The book containing Santa Barbara County’s proposed 2009-2010 fiscal year budget is 650 pages, heavy enough that carrying it provides as much a physical workout as reading it does a mental one.
But despite its size and pages of numbers, graphs, and analysis, uncertainty in specifics lingers, as word from the state is changing-and often worsening-by the hour, making it difficult for county officials to pin down what exactly must be done locally. For the first time in the last two decades, the printing of the budget book was followed by re-estimates that were necessitated by new developments. “When we did the book, we were balanced,” county CEO Mike Brown said. “Once again, we’re out of balance.”
What is known is that the county is in deep financial trouble. In addition to a $15 million budget deficit that county staff had to balance, the latest numbers show an apparent $3.2 million in additional deficits.
“We really had a drop-off in the third quarter,” Bob Geis, county auditor-controller, explained, estimating that by the end of next fiscal year, revenues from property transfer taxes will have dropped 53.3 percent. By the same time, supplemental property taxes are estimated to decline 47.8 percent, and the transient occupancy tax-based on countywide tourism and lodging-is expected to suffer a 21.3-percent decline.
Proposition 172 funds, which largely support public safety programs, took front and center Monday, as representatives of the District Attorney’s office, Probation Department, and Sheriff’s Department spoke before the supervisors. Officials outlined how cuts to one department impact or even hurt the others. Sheriff Bill Brown made it clear that his department should be prioritized. “I don’t think the safety of the public can be eclipsed in any way by anything else,” he said.
The context in which the 2009-10 budget-a $780.6-million operating plan that goes into effect July 1-is being passed is important. The state has a deficit of roughly $24 billion that needs to be worked out by the end of next week, and the impacts of cuts proposed by the governor are certainly going to trickle down to the county level, most importantly perhaps, to the Public Health and Social Services departments. For example, the governor has proposed cutting the welfare program CalWorks, which would mean the county would be on its own to assist families. The irony in that, of course, is that the cuts impact the people who use those services most often in times of recession. “It’s a pretty precarious position we’re in,” said 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno in response to the idea.
Previous budgetary actions have lessened the pain accompanying the formation of this year’s budget, which has been almost a weekly discussion at Board of Supervisors meetings. Wage concessions and freezes, combined with a two-week-long furlough saved more than $10 million and allowed the county to avoid eliminating 100 positions. But tough decisions must still be made. The county’s retirement system contribution for year 2010-11 could jump by $55 million, a North County jail still needs to be built and operated, and the state and country are in the midst of a recession. “Clearly, the ability to balance the budget in 2010-11 and future years will not be possible without a fundamental reorganization of the county’s structure and service delivery mechanism and a significant reallocation of resources,” Brown wrote in a budget letter.
And that doesn’t mention costly erroneous billing practices in the county’s Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services. The county has already paid off $13.9 million for bad billing practices from several years ago, and may have to pay $14.4 million more, though an appeal process is underway. The good news for ADMHS, according to director Ann Detrick, is that the bad billing practices have been corrected, and the department is currently in a stable position after the supervisors last year gave it $6.9 million to balance its budget, which for years had been taking a hit. Detrick hopes loss of funding at the state level will be offset by an expected boost from the federal stimulus package.
Since the budget book was printed, county officials believe there to be a $2.4-million deficit remaining for the current fiscal year, which will be balanced with savings and reserves. County staff is recommending the $3.2 million be eliminated by reducing each department’s General Fund allocation by 2 percent, lowering departments’ expenditures to meet Prop. 172 revenue, and releasing a balance remaining from the furlough.
The supervisors will deliberate on the budget Friday, beginning at 9 a.m. in the board hearing room.