By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For the first time in four years, Sonoma County supervisors are set to consider a balanced budget Monday when they begin hearings on a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson’s proposed $383.9 million general fund budget still foresees reductions across many county service areas starting July 1. They include continued deferred maintenance at county parks, limited public hours at some county offices and reduced inspections on some agricultural activities.
But this year, those cuts are driven not by multi-million-dollar deficits but by flat spending, forcing departments to absorb cost increases by holding staff and program expenses level.
The proposed general fund budget, representing the bulk of county discretionary spending, is down about 0.8 percent from the current year’s plan.
Ferguson called it a “new baseline” for the general fund, which is down 10 percent, and total staffing, which has dropped 8 percent, from 2009-2010. To address shortfalls since then, the county has slashed a combined $100 million in general fund spending and 600 filled and unfilled jobs.
Road upkeep, park staffing, land-use planning and library hours all have suffered, while some high-profile services such as the sheriff’s office helicopter have been spared at the last minute.
“We know what it is that we’re currently doing,” said Ferguson. “Is that good enough? Probably not. We know we need to invest.”
Affected departments absorbed an effective cut of about five percent, totaling about $6 million, to cover rising salaries and benefits, along with increased service and supply expenses.
Few if any layoffs are expected.
Last minute changes restored about seven filled positions, including a prosecutor and two District Attorney investigator jobs, two probation officers and a sheriff’s position connected with the county’s graffiti removal program.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who protested cuts to her office last year, said she signed off on the proposed budget only after being reassured that the three positions would be kept this year.
“It’s time to stop cutting and start looking at where our essential services are,” Ravitch said. “Public safety is certainly at the top of the list in my opinion.”
Many of the restored public safety jobs were covered with funds connected to a statewide shift of criminal justice programs to counties.
Other revenue adjustments filled about $4 million of a general fund shortfall projected earlier this year at about $10.4 million. About $3.9 million in one-time money — tobacco tax settlement funds used for capital improvements — is being tapped to pay for a new countywide financial software system.
Property tax, the main source of general fund revenue, is projected to be flat this year, at about $287 million.
The county’s overall budget, which includes federal and state money that supports health and human service spending and other programs, is set to grow by 4.6 percent, to $1.28 billion. The growth is largely due to the addition of about $26 million in federal grants for the expansion of Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport and $31 million in funds connected to a shift in human service programs to the county.
Employee salary and benefit costs continue to rise. Total payroll costs are projected to be up 3.9 percent from the current year, to $489 million. About $260 million of the general fund is set to go to salaries and benefits, also up by 3.9 percent from the current year.
County administrators are pushing for a 3 percent reduction in employee compensation as part of ongoing contract talks. Projected savings from those moves are not built into the proposed budget.
Fiscal watchdogs have pushed for more aggressive salary and benefit reductions, including larger changes to pensions for current employees.
Taxpayer costs for county pensions have climbed 401 percent in the past 12 years, to $87.2 million a year. An additional $15 million could be tacked on between the current fiscal year and the one that begins July.
Ferguson, however, signaled that she would not be changing her request to employees at the bargaining table.
“It would be great if we could fix this overnight. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t allow us to do that,” she said. “We’re asking our employees to help us move forward. They’ve shown in the past several years that they’ve been willing to do that.”
Concessions have included three years without cost-of-living increases on salaries and mandatory unpaid time off.
Impacts from the state budget remain another unknown. About $11.5 million of the county general fund is at stake in an ongoing tug-of-war between the governor and legislature over property tax dollars linked to now-dissolved redevelopment agencies.
The money is part of $250 million the governor wanted to go back to counties but that legislators tagged for schools. Reports out of Sacramento last week indicated the funds could be earmarked for counties after all. Most cleanup bills are set to be acted on by Tuesday, with the governor’s signature coming sometime thereafter.
Budget hearings for the Board of Supervisors begin at 8:30 a.m. Monday and could continue through Thursday. The board will hold its regular weekly meeting Tuesday afternoon.
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)