WatchSonoma Watch

County supervisors get first look at budget plan Monday


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 brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

14 Responses to “County supervisors get first look at budget plan Monday”

  1. GAJ says:

    Pensions not a problem?

    Not counting unfunded liabilities the costs have increased by $55 million since 2001; $21.9 million in 2001 compared to $87.2 million last year.

    Remember, the budget for Road Maintenance is only $4.5 million, so yes, the increase in annual retirement costs paid for by the County has had a huge impact on the budget.

  2. truth in news says:

    Pensions are not the problem, funding every social program from left field is. We need to address the spending on every liberal whim brought forward. Cut police and fire? Do it. Then go ahead and solve the problems they keep away from your door yourself. Oh good luck with that!

  3. Canthisbe says:

    “Let’s be blunt. Democrats, whose political livelihoods have steadily and increasingly become dependent on union money since Jerry Brown in his first term signed the legislation that gave state employees collective bargaining rights, are terrified of moving an inch on pensions without permission and marching orders from the labor groups that finance their campaigns”.


  4. Jay Gamel says:

    …By any standard of measurement, Sonoma County’s five supervisors are very well paid. At a time when the county is scaling back vital services in all sectors, they are earning almost $220,000 a year in pay and benefits, significantly more than their counterparts in similar sized counties, and even more than supervisors in several much larger counties.

    Sonoma County supervisors’ basic pay is set as a percentage of Superior Court Judge’s pay, which is set by the state and often supplemented by the counties. The first correlation was set in 1986 at 55 percent of the county’s Municipal Court Justice pay. Since then, the Municipal Courts have been abolished and their pay is now pegged at 75 percent of a county Superior Court Judge’s salary, which is currently $178,789 a year.

    A breakdown of Valerie Brown’s salary in 2010, the last year for which full figures are available, shows her total compensation as follows:

    Regular pay is $133,640, with other gross earnings bringing the total to $149,770. Adding in other benefits, including $48,006 in retirement benefits, the total comes to $216,245, the highest in California for comparable counties and higher than many larger counties, including Sacramento.

    The total figures are slightly different for other supervisors because their length of time in office determines their retirement benefits and deferred compensation. Since benefits from prior years are difficult if not impossible to obtain, the following numbers are comparisons of base pay figures.

    The current base pay of $133,640 is a hefty jump from 1976’s $21,970. Base salary was $39,008 in 1990, $53,368 in 2000, and $134,097 in 2010, where it remains today. The jump between 2000 and 2010 is a whopping 251 percent. The biggest jump in that period was almost 28 percent from 2001 to 2002.

  5. Commonsense says:

    Are the BOS and the un-represented upper managers taking any hits (MTO, Wage/Benefit/Retirment reductions)? It seems to me that most of the pain had been at the middle and bottom of the chain, with little real pain at the upper portion. In almost every government agency/function I note that there is no shortage of managament, just a shortage of making a list of priorities and sticking to it (politicians really cannot say no, unless it’s to a reduction in spending).

  6. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Skeptical-while you’re at it please make sure that everyone knows that Sawyer has already made promises to the county safety employees’ union, like he did with the city’s. He’s agenda will be to cut the rest and the rank and file will take the brunt of it AGAIN. MTO only made money for the safety employees because they got OVERTIME to cover those taking time off. Again it was the rest of the rank and file that paid for that. MTO does NOT save money, just shifts it to other departments. Many rank and file staff are financed by state and federal funds so if MTO is taken that’s money that goes bye bye too.

  7. Reality Check says:


    you make a strong point. The city is complaining at having to make up a difference that, had they continued their normal contributions, would be smaller today.

    But is asking for prudence from government realistic? Public demands for spending is pretty much unlimited. Expecting politicians to say no is asking a bit much.

    The first mistake was making a pension promise that depended on investment returns that could only be achieved through risky investments.

