Santa Barbara County Tax Collector-Treasurer Harry E. Hagen, in his own words, generally tries to make his presentations positive and optimistic. But in a year when his department is mired in its toughest budget situation since the Great Recession, Hagen took a different course at an April 11 meeting with the Board of Supervisors. “This time, I’m going to have to do things a little differently,” he told the board. “I appreciate each and every one of you, so I think you can handle what I’m about to tell you.”
Throughout the hearing, Hagen insisted that the General Government and Support Services department was severely underfunded by the county, with a structural budget deficit forcing the department to make difficult choices. In the last year, General Government and Support Services had to defund almost 10 percent of its staff in Veterans’ Services, Treasury Tax, Information Technology, and Public Administration offices. Due to the shortage of positions, many people in the department are working two jobs at the same time.
According to Hagen, there are multiple problems preventing the department from receiving necessary funding. Chief among them is that whenever the department has a negotiated, approved increase in salaries and benefits, they only receive about half of the increase in their General Fund Contribution (GFC); the department itself is expected to make up the difference with other revenue sources, such as cannabis tax collection, a concept that Hagen compared to “death by a thousand cuts.” The manner of collecting from these revenue sources cannot be adjusted based on departmental needs, as changes proposed by any department must go through a court process.
“We don’t get reimbursed for any hardware used for tax collection,” Hagen stated. “In terms of our [GFC], we have only received $6,800 for [cannabis] licensing and $33,000 for treasury tax and auditing over four years — but this is just scratching the surface. Software alone costs $16,000 in a single year.” Without the necessary funds, it is more difficult for the department to tax and account for cannabis growers as well as other taxable entities, such as beds and breakfasts.
This year, General Government and Support Services did not have to make any service reductions. Nevertheless, Hagen warned that if trends continue, the department could be forced to make reductions the following year. Fourth District Supervisor Bob Nelson suggested that Hagen was a “victim of his own success,” due to the latter’s acumen in running his department. Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino seemed to not expect such a bleak assessment of the situation. “I think you’ve been good about not asking [for funds] when other people have asked for a lot,” he said. “When I look at the report and see that there have been no service reductions, I get the impression that things are moving along in the right direction … but it sounds like your perspective is very different from what your report shows me.”
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“The question that should have been asked to us is how much funding the county has given from the budget,” Hagen responded. “The budget’s there, but the funding doesn’t necessarily come with it; it comes when it’s determined I need it. Because the funding hasn’t come, those positions [in Veterans’ Services, Treasury Tax, etc.] got eliminated.” Hagen and Budget Division officials were supposed meet on Monday to clarify any differences, but a last-minute scheduling conflict forced budget officials to postpone.
“This issue sounds like a complicated accounting thing,” said Lavagnino, perhaps speaking for most observers. “There seems to have been a miscommunication, but I’m glad that you guys will meet to put together a firm budget.”
Hagen presented two expansion requests to the Board of Supervisors — $329,100 in GFC to fund three Veterans’ Services Representatives (VSRs) in addition to the two currently working in the county and $208,700 to fund more Transient Occupancy Tax audits. The Board of Supervisors also heard comments from Veterans Advisory Commission chair Alvin Salge and Iraq War veteran Alejandra Sanchez; the latter suffers from PTSD and a neurological condition due to chemical exposure during service. Both spoke in support of more funding for the Veterans’ Services representatives (VSRs).
Sanchez, who filed for aid in February 2021 but had to wait for more than a year, said that her condition deteriorated as she waited. “If not for the VSRs, I would not have been directed to the patient experience at all … two VSRs would not be enough; each office needs a backup.”
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann and Hagen also shared concerns about the lack of office space for veterans to talk to social workers in private.
“I’m sorry if I picked at some scabs,” Hagen concluded. “But something had to be said, even if it’s a little out of character for me.”