By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors have authorized more than $3.7 million in spending on early childhood development programs in recent weeks, a fast-track maneuver aimed at deflecting Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to use part of that cash to help balance the state budget.
The money comes from a special fund supported by a statewide 50-cent tax on tobacco products. Voters authorized the tax in 1998 to pay for early childhood education and health programs.
Yet under legislation signed by Brown in March, the local First 5 commissions that oversee that money would be forced to give up half of their fund balances — a total of about $1 billion — to help fill California’s budget gap.
In Sonoma County, that amounts to a loss of nearly $15.5 million. Sonoma County and at least seven other counties have filed a lawsuit against the state challenging AB 99, the law authorizing the funding shift.
In the meantime, the new and increased contracts are a way of committing some of that money before it can be taken away, the county’s First 5 leaders acknowledged.
“There are two choices,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire, who sits on the county’s nine-member First 5 commission. “Either the funds benefit children in Sonoma County, or the money allocated by voters to the county is reallocated into the state’s black hole of a budget.”
He called the proposed transfer an “unconstitutional raid.”
The Board of Supervisors is set to grant Rita Scardaci, the county’s Health Services director and a First 5 commission member, authority on Tuesday to sign another pair of First 5 deals. That action would bring the total figure on contracts authorized in the last four weeks to more than $4 million.
About $1.2 million of those contracts are budgeted in the current fiscal year, with the remainder accounted for in future years.
Sonoma County is not alone in its recent flurry of First 5 deals, according to state Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. He did not have an estimate for the number of such moves, which have not been widely reported. But he said they would not stymie the state’s fight to recoup the First 5 funds for the budget.
A test case may be the parallel fight over redevelopment money that broke out between the state and dozens of local governments earlier this year. Seeking to protect money eyed by Brown for the state budget, cities and counties fast-tracked approval of hundreds of redevelopment projects. Sonoma County government alone approved more than $22 million in projects so far this year.
It’s still unclear how those redevelopment decisions will hold up in court. And the recent moves on First 5 funding may have less power to stop any state grab, local and state officials said.
Under AB 99, money already committed to First 5 contracts would still be subject to the transfer.
Local programs would face no such threat, county First 5 leaders said.
In the county’s case, they said, the recent spending does not tap into the reserves that would be needed to foot the $15.5 million transfer if it is green-lighted. The fund is at nearly $31 million now, and nearly $15.5 million would remain this year if the shift happened, Scardaci said.
“We’re not trying to whittle it down so that money doesn’t exist,” she said.
First 5 leaders said that most if not all of the deals were envisioned in a 2009 strategic plan and that the recent contracts were not solely a tactical ploy against the state.
“This is spending that we were talking about doing all along,” said Jennie Tasheff, executive director of First 5 Sonoma County.
Nonetheless, the agency, which supports programs that serve about 11,000 needy and at-risk children and nearly 10,000 parents, shows no signs it intends to cut or slow spending in the face of the state proposal, as have other jurisdictions.
Local First 5 leaders gave two reasons for that strategy. First, they said they have enough money to continue at current spending levels until either mid-2017 if the state transfer plays out, or until mid-2022 if it doesn’t. Currently, the commission pays out about $4.5million each year in contracts and programs while taking in about $4million in tax revenue.
Other commissions may not have such a cushion with their reserves, the First 5 leaders said.
“If we were a commission that had fewer dollars, we would have to cut to come up with the money the state is asking for,” Tasheff said.
The second reason, leaders said, is there are no guarantees the state won’t seek the other half of the First 5 reserves at a later date.
“Either half of them or all of them. That potential exists,” Scardaci said.
A compromise may be brewing in the state Assembly, where a proposal that would roughly halve the First 5 funding shift, to $550 million, is moving through a budget subcommittee.
A meeting of First 5 leaders on Monday will focus partly on that proposal, which officials suggested might find some support statewide. Otherwise, First 5 leaders said, their stance on state measures remains guarded.
“It’s certainly a wake-up call of concern,” Scardaci said.
Contact Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.