about 15 delinquent girls at a time, received about $870,000 to go along with $270,000 budgeted to help with the center’s closure, had supervisors chosen that option.
Supervisors are seeking to close a $42.8 million gap in the county’s projected $379 million general fund, the main pot of discretionary money, down $16 million from the current year. The deficit is driven by an $11 million decline in general fund revenue — including a $3.1 million drop in property tax — and the continued increase in county costs, including retirement spending.
The budget put forward by County Administrator Veronica Ferguson called for most of that gap to be filled through reduced spending, including a 16 percent cut in general fund support for public safety departments and a 20 to 25 percent cut for all other departments.
Most of those cuts were endorsed this week. But some of the deepest and most politically unpopular reductions the board put off for potential restoration.
On Wednesday, as expected, supervisors turned back a proposal to abandon maintenance on about 100 miles of rural roads. The proposal generated substantial controversy in recent days, and supervisors said they weren’t willing to support it as one the many belt-tightening moves envisioned to help fill the budget gap.
“I’m not opposed to privatizing some roads; I’m really not,” said Supervisor Valerie Brown, who had sharply criticized the proposal from the county’s Transportation and Public Works Department. “I just don’t think you can spring it on people at this juncture.”
Other moves tentatively approved Wednesday included:
– Preserving four separate Sheriff’s Office investigative units — violent crimes, domestic violence, property crimes, and narcotics — all of which will remain whole, save for property crimes, which is set to lose two of its six detectives.
– Restoring positions for an investigator, victim advocate and prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office and two attorney slots in the Public Defender’s Office.
– Adding more than $565,000 in county money to backfill cuts in state-paid health insurance for 1,500 local children and CalWorks cash assistance for 160 households.
– Adding $140,000 for the emergency housing, food and counseling grant program now to be overseen by the Community Development Commission, bringing the total grant funding for next year to $440,000.
Not all the last-minute restorations under consideration were implemented. Supervisors cut two additional juvenile hall security positions, an assessor’s office clerk and one additional job in the county’s long-range planning division, which handles complex land-use policy issues.
That last cut, which in July will reduce the county’s long-range planners to two, produced one of the only split votes of the day.
Brown sought to add a third planner to the group, saying the reduction was akin to “cutting off our nose to spite our face.” She noted the planning department’s 40 percent staffing reduction since the 2008-2009 fiscal year, one of the highest among county divisions.
Board Chairman Efren Carrillo initially supported Brown’s stance but later joined supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane in supporting the job cut.
Supervisors ran out of the time they had set aside Wednesday to formally approve the list of last-minute restorations and cuts. They are to return this morning for final deliberations and formal approval of the budget.
Wednesday’s restorations would reduce the proposed 223 job cuts by about 51. The effect on the 63 proposed layoffs is still unknown.
Of the $8.5 million in restorations, about $5.9 million could be covered by tapping emergency and sales-tax accounts. One of those sales-tax accounts, approved by state voters to support public safety services, would funnel about $2.3 million toward the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices.
For the remainder of the spending tentatively approved Wednesday — about $2.6 million — more than $2.1 million is likely to come from special one-time reserves set aside to cover property tax delinquencies, capital projects or retirement costs. Those reserves currently total about $30 million.
Ferguson has recommended against using the one-time funds. Aside from unanimously agreeing to a $900,000 outlay from the capital projects reserve for construction on the county’s Family Justice Center — a sum included in the $2.1 million above — supervisors had differing views on the use of one-time funds.
Brown, the board veteran, signaled she was comfortable with tapping the one-time funds to support the entire package of restorations as proposed. She said that option this year was insignificant compared to last year, when supervisors used $11.7 million to help fill a $61.6 million gap in the budget.
However the other supervisors, led by Mike McGuire and Rabbitt, sought to limit the additional spending, noting it would prolong a structural deficit in the general fund predicted to be $14.6 million by this time next year.
“The more (cuts) that we can do now, the better we will be financially in the next fiscal year,” McGuire said after the meeting.
The last part of the extra spending, about $420,000 for rural road upkeep, would come from franchise fees paid by garbage haulers.
The disclosure of that little-known funding pot — now at $1.6 million with no strings attached for the transportation department — caused a minor stir among other county department heads and leaders on hand Wednesday.
“What other money is sitting in different pots that we’re not even talking about?” said Rabbitt. “If there’s money sitting there, we need to know about it.”