  8. Mike says:

    Where are the editorials crying out for county wage cuts, pension and benefit cuts and layoffs?

    If this county followed the private sector model, which it should be doing, when income falls, the roof falls in and real cuts are made starting with personnel, wages and benefits until either the ship is righted or goes down.

    The PD whins about the pensions, but that’s it. No recommendations, just whinning. Time to take action Ms. County Administrator and earn some of that big salary. All the BOS can do is look really stupid, even more than usual, and say no.

  9. Jean Anderson says:

    Sonoma County is a small-scale reflection of the larger problem caused by out of control government spending, and the fact that defined benefit pensions even exist for public employees or anyone else. In contrast, contribution-based pensions through a 401K or some other vehicle make more sense and don’t leave the taxpayer holding the bag when some high-paid manager retires at 58 and receives $20,000 per month to do nothing. The way public employee pensions are calculated today and paid out is insane and unsustainable.

    The big question is why are government agencies so utterly irresponsible in the way they spend taxpayer dollars? Is it because they can get way with it – and do every day at the federal, state and local levels – or is it simply human nature to feel you are entitled?

  10. Let's be Reasonable says:

    Brett, why are you cherry picking the numbers? Why pick exactly 12 years ago to do the pension cost to taxpayer comparison? That was the point where pensions were the most SUPER funded, before the .com bust in the stock market. I don’t know what the County was putting into its pension fund then, but Santa Rosa was putting basically nothing at that time, though employees continued to pay their portion. These pension holidays are a big part of the reason why we’re in such trouble now.

  11. County Employee says:

    “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.


  12. Manuel says:

    If the county wants to save money, layoff Inzane Zane. She once told me that she does not care about Veteran’s with mental problems, the homeless or anyone with any kind mental problems. I’m a Veteran with PTSD and when she told me this, I had to be taken to the VA hospital because she pushed me over the edge. Thank God for the VA and a wonderful wife.

  13. Steveguy says:

    Probably raises to the ‘Administrators’ – you know, the ones you never see that rake in hundreds of thousands. Spike the pensions too !

    Meanwhile, the rank and file that we all (most?) love get the shaft again. The librarian, the counter help, you know, the ones that ACTUALLY work !

    Are the ‘Administrators’ back from Rio yet ? Blow the whistle rank and file, I will support and applaud you, but I do understand being afraid to lose your job.

    How many overpriced ‘consultants’ do they have to pay for campaign contribution paybacks ? oh my

  14. Skeptical says:

    Why doesn’t the Press Demo challenge Ferguson or the BOS at all? Where is the analysis?

    For example, DSA/DSLEM (Deputy Sheriiffs and Sheriff’s management) are not even at the bargaining table for another year. In fact, they are slated to receive up to a 4% COLA this year. (Please note this is based on a salary survey of comparable counties, and not a survey based on “total compensation”.)

    Isn’t it understandable that the other bargaining units are reluctant to keep letting the BOS extract concessions when history has taught them that the BOS can not be trusted to stand up to the the law enforcement groups? What in the world would cause the BOS to think the employee groups would want to fund a pay raise for law enforcement?

    It is so frustrating to see the BOS speak about the “County Family” and shared sacrifice and yet continually demonstrate that is just political lip service.

    The BOS speaks of Fairness and Equity and Sustainability, but seems to have little understanding as to what those words mean.

    The County knew two years ago that this bargaining round was going to be focused on needed pension reform, and that is why they got every employee group to have representatives participate in a lengthy series of pension meetings over the past year leading up to negotiations. And yet, here we are and DSA/DSLEM was given a three year contract and aren’t even at the table for another year? So everyone is left to wonder what the BOS will give law enforcemnt in order to get their agreement to pension reform . . . of course SEIU and others are reluctant to simply agree to needed reforms.

    Most of the County employees recognize the need for appropriate reforms. But it is difficult to have a conversation and negotiate with a BOS which has done so little to inspire confidence or trust.