Cautious optimism was the name of the game at this week’s three-day workshop on the county budget, which saw the heads of the 23 county departments speak to the supervisors about how their organizations have fared this fiscal year — set to end June 30 — and how they will manage in the next. Although this week’s hearings were meant to let the departments’ requests marinate — a recommended budget will come in May, with final approval in June — if the CEOs’ presentations and the board’s remarks were any indication, treading lightly will continue in 2014-2015.
County staff at this meeting, on the heels of a shorter session last month, talked about how the county is rebounding in the wake of the recession, including inroads in paying down the county’s $800 million unfunded pension liability and saving money for jail operations in preparation for the North County facility’s opening in 2018. But the potential passage of Supervisor Peter Adam’s Measure M, and the consequential $18 million-$21 million that would have to be dedicated to maintenance, could threaten the county’s modest progress, and the ordinance’s possible effects were the main subject of Wednesday’s meeting, as they were at the March meeting. Significant attention was also paid to the statuses of the Sheriff’s department, Public Health, and the department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services (ADMHS). Overall, most of the 23 departments requested more than $26 million above their recommended budgets.
• Sheriff’s Office: After speaking earlier in the day about Deltopia, Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday that his organization — with an expected operating budget of $122.5 million — could use $3 million in extra money, but what is crucial now is about $615,000: $452,000 to temporarily make the Santa Maria branch jail a 24-hour facility; $107,000 for a “transition team” for the planned North County Jail; and $56,000 for a data analyst. Brown touted a 6 percent drop in violent crime, as well as the department’s $375,000 federal grant for dealing with panga boats and its $39 million state grant for a recidivism-reducing wing in the new jail. He said ongoing challenges include reinstating jobs lost during the recession and increasing staffing for the jail. “We’ve stopped the hemorrhaging,” he said.
• ADMHS: Dr. Takashi Wada, head of ADMHS and Public Health, called the budgets for those two departments “two of the most challenging” he has dealt with in his 12 years as a government executive. For ADMHS, although “some internal challenges” remain, its years of struggle may be in the rearview mirror, Wada said, largely due to several timely grants and increased MediCal revenue from the Affordable Care Act. The department’s recommended $92 million operating budget has been supplemented by a recent $2.6 million state grant (for a crisis stabilization unit, crisis residential unit, and a mobile crisis team) and $8.3 million state grant for countywide triage teams, The department’s plans for those services, as well as, among others, those for the homeless and foster kids with mental-health needs, will only require $800,000 from the county. “The services we provide at ADMHS are vital to our community,” Wada said.
• Public Health: While the Affordable Care Act has helped ADMHS, for Public Health it is creating “a mixture of opportunities combined with major uncertainties and potential risks,” Wada said, noting the challenges of enrolling and retaining MediCal patients. At least for 2014-2015, Public Health will shelve its plans to outsource its clinical lab services, Wada continued; the idea, raised in March, would have saved Public Health about $1 million annually but was unpopular with several supervisors. With a recommended operating budget of $75 million, the department asked the board for an extra $305,000 to hire employees for Animal Services and Hazardous Materials.
• Measure M: If voters in June decide to require the board to maintain county-owned roads, parks, and buildings at their current condition or better, the county could turn to several options, yet whether they would be enough to cover the $18 million-$21 million costs remains unclear. Ideas range from increasing revenue — asking voters in November to increase the hotel bed tax from 10 percent to 12 or 12.5 percent could generate about $1.5 million — and reducing the fleet of facilities to allocating discretionary funds incrementally (which is the funding scheme for the new jail) and applying for infrastructure-specific grants. An unpopular option involves making cuts to the General Fund, which could mean less money for public safety and social services.