Back in mid April at a Board of Supervisors’ meeting, 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf expressed dismay over the fact that the county wasn’t going to have any budget workshops — early opportunities to discuss potential service-level reductions — leading up to the hearings scheduled to get underway next week, during which the board will decide on an $844-million operating budget for fiscal year 2011-2012.
“We are planning to sit idly by with our hands folded for almost two more months before we are permitted to offer our input or direction?” Wolf asked. Waiting will leave little time to pursue ideas or suggestions, she said. When she was board chair last year, the board held meetings early on in the calendar year and was able to give then-CEO Mike Brown an indication of what their priorities were heading into June.
But she received no support from other supervisors this year, and so the board for the first time next week will figure out how to deal with what is, according to first-year CEO Chandra Wallar’s office, a $72-million deficit. “It was disappointing not to have that support,” Wolf said. Other supervisors have said the meetings last year were less helpful. “This year we’re going to try to solve the problem in a much more strategic fashion,” 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said.
Wolf is afraid that policy decisions are being made by county staff, not the board, leaving just three days next week for the supervisors to leave their own fingerprints on this budget. By comparison, the city, which has a total operating budget of about $254 million, has had nine budget sessions since mid April, with two more scheduled during the next two weeks leading up to the planned adoption on June 21. Instead, Wolf said, she’s had to set up meetings individually with department heads throughout the weeks, getting answers to her questions while at the same time studying the budget book. “Even though we didn’t have these hearings, it’s important for me to know what these recommendations are,” she said.
Indeed, the 664-page document is chock-full of depressing proposals for the county piggy bank every time you turn the page. Some have already been highly publicized, like the potential closure of the Santa Maria jail or the defunding of the Human Services Commission and the $1.2 million it provides to 65 nonprofit programs throughout the county. Pro Pay, a county payee service which receives government checks on behalf of 300 people — often those with substance-abuse and mental-health issues — would lose its funding, much to the chagrin of homeless and social service advocates. The Sheriff’s Department staffing levels could drop to what they were in more than a decade ago, and the DA’s Office could lose its drug and alcohol court prosecutors, meaning more people will be forced into criminal courts instead of getting help and treatment. The budget also recommends grounding the Fire Department’s aviation unit.
What is known for sure are costs associated with the increase in salaries and benefits. The Board of Retirement has fixed the contribution rates for the coming year, and the county is looking at an increase of $20.7 million to stabilize the pension fund. Labor concessions agreed to in years past will also be expiring, adding $9.2 million to the deficit.
The fat has long been trimmed, and has been so for a few years now. There are no Band-Aid fixes left, the county having implemented a soft hiring freeze since December, and various furloughs over recent years. Now, layoffs (289 positions total, 130 or so currently filled) and services are being targeted. The potential of union concessions could mitigate some of the damage, though there have still been no announcements of any deals with labor organizations. Discussions with most labor groups are ongoing.
But none of the ideas have been vetted publicly by the supervisors. That comes for the first time next week, much to Wolf’s dismay. “I don’t know how it’s going to work this time,” she said.