<strong>UNCOMMON CONNECTION:</strong> Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray caught many by surprise last week when she called the county’s budget deliberations a Ponzi scheme, even calling upon the name of Bernie Madoff in her comparison.

Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray blasted the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors majority Friday as the quintet conducted their final deliberations on what to cut for the 2010-2011 fiscal year’s $833-million budget they were finalizing to go into effect July 1.

“I’d like all of you to leave this hearing with three words,” Gray said, actually using four words to initially describe her cryptic message. “Bus, bridge, and Ponzi scheme.”

She continued, “I feel like I’m speeding down a highway in a bus and there’s a sign that says, in half-a-mile the bridge is out,’ and yet nothing is being done to stop this bus.” While people everywhere are cutting back, she said, the board was “not taking their foot off the gas.” Gray then addressed her Ponzi scheme comment, saying the board was moving money “here and there,” even making reference to Bernie Madoff. “You’re all very bright and well-meaning, but I cannot support this bus going off the bridge,” she said.

That didn’t sit well with 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who said Gray’s language was “unfortunate.” He noted the $16 million in employee concessions the board had landed and said the board had taken a multifaceted approach — cutting, getting concessions, and shoring up programs — in balancing the budget after beginning with a $41-million deficit.

Last minute finagling by the board saved in-home service providers in Santa Barbara County’s Social Services Department, the Santa Maria Jail, and the county’s revolutionary emPowerSBC program, which all received funding from the supervisors Friday after three days of budget hearings.

To prevent more severe cuts from happening, the board used money from several reserve funds. But that money — totaling $30 million or so — is all onetime funding, which could leave the county in a similar predicament next year, though with little reserve funding to draw from. The county’s strategic reserve actually ended up being more than $5 million better off than originally anticipated thanks to a variety of sources, including an unanticipated extra $1 million in property tax revenues this year.

While the supervisors had to pay $5 million to bankroll the emPowerSBC program, it could very well pay off dividends in the long run. The program allows county residents to borrow money from the county upfront to fund energy- and water-efficient home-improvement projects. Residents then pay the county back through fees added to their property taxes.

The result, county officials hope, will be an increase in property tax revenue and an increase in local jobs in one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy — construction — that will have a positive impact on the environment. The $5 million is an advance that will eventually be paid back to the county and will be used to establish a revolving fund of money to loan to residents. The program, which will sell bonds to refresh itself and eventually become self-sustaining, would be the sixth such program nationally. So far, it has widespread support. According to Housing and Community Development Director Dave Matson, for every dollar of General Fund money used, emPowerSBC is supposed to produce between $25 and $40 in economic output.

The program was one of the few shining moments of the difficult budget sessions, and, though the supes were able to give money to the mental health department to help indigent clients and help fund warming shelters for the homeless in rainy times through onetime funding, more painful looks at the budget are certainly not far behind.

The state budget has not yet been adopted, and the potential impacts on the county budget are still unknown. Property taxes are expected to remain level, but not increase, and departments are already working with bare-bones crews, having gone through consecutive years of devastating cuts. Four percent of the county’s workforce was cut this year, and a large population of employee groups — having gone through concessions this time around —  certainly won’t be interested in deferring scheduled salary raises when the issue is raised next year.


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