County Budget Released

by Martha Sadler

This year’s budget process was relatively comfortable, but it
was not completely bloodless. For one thing, insured seniors living
in group homes will have to do without the preventative counseling
to which they have become accustomed, as health officials decided
that other needs were more pressing. More dramatically, heads
rolled as the Economic Development Program (EDP) was axed. The
program is an arm of the three-year-old Housing and Community
Development Department — recently stained by allegations of client
fraud, even though the allegations stretch back beyond its current
administration. Some suspect that the economic program’s
dismantlement is merely the beginning of the end of the HCD. Some
of EDP’s functions will be absorbed by the executive office —
further proof that all roads lead to the centralization of power
under county Chief Executive Officer Michael Brown.

Although everybody else got a COLA (Cost-of-Living Allowance),
Brown’s fierce fiscal conservatism prevailed in that the board
funded very few new programs. Undaunted, several departments with
at least one supervisor willing to advocate for them sent their
most charismatic programs out to ask for more money. On Brown’s
suggestions, the board delayed decisions on almost all of these
requests until next October, when certain reimbursements are
expected from the state to the county. However, Brown also urged
that such one-time funds be used for reserves or capital projects
rather than “new ongoing repetitive costs.” These requests included
the Fire Department’s civilian fuel crew, which has everything it
needs to make it a popular program: teams of at-risk young people
fighting wildfires while chopping and hauling underbrush to reduce
fire fuel off-season, all for pennies on the dollar compared with
regular firefighters. Fire Chief John Scherrei’s request to make
this program year-round almost died on a 4-1 vote until Supervisor
Salud Carbajal moved to delay the decision until fall. The strategy
of delaying such tough decisions until fall finally snowballed to
include practically every request that came to the board,

• The addition of seven adult and two juvenile probation
officers necessary to supervise probationers at a level acceptable
to the courts.

• Funding for four CASA case managers to handle increased
caseloads due to increased foster care placements stemming from the
methamphetamine epidemic.

• Clean Water Project funding to assess water quality and
sources of pollution in the unincorporated urban areas.

• Money to conduct a Summerland Community Plan.

• The Public Defender came before the board to ask for more
social workers to place drug addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally
ill in programs as an alternative to jail time. The PD also asked
for computer upgrades enabling his staff to read postings by the
District Attorney’s office.

One of the few new programs that did get funded was the Tiger
Salamander Program, a cooperative agreement between ranchers and
environmentalists (at $420,000 in first-year costs, this was the
most expensive new program to be funded). The Ag Advisory Committee
also won $100,000 to fund development of new ag planning solutions.
The board dedicated a total of $190,000 to recruitment by the Human
Resources Department, which will now be consolidated under the
executive office instead of having individual departments bear the
cost and responsibility.

Even more significant than the cuts and expansions this year is
the $153 million elephant under the rug that this year’s budget did
not address, mainly the urgent need for a new county jail — that,
or jail alternatives more effective than the strategy currently in
play, which is to release people early from their sentences, or not
to book arrestees into jail at all until they are sentenced, except
in the case of most felonies and certain misdemeanors, including
domestic violence.

By the end of the day Friday afternoon, when the board knocked
off and called it a budget, supervisors were able to boast that
they had met the county goal of putting $25 million into its
strategic reserve five years ahead of schedule. In past years, the
county has spent most of its revenue, or kept it in capital and or
departmental reserve funds, rather than set aside the 10 percent
reserve generally considered “best financial practice” in
governmental financial circles.

Besides the $3 million contribution that put the reserve fund
over the top, allocations for the coming fiscal year total $702.6
million. Local discretionary revenue, the core of the county
budget, commonly known as the General Fund, is the part that the
board and public have the most control over, however. It comes
primarily from property taxes, as well as retail sales, hotel
taxes, and interest income. Santa Barbara County’s projected
general fund revenues for the 2006-07 total $177 million, which is
about $10 million more than ’05-’06.

As for that looming structural deficit that the Blue Ribbon
Budget Task Force warned of: The task force’s controversial
suggestions for generating more revenue were tabled for the time
being, though some internal efficiency measures already underway
are continuing. These measures may take place quietly, but that
does not mean they are painless: Several weeks ago, employees and
clients of Addus Health Care staged a rally at the courthouse to
protest the unceremonious notice they received that their program,
providing extra help to the severely disabled, was ending. The
extra help Addus provided was reliability, mainly: If a health
assistant did not show up as scheduled, Addus itself would send a
replacement, instead of the clients having to make their own

The rising costs of housing, pension funds, and medical care may
be indisputable, but the math that says the county is therefore
headed toward deficit is very disputable — and is expected to be a
topic of debate during the coming runoff for 2nd District
Supervisor. Also debatable is whether the county is desperate
enough to court more oil mining or to build “village center”
housing developments in rural areas to generate more tax to run
county government.


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