Numbers Game

County Budget Released

by Martha Sadler

This year’s budget process was relatively comfortable, but it was not completely bloodless. For one thing, insured seniors living in group homes will have to do without the preventative counseling to which they have become accustomed, as health officials decided that other needs were more pressing. More dramatically, heads rolled as the Economic Development Program (EDP) was axed. The program is an arm of the three-year-old Housing and Community Development Department — recently stained by allegations of client fraud, even though the allegations stretch back beyond its current administration. Some suspect that the economic program’s dismantlement is merely the beginning of the end of the HCD. Some of EDP’s functions will be absorbed by the executive office — further proof that all roads lead to the centralization of power under county Chief Executive Officer Michael Brown.

Although everybody else got a COLA (Cost-of-Living Allowance), Brown’s fierce fiscal conservatism prevailed in that the board funded very few new programs. Undaunted, several departments with at least one supervisor willing to advocate for them sent their most charismatic programs out to ask for more money. On Brown’s suggestions, the board delayed decisions on almost all of these requests until next October, when certain reimbursements are expected from the state to the county. However, Brown also urged that such one-time funds be used for reserves or capital projects rather than “new ongoing repetitive costs.” These requests included the Fire Department’s civilian fuel crew, which has everything it needs to make it a popular program: teams of at-risk young people fighting wildfires while chopping and hauling underbrush to reduce fire fuel off-season, all for pennies on the dollar compared with regular firefighters. Fire Chief John Scherrei’s request to make this program year-round almost died on a 4-1 vote until Supervisor Salud Carbajal moved to delay the decision until fall. The strategy of delaying such tough decisions until fall finally snowballed to include practically every request that came to the board, including:

• The addition of seven adult and two juvenile probation officers necessary to supervise probationers at a level acceptable to the courts.

• Funding for four CASA case managers to handle increased caseloads due to increased foster care placements stemming from the methamphetamine epidemic.

• Clean Water Project funding to assess water quality and sources of pollution in the unincorporated urban areas.

• Money to conduct a Summerland Community Plan.

• The Public Defender came before the board to ask for more social workers to place drug addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill in programs as an alternative to jail time. The PD also asked for computer upgrades enabling his staff to read postings by the District Attorney’s office.

One of the few new programs that did get funded was the Tiger Salamander Program, a cooperative agreement between ranchers and environmentalists (at $420,000 in first-year costs, this was the most expensive new program to be funded). The Ag Advisory Committee also won $100,000 to fund development of new ag planning solutions. The board dedicated a total of $190,000 to recruitment by the Human Resources Department, which will now be consolidated under the executive office instead of having individual departments bear the cost and responsibility.

Even more significant than the cuts and expansions this year is the $153 million elephant under the rug that this year’s budget did not address, mainly the urgent need for a new county jail — that, or jail alternatives more effective than the strategy currently in play, which is to release people early from their sentences, or not to book arrestees into jail at all until they are sentenced, except in the case of most felonies and certain misdemeanors, including domestic violence.

By the end of the day Friday afternoon, when the board knocked off and called it a budget, supervisors were able to boast that they had met the county goal of putting $25 million into its strategic reserve five years ahead of schedule. In past years, the county has spent most of its revenue, or kept it in capital and or departmental reserve funds, rather than set aside the 10 percent reserve generally considered “best financial practice” in governmental financial circles.

Besides the $3 million contribution that put the reserve fund over the top, allocations for the coming fiscal year total $702.6 million. Local discretionary revenue, the core of the county budget, commonly known as the General Fund, is the part that the board and public have the most control over, however. It comes primarily from property taxes, as well as retail sales, hotel taxes, and interest income. Santa Barbara County’s projected general fund revenues for the 2006-07 total $177 million, which is about $10 million more than ’05-’06.

As for that looming structural deficit that the Blue Ribbon Budget Task Force warned of: The task force’s controversial suggestions for generating more revenue were tabled for the time being, though some internal efficiency measures already underway are continuing. These measures may take place quietly, but that does not mean they are painless: Several weeks ago, employees and clients of Addus Health Care staged a rally at the courthouse to protest the unceremonious notice they received that their program, providing extra help to the severely disabled, was ending. The extra help Addus provided was reliability, mainly: If a health assistant did not show up as scheduled, Addus itself would send a replacement, instead of the clients having to make their own arrangements.

The rising costs of housing, pension funds, and medical care may be indisputable, but the math that says the county is therefore headed toward deficit is very disputable — and is expected to be a topic of debate during the coming runoff for 2nd District Supervisor. Also debatable is whether the county is desperate enough to court more oil mining or to build “village center” housing developments in rural areas to generate more tax to run county government.

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