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County Budget Bloodbath

A Frightening Look at What Could Happen If the County of Santa Barbara Is Forced To Cut 10 Percent


It ain’t pretty:

The numbers are staggering, the impacts potentially devastating. And this year’s budget woes could be just a sign of things to come for Santa Barbara County.

Currently, the county is facing a $15 million deficit for the upcoming 2009-10 fiscal year, the doomiest and gloomiest it has been for a while. But even if a budget with 10-percent cuts across the board is passed, county staff anticipate the following year’s gap to extend to $18.8 million. Four years from now, that deficit could bulge to $75 million. And all this comes even after the majority of county employees endured a two-week unpaid furlough, saving the county upward of $10 million.

And while forecasters expect the fiscal year 2011-12 to be when revenue will begin to grow and the budget begins to stabilize, the two years after that don’t look all that pretty.

Gone will be almost $4 million the county receives in taxes through an agreement with the City of Goleta, which expires in 2012-13. And the year after that, if Sheriff Bill Brown gets his way, a brand-spanking-new County Jail will be completed in Santa Maria. The bad news is that the ongoing cost of running the new jail is $17.1 million per year.

While the recession is driving down revenue, those monies aren’t even as big a problem as the county’s retirement costs, which are increasing with the potential to skyrocket because of lapses in the market. Less than a decade ago, the county pension was 117-percent fully funded. Now, it is only 60-percent funded. And the county is required to make up the difference. What is likely to be a cost of $76 million to the county next year could be as much as $150 million the year following.

But that’s all in the future. Five county departments are expected to end the current fiscal year with red numbers at the bottom of spreadsheets, and potentially hundreds of vacant positions in the county won’t be filled-in fact, they’ll be eliminated. While budget hearings are still a few months away, the pending loss of county jobs is virtually indisputable. Those vacated positions will join the hundreds regionally that have been eliminated, all contributing to Santa Barbara County’s 8.3-percent unemployment rate, 60 percent higher than it was just three years ago. Still, those numbers aren’t as bad as statewide, with more than one in every 10 Californians now sitting at home without a job.

While CEO Mike Brown’s proposed budget won’t be available until mid May, his budget brain trust has been giving the Board of Supervisors a glimpse at their budget crystal balls, showing them just how bleak the future appears to be. While the county waits for federal stimulus package money currently still stuck in Sacramento to make its way down, each department is presenting to the board how a 10-percent reduction in General Fund money would hit their department. In most cases, it would be a fiscal pummeling.

Many departments have already made mid-year fiscal cuts, and most will be cutting more come June. Cuts in some cases, like the District Attorney’s office, impact the department’s ability to meet its statutory obligations. In addition, while cuts could save money up front in some departments, the loss in services comes back to bite the county in other ways.

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For example, taking funding out of mental health programs could lead to increased costs in law enforcement, emergency services, or at the county jail. Or reducing the number of attorneys in the Public Defender’s office means the department can take on fewer cases, despite constitutional rights demanding representation be provided for the accused. The situation leads to more expensive contracted legal counsel being hired, costing the county more in the long run. In the auditor-controller’s office, a decreased staff level means the risk of error increases as does the potential for miscalculations.

Decreases in Prop. 172 funds, which come from a sales tax and go toward public safety, have already depleted multiple county department budgets, including the Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender, and probation, which has lost close to $500,000 because of the sagging economy.

While the 10-percent reduction impact was just an exercise, County Auditor-Controller Bob Geis said to expect what is being presented. To offset, a long list of pricey capital improvements could also be trimmed, or employees and the public could endure another furlough in order to save money and jobs. There is also $24 million in the county’s strategic reserve to be tapped if needed.

Ultimately, the decisions lie with the Board of Supervisors, who in the coming weeks will make it clear to county staff what the priorities will be. More than one supervisor has made it clear that across-the-board cuts probably won’t fly, and the board has always made public safety a top priority. But with so many departments and programs at risk, including many in public safety, it won’t be an envious job to undertake.

Below is a preview of how potential 10-percent cuts and other various budget problems could impact six county departments.

Sheriff’s Department

The largest department, and certainly one of the few contenders for most critical to public safety, is the Sheriff’s Department. The leader of the county’s largest department, Sheriff Bill Brown, practically pleaded with the board in late February, telling the five behind the dais that a 10-percent reduction in his department would be “devastating.”

The Santa Maria branch jail-which can house 43 inmates at a time and saves North County CHP officers, Sheriff’s deputies, and city police officers long trips to the County Jail in Goleta-would close. In addition to the defunding of 17 positions, the move would also add to a further overcrowding of the County Jail.

Brown already took a wedge out of his organization this fiscal year, cutting $2.6 million and 23 positions, bringing down the staffing level to what it was in 2000, despite a population increase of 7 percent in that time period. His department has seen deferred pay increases, frozen hiring, delayed vehicle replacement, and no bonuses.

