It has become his weekly song, and he’s often singing solo when the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisor votes, but 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone is insistent on this point: The county has no money. This is neither a time to be taking chances, he says, nor for bailing out needy departments with an ever-decreasing strategic reserve that-after peaking near $34 million a few months ago-now could sit at around $22 million after more than $10 million will likely be spent this fiscal year.
This is not “business as usual,” he repeated at a strategic budget workshop Monday. Supervisors had been hearing on an almost weekly basis from one department or another about budget woes. On January 8, supervisors bailed the Sheriff’s Department out of an apparent $3.4 million deficit. And on February 5, the county’s adult Mental Health Services asked to be rescued from a $6.97 million deficit. Firestone has had sympathy, but has also stood strong in his belief that the county needs to hold on to its strategic reserve for anticipated dilemmas. “I’m very, very concerned that the first real problem we’ve faced here, we’ve caved in,” he said at the time of the Sheriff’s Department bailout.
Monday’s meeting lumped all the departments together in a sobering and complex matrix of potential reductions. “We have no choice but to gather these problems, and we can’t paper over these problems,” Firestone said, noting that this fiscal year might be good compared to what could be coming. County officials are anticipating a two- or three-year economic downturn in which revenue won’t accommodate increases in salaries and services. Perhaps first on the list of potential reductions is the possibility of more than 100 county positions being cut, in addition to 5 percent cuts across the board in all departments.
According to county staff, the budget gap for the next fiscal year is estimated to be at least $26 million. The most sizable problem is a $16 million increase in retirement funds. Team that number with departmental deficits, a $10 million cyclical deficit, and additional, anticipated unknown revenue reductions from state and federal governments, and the gap should be even greater. “It’s time to prune back,” said county chief executive Mike Brown, adding his own bit of poetic optimism. “Sometimes when you prune back, it grows back fuller and more beautiful.” No decisions will be made until this summer, when the board will adopt a $950 million budget but with discretion over only roughly $196 million of it. And of that discretionary money, roughly half is to be appropriated for the district attorney, sheriff and probation departments.
But cutting positions means reduced services to county residents and even more costs for the county in some situations, public defender Gregory Paraskou explained. Should attorneys in his office be cut, the county would not be able to meet its constitutional obligation to represent those who can’t afford legal representation unless it contracted with outside attorneys, possibly at a higher cost. Cuts could also lead to additional impacts on the jail population, according to Paraskou’s report.
Money-saving and money-making opportunities are possible, and the board has charged its staff to look at possible revenue enhancements, such as a new tax on onshore oil production and an increase in the transient occupancy tax, or expenditure options such as discontinuing the countywide telephone directory, cutting grants to outside agencies, and closing some parks.
The fact that many other counties in California are facing similar budget situations doesn’t make it any easier for the five supervisors to do their jobs. “This doesn’t mean anyone is for [the cuts],” 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray said. “We’re treading water.”