By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
An influx of overdue and unexpected state cash means Sonoma County government will soon be adding about 54 jobs in various welfare and aid programs.
The wave of hiring is a change for the county of late. Since the recession hit government coffers four years ago, the county has been focused more on shrinking its workforce or holding staff levels flat.
But the slow financial turnaround has recently unleashed some money due to the county for state and federally-funded programs administered at the local level. Those include services that assist and protect seniors and children, provide food stamps and oversee Medi-Cal and other health care programs for low income residents.
Last week county officials reported the cash influx was about $13.2 million, most of it state reimbursements to cover underfunding of programs during the recession. Some it was unanticipated money for services shifted from the state to counties in 2011. A smaller share of the sum was made up by federal funds.
About $8.2 million is ongoing funding the county expects to get in future years. The remaining $4.9 million is a one-time reimbursement.
County supervisors, long-weary of whittling away at department budgets and public services, welcomed the new money.
“We are in the rare position of adding back services that have been cut,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire.
The board on Tuesday tapped about $7.7 million to pay for the new jobs and related programs through June. The remainder of the money will be held over for future budgets, with $1.1 million carved out as a reserve against state or federal cuts down the road.
With efforts afoot to trim spending on county pensions and other ballooning costs, officials defended the new expenditures as vital for the county’s safety net.
“I’m so tired of people bad-mouthing government over these programs,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a vocal advocate for increased safety-net spending. “These are economic infusion programs.”
The new jobs include social worker, aid-eligibility, public guardian, employment counseling and clerical posts. All are within the county’s Human Services Department, the largest in county government, with a workforce of about 680 employees and a budget of $242 million, 88 percent of it from state and federal sources.
The boost in staffing will support several new or expanded department efforts focused on financial abuse of seniors, outreach to at-risk families and food stamp recipients and employment for foster youth.
County officials say the extra spending couldn’t come a moment too soon. The growth in aid, economic assistance and adult and child welfare caseloads since 2006 has outstripped state and federal funding by a margin of 50 percentage points.
“This is not a new issue. We’ve been dealing with it for years,” said Jerry Dunn, interim director of the county’s Human Services Department. He cited a 2009 statewide study of safety net funding that put Sonoma County’s shortfall at $19 million.
“I have to believe since that time that the gap has gotten bigger,” Dunn said. “It hasn’t gotten smaller.”
The county has trimmed the annual shortfall by a few percentage points with its own contributions to aid programs, but even that discretionary money has failed to keep up with skyrocketing need among low-income families and seniors.
Since 2006, the department has seen a 157 percent jump in food stamp applications and 30 percent increase in Medi-Cal recipients. Economic assistance caseloads overall have grown by 87 percent, outstripping the increase in state and federal funding by 54 percentage points, according to the county.
Over the past five years, cases in the county’s Adult and Aging division, which oversees adult welfare and elder abuse, have grown by 26 percent, outstripping state and federal funding growth by 18 percentage points.
The underfunding has translated to longer wait times for those applying for aid and less resources to tackle problems for at-risk seniors before they escalate to the level of abuse.
County officials stressed that they are still exceeding state and federal mandates. Those thresholds are far below the county’s own goals for filling unmet needs, they said.
“What we want to do is be more preventative in our response,” said Dunn, the Human Services director.
The Board of Supervisors spent a good part of its deliberation Tuesday arguing for a new appropriation to boost staffing at the county’s veterans service office. The office is mostly paid for through discretionary dollars out of the county general fund, and therefore saw its share of budget cuts in recent years.
Supervisor Valerie Brown earned unanimous support for her recommendation to shift some of the new, unrestricted state funds to pay for an additional claims worker, at a county cost of about $45,000 a year. The decision came hours after the board marked Veterans Day by honoring a group of local servicemen.
“Guys, we’re not walking our talk,” Brown said, lobbying her fellow board members for the new expenditure. “It has to be much more direct service.”
Dunn stopped short of saying the new jobs and bolstered programs marked a new outlook for spending on the county’s safety net. Further state and federal cuts are possible if not likely, he said.
He also responded head-on to critics of such spending.
“It’s not an increase in bureaucracy to provide enhanced services and faster response times to individuals in need,” he said in an interview. “That’s what a healthy, prosperous society does.”
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.