By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday adopted a $1.3 billion budget that boosts spending with federal and state money but holds the line on most county funded services.
Supervisors said the approach showed fiscal restraint, with several calling it a “cautious” budget coming out of the multimillion-dollar deficits and extensive program and personnel cuts of the past three years.
“It’s been a bumpy, bumpy ride,” said board Chairwoman Shirlee Zane.
The spending plan, which takes effect July 1, does little to restore cuts since 2009, while projecting a slow rebound in local tax revenue. Property tax, the county’s main source of discretionary money, is projected to be flat, with sales tax revenue set to grow by 3 percent over the current year.
“It’s a cautious budget, but appropriate at this time,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt.
The budget also reflects the continued rise in county salary and pension costs, an issue supervisors acknowledged they need to tackle.
“We’re not going to get out of this without tackling that issue,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire.
The overall budget, including federal and state funding and fee-supported spending, is up about 7.4 percent from the current year. The increase includes 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.
The $383.9 million general fund, the main source for public safety and administrative departments, is down just under 1 percent from the current year. The flat spending resulted in a 5 percent to 8 percent general fund cut for most departments, totaling about $7 million, administrators said.
The impacts include deferred park and road maintenance, a drop in farm-related inspections and a decline in low-income housing funds, partly a by-product of the state-ordered end to redevelopment.
Limited public hours for some offices, including the library system, are set to continue. Up to four layoffs are possible.
Still, Supervisor Efren Carrillo echoed other board members when he called those hits a “softer blow” than reductions that began in 2009. Since then, a combined $103 million in programs and 520 filled and unfilled jobs — 12 percent of the county workforce — have been cut.
Packed budget hearings in those years featured hours of anguished public testimony over the loss of popular programs and wrangling among supervisors over last-minute spending moves.
In contrast, this year’s plan was crafted over two days featuring little public pressure and few tough decisions. The lone high-profile cut — closure of the Sierra Youth Center, the probation camp for girls — was approved earlier this month.
The board easily reached agreement on $9.1 million in additional spending from a number of special reserves. The most significant of those moves — a shift of $8 million in one-time funds to improve road upkeep — was endorsed in a regular board meeting last week.
Board veteran Valerie Brown called it “one of the easiest and most productive budgets” in her 10 years as a supervisor.
Moves to address the county’s rising pension costs could be much tougher, supervisors said. Those costs are up 401 percent over the past 12 years, to $87.2 million a year.
Total payroll, including salaries and benefits, is projected to be $489 million, up 3.9 percent from the current year.
County negotiators are pushing for a 3 percent reduction in employee compensation as part of ongoing contract talks.
Fiscal watchdogs have pushed for more aggressive reductions.
Projected salary and pensions savings from labor negotiations were not included in the budget.
“To get to this point where we can get through a budget like this … it’s hopeful,” said Zane “And yet while we see the light ahead, there are still hurdles.”
General fund: $383.9 million (down 0.8 percent from current year)
Overall budget: $1.3 billion (includes federal and state dollars, fee-supported spending; up 7.4 percent)
Salary and benefit costs: $489 million (up 3.9 percent)
Flat general fund means effective 5-8 percent cut, totaling $7 million, for many departments
Impacts: Closes Sierra Youth Center, the county’s probation camp for girls; deferred park and road upkeep, reduced low-income housing funds and farm inspections, limited public hours for some offices
Restorations/spending additions: $8 million for one-year boost in road upkeep; $915,000 to build fire stations in Annapolis and Lakeville and $85,000 to finish the Bodega station; $500,000 added to general fund reserve.