Sonoma County government faces its fourth consecutive year of budget reductions, with a projected $10.4 million general fund deficit in the coming 2012-2013 fiscal year, county officials said Tuesday. Increasing county costs, including rising salary and benefit expenses, have continued to outpace flat or declining revenues. “We are not going to get out of this mess without permanent change in our budgeting. And that’s going to mean permanent reductions in our pay and/or our pensions,” Supervisor Mike McGuire said.
In 2002, at the urging of labor and with the endorsement of management, the county Board of Supervisors approved a more generous set of pension benefits for all current workers. The change, fueled by salary increases and combined with other workforce trends, is now seen as driving the upward spiral in pension costs.
The new general manager for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district, veteran Marin County public works administrator Farhad Mansourian, has a compensation package that puts him near the top of the pay scale for North Bay public officials. “This is not a typical public works project, nor is he a typical hire,” said SMART Director Carol Russell, a Cloverdale councilwoman and retired professional recruiter.
Sonoma County officials said Tuesday they are prepared to handle the influx of felons that will begin in two months when the state prison system starts transferring “low-level” offenders to relieve chronic overcrowding. However, the county will need to hire additional correctional officers by spring. And county officials are uncertain whether state funding for the program is adequate.
UPDATE 7:40 PM: In their third day of budget hearings, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Wednesday tentatively agreed to save a number of high-profile programs and jobs that amount to about $8.4 million in extra spending. Among those county services were the Sheriff’s Office helicopter Henry 1 and the Sierra Youth Center, the probation center for girls.
In its second day of budget hearings, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday tentatively approved job and program cuts for the last batch of seven county departments. The moves, if formally approved Wednesday, would result in general fund spending reductions of 23 to 25 percent for county planning, fire and emergency services, transportation, community development and three other departments. “This year is the year of sacrifice,” Supervisor Mike McGuire said.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson released a spending blueprint Tuesday that would shrink the county’s general fund budget by 4 percent. Among the cuts: the sheriff’s Henry 1 helicopter, a bomb disposal unit, another dedicated to solving community crime issues and a panel that hands out nearly $600,000 annually to groups caring for the needy.
For those trying to expose waste, fraud and abuse in government, the path can be torturous. Whistleblowers must contact one agency after another, and in the process, they can lose both their anonymity and faith in any follow up. The Sonoma County grand jury reached those conclusions after months of studying the issue. The panel is now calling for a change.
Sonoma County supervisors expressed relief that filling the county’s $43 million budget gap may require a smaller number of job cuts than originally thought. But the impact of the state budget crisis won’t be known until late summer, well after the county wraps up hearings on its own budget. Supervisor Valerie Brown warned the board to prepare for the worst. “We need to be as conservative as possible and hope we can add instead of take away more,” she said.
Sonoma County government expects to eliminate 223 jobs, resulting in 63 layoffs, to help plug a $43 million gap in the county budget for the coming fiscal year. The plan would cut the size of the county’s workforce by almost 6 percent and touch nearly every department. But the county will not have to cut as deeply as it first thought.