By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With the worst recession-driven woes apparently behind them, Sonoma County supervisors are set to consider increased spending on some core services and public infrastructure when they begin hearings Monday on a spending plan for the next fiscal year.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson’s proposed $1.3 billion budget foresees new investments in public safety staffing and social service and health programs,
most of it funded by state and federal dollars.
It is the first time in five years that discretionary spending, represented largely by the proposed $398 million general fund, is forecast to rise, though actual year-to-year discretionary spending has increased during the period, including in the current fiscal year.
The proposed 1 percent increase would maintain the $8 million in additional funding allocated last year by supervisors for repairs to the county’s beleagured road system. The total proposed support from the general fund for road work is upwards of $16 million.
Advocates for greater spending on road upkeep said they were pleased to see their pressure pay off.
“(County supervisors) keep saying they want to make roads a priority,” said Michael Troy, co-founder of the group Save Our Sonoma Roads. “That’s spoken by dollars.”
The funding was added last week in a supplemental package and was possibly the most closely watched item in the whole proposal, a stark change from battles in recent years to save big-ticket services and programs slated for elimination.
In contrast, Ferguson called the 2013-2014 proposal a “steady-state budget” — the first in her 3.5-year county tenure after last year’s flat spending plan to avoid cuts in services and staff.
The challenge now is to hold down spending in most areas and be disciplined about how the county reinvests, Ferguson said.
“Do we say it’s all bright and sunny?” she said “The reality is in budgeting you have to be more responsible than that.”
The overall budget represents a 6 percent increase over total spending in the current fiscal year.
It does not account for Gov. Jerry Brown’s move to reclaim $300 million in state funding from county health programs statewide. The transfer could take $5 million from the county in the coming fiscal year, starting July 1, and up to $21.6 million annually by the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
The budget assumes only marginal growth in property tax revenue, the county’s main source of discretionary dollars, projected to climb by about .75 percent. Sales tax revenue is projected to rise by about 3 percent.
Payroll costs, meanwhile, continue to climb. The county workforce is set to grow by about 4.6 percent in the coming fiscal year, while employee salary and benefit costs are projected to rise about 5 percent, to $516.7 million.
The main factors include county costs for employee pensions, worker’s compensation and health care.
The county has sought to reduce its skyrocketing pension costs, up more than 400 percent since 2000. That overhaul began this fiscal year with new contract agreements with the county’s largest union and its top officials, managers and unrepresented employees.
Chris Thomas, the assistant county administrator, said the projected higher rise in payroll was not outside a standard range given the varying cost of employees.
He stressed that actual payroll costs could be less because the budget does not assume concessions from ongoing contract talks with nine other bargaining units, including public safety employees.
The county is set to add a total of 176 positions over its adopted 2012-2013 workforce, including 130 jobs that have been added and filled since last June. Most are in health and human service departments, funded almost entirely by state and federal dollars.
The Sheriff’s Office is set to add a total of about 15 positions over its allocated level from last June. The correctional and deputy posts are mostly funded by the state as part of its shift in criminal justice programs to counties.
Altogether, the new county jobs are spread across 12 of county’s 26 departments and agencies, including a restored pesticide enforcement worker in the Agricultural Commissioner’s office and a restored maintenance worker for Regional Parks. The additions will result in a total proposed workforce of nearly 3,900, still well below the county’s peak workforce of nearly 4,300 positions in the fiscal year 2007-2008.
Overall, between 2008 and 2011, the county cut more than 500 filled and unfilled positions and a total of about $100 million in general fund spending, the main source of funds for public safety and administrative departments.
Ferguson said she does not envision a wholesale move to restore the county workforce to its peak staffing. Instead, additional spending should be focused on some of the large unmet needs in public infrastructure that have been put off over the last five years, she said.
“I’d rather have it (the additional spending) absorbed in places the board has said they strategically want to invest in,” Ferguson said.
In addition to roads, in the coming fiscal year that means proposed spending on:
– A $22.4 million accounting and budgeting system to replace the county’s 28-year-old system. $3 million is budgeted for the upgrade this year.
– A $1.6 million case-tracking system for the District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices. The system has long been requested by top officials in both offices.
– A total of $11.5 million on former redevelopment projects, including street and sidewalk improvements along Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley, the Roseland Village commercial and residential plaza, a homeless shelter in Guerneville and a wastewater study for the Monte Rio area.
Supervisors are also being asked to set aside $7.2 million in county open space funds to help accelerate the transfer of acquired properties to Regional Parks and speed their opening to the public. The park funding shift, allowed by the voter-approved 2006 sales tax measure that reauthorized the county Open Space District, will assist with at least two property transfers next fiscal year, expanding Hood Mountain Regional Park overlooking Sonoma Valley and a park addition off North Sonoma Mountain, said Caryl Hart, Regional Parks director. About $100,000 is budgeted from the open space funds for the transfer work in the coming year.
“We’re moving forward,” Hart said.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.