For 2009-10, Brown is proposing cuts of $1-$2 million while maintaining the hiring freeze and overtime management. “We believe that any cuts below that level will be a compromise to public safety,” Brown said.

Social Services

As the recession rumbles on and unemployment numbers skyrocket, the county’s Social Services Department has seen a huge increase in demand for services, from the number of food stamp applications rising 20 percent in the last six months to a larger number of middle-class residents knocking on its door. “Our business goes up during times of recession,” said department director Kathy Gallagher.

Only 6 percent of the Social Service’s $130 million budget comes out of the county’s General Fund. But it’s also the only department that provides services entirely mandated by state and federal governments, which provide money for those services. For every local dollar reduced from the department’s budget, $12-$13 in state and federal funding could be lost. “If you cut into that match, we’re not meeting our mandate and we’re sending back a lot of money to Sacramento,” she said. Thus, reductions could have a grand effect on the department’s ability to meet mandates, including eligibility determination for basic services, responding to child neglect reports, and evaluating foster care.

For now, it is unclear what sort of department budget will be recommended to the supervisors as Gallagher and company are reworking the numbers with the recently passed state budget and federal economic stimulus in mind. The federal money is still being apportioned, but Gallagher is expecting some money for job training and an increased reimbursement rate for Medicaid.

Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services

Toward the top, if not at the pinnacle, of concerns for the Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services department is the potential of a $32 million shortfall because of past bad Medi-Cal billing practices. The exact amount owed is still unknown as the county goes through an appeal process. “We’re fighting that thing on all angles,” Geis said. The county might also be able to negotiate a payment plan, disseminating the blow.

In terms of the upcoming budget, Medi-Cal funding is being hit by the deteriorating revenues. But mental health advocates anticipate a backfill of funds from the federal stimulus package, though it is still unclear how much.

Eyes also are on the May 19 statewide ballot, where one measure in particular could impact funding mental health programs. Proposition 1E would take $500 million in Prop. 63 (passed by voters in 2004 to send more money for providing programs and services to the mentally ill) funds over two years and place them in the state’s General Fund, although it is unclear exactly where that money would go. The county receives about $10 million a year from Prop. 63.

Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services Director Ann Detrick said that while her department wouldn’t take too big a hit from cuts to the General Fund, it is waiting on the state to reveal its program cuts, but also to send down needed federal stimulus money.

District Attorney/Public Defender

The Public Defender is constitutionally obligated to provide representation should a defendant not be able to afford one. Any further hits to Public Defender Greg Paraskou’s department-he saw four positions including one full-time attorney and a legal secretary get cut this fiscal year-and the department won’t be able to provide that representation. “We just couldn’t do it,” he said.

That means an attorney is contracted to represent that person, to a tune of $68,000 more per case than if Paraskou’s office handled it. Ten percent cuts would lead to the elimination of 10 out of 32 attorneys in the office. In just the past year alone, Paraskou estimates he has had to decline hundreds if not more than 1,000 cases because of inadequate staffing. It gets to a point, he explained, where lawyers are unable to represent clients in a competent, ethical manner.

And while Paraskou’s department had to endure December’s furlough, the district attorney’s office didn’t, because the union wouldn’t agree to it. But that doesn’t mean the DA’s office wouldn’t get hit this year. They too are “stretched to the limit of resources and endurance,” said chief assistant DA Gene Martinez. But 28 positions would be eliminated should 10-percent cuts hit the DA’s office, which currently has 23 murder cases, involving 43 defendants, pending.

Probation

Los Prietos Boys Camp, one of the shining stars of the probation department and the county as a whole, serves to turn around lives of 13- to 18-year-old boys who find themselves going down the wrong path in life. Currently, the camp has a capacity of 96 beds, but staffing for only 75. If the department was forced to endure a hit of 10 percent to its General Fund contribution, that number would be reduced further to 56 beds, resulting in a greater number of youth sent to group homes and Juvenile Hall, which now is only in Santa Maria after last year’s budget cuts closed the Santa Barbara Juvenile Hall and turned it into a booking station.

The department, tasked with keeping offenders in line with the law and hopefully assisting them to lead productive lives, has already been pummeled this current fiscal year, cutting $3.3 million and 37 positions, including more than 20 in recent months.

Currently, a staff of 33 officers supervise 6,000 adult cases at any one time. “We’re already strained and doing more with less,” said chief probation officer Patti Stewart. Her department goes beyond enforcing violations, but also employs programs to give former offenders an opportunity to succeed in life. Cuts to her department, which employ community corrections programs, lead to more crimes, more victims, and more arrests. “Dollar for dollar, probation is one of the best investments for taxpayers,” Stewart said.

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