For the Probation Department, it could mean closing down Los Prietos Boys Academy, a wildly positive and successful program that helps troubled youth turn their lives around. For prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office, which already sees more cases per attorney out of any California county, it could mean an increase from the current 477 cases per attorney (up from 378 last year) to 567.
These are just two of the worst-case-scenario presentations the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors received Tuesday, as they begin to sharpen their red pencils in anticipation of the June budget sessions, when the real bloodletting will occur. In the meantime, the five supervisors have the pleasure of figuring out how they will go about cutting roughly $38 million from their budget, about half of which comes from the county’s General Fund. This week, they heard from department heads on what a 7 percent cut across the board would look like in their respective offices, though such sweeping cuts are unlikely to be the final result of budget deliberations.
For some, like Gordon Auchincloss from the DA’s Office, the presentation was almost too much to bear. Auchincloss, a polished, seasoned senior prosecutor with years of experience prosecuting criminals and stepping in front of the supervisors for the first time after DA Christie Stanley’s recent retirement, had to pause more than once in the midst of his presentation, the weight of what he was doing on his shoulders and mind. “I can tell you, the pressure of standing up here and representing the office, with so many jobs on the line, is something I’ve never experienced in trial,” he explained to the sympathetic board.
For others, most notably Sheriff Bill Brown—who is in charge of the department funded most largely by the General Fund—it was a chance to put their foot down. “We are at a critical point in our county’s future,” Brown told the board. “Public safety needs to be priority one.” In a statement that was to be echoed by most who stood at the podium, Brown outlined how in the last two years he had already cuts dozens of positions, millions of dollars, and held open positions created by retiring personnel. “We’re out of gimmicks, we’re out of tricks,” he said, “we’re out of anything to do.”
Public Defender Gregory Paraskou explained that the extra $800,000 his department received from the board last year was still needed. His department is constitutionally obligated to provide representation for defendants who can’t afford an attorney. If a lack of funding force his attorneys to declare themselves “unavailable” on a case, defendants would get a more expensive contracted attorney, an alternative the county can ill afford.
Of course, while no one wants to see people lose jobs, there appears to be places where departments can trim fat. Potentially on the cutting board in the DA’s Office is a PowerPoint support services position to help prosecutors prepare presentations for jury trials. And while the sheriff put in the top tier of his cuts a gang team and closing the Santa Maria branch jail, he left his public information officer position untouched, a position that for the last two years has been filled with a civilian who makes as much as a senior deputy, a point 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal pointed out more than once.
Still to come next Tuesday are updates from the remaining county departments, including Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services and Information Technology.
So how did we get here? The main reason for the budget gap in the General Fund is flat or declining revenue. For the first time in most anyone’s memory, and at least since 1978, the estimated percent change in countywide assessed property value will be negative. In closing comments, some board members broke out the familiar song that has been sung at budget hearings past—that the county can’t just be looking at how to tail off spending, but also how to produce revenue. So far, in the past few years as the budget hearings have become more and more painful, the county has been unable to figure out how to do that.
And, salaries and benefits remain an issue, having, over the past three budget cycles, grown by 11 percent. Several have wondered why the county doesn’t take a look at its employer funding of the pension program, which currently sits at a 17-year amortization period. A more drawn-out, 30-year amortization—or a sort of mortgage the county pays to fund retirement—would save the county as much as $15 million this year.