As Santa Barbara County’s budget director Jason Stilwell rattled through the financial “waves” headed toward the county during a hearing on Friday, it quickly became clear that the real tsunami was the state budget.
What the state does with its budget will set the course for how Santa Barbara County operates in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Depending on what happens at the state level, the county could be anywhere from an additional $15 million to $25 million in the hole, despite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing late last week that he had scrapped plans to take $1.9 billion from local governments to shore up a $24 billion state deficit. The money has to come from somewhere, and even if not taken directly from the county, cuts in state programs will have impacts locally; for example, the governor has proposed cutting the Public Health and Social Services departments’ welfare program CalWorks, which means that the county would have to field the costs in assisting those families.
Thus, the $780.6 million budget passed by the Board of Supervisors - featuring cuts to every county department, many to the tune of 10 percent - on Friday is less like an operating plan and more like a tentative hope. As with last year, major adjustments are to be expected as the state’s budget is worked out. “In a month or two we’re going to have the real deliberation,” 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said, calling the week-long budget process “almost an exercise in futility.” He explained, “We should not be pretending we’re going to have a balanced budget.”
Of course, the issues at the state level aren’t the only waves headed toward Santa Barbara County’s shores. The economy certainly hasn’t helped either. Earlier in the week, Auditor-Controller Bob Geis told the supervisors that by the end of next fiscal year, revenues from property transfer taxes are estimated to have dropped 53.3 percent. By the same time, supplemental property taxes are estimated to decline 47.8 percent, and the transient occupancy tax-based on countywide tourism and lodging-is expected to suffer a 21.3 percent decline. Losses to the county’s pension program could mean an increased contribution from the county in coming years, to the tune of $23 million to $55 million.
Things continued to worsen even in the weeks since the recommended budget was completed by county staff. There is an estimated $2.4 million deficit remaining for the current fiscal year - to be balanced by savings and reserves - and also a $3.2 million deficit projected for the following year, which begins July 1. While county staff recommended the budget be balanced in part by reducing each department’s General Fund allocation and using money earned from a countywide furlough, the supervisors chose on Friday to protect some departments from harm by restoring the $3.2 million. Included in that bunch were the District Attorney’s office, Public Defender’s office, Sheriff’s Department, and Human Services Commission.
In addition, the supervisors restored an additional $400,000 to the DA’s office, but gave $837,177 back to the Public Defender, despite pleas from the DA’s office to keep the budgets relatively even. An uneven balance between the two departments is an “absolute killer,” Eric Hanson, chief assistant district attorney, said Friday. “We can’t keep up with that imbalance,” he explained. Public Defender Greg Paraskou explained that his office had to declare themselves “unavailable” on a number of cases this current year, meaning his office has to contract out to private attorneys at an additional cost, as every defendant has a constitutional right to being represented in court on criminal matters.
There was a lot of support from public commenters to keep the District Attorney’s office where it was at, and the supervisors agreed public safety was a top priority, though they didn’t restore the department’s funding as much as the DA requested.
The supervisors also unanimously restored $75,000 that was set to be cut from the Film Commission and $50,000 that was going to be cut from the Public Health Department’s HIV/AIDS program.
To balance the funding returned to department budgets, the supervisors took $634,000 out of the county’s thinning strategic reserve, $600,000 out of its supplies budget, $200,000 out of a federal stimulus match, $350,000 out of a remaining furlough balance, and assorted amounts of money from other sources to total the more than $4 million in restorations.
“What we’re trying to do is make the best out of a pretty terrible world,” said 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno.