Supervisor Steve Lavagnino gave a shoutout to county employees at Tuesday's budget hearing. | Credit: Courtesy

Any fireworks set off during the Board of Supervisors budget hearings may have flared when the supes went into a closed session to discuss the lawsuit between AMR ambulance company and Santa Barbara County over the county awarding the emergency service contract to the fire department. But the main board meeting focused on the budget and proposed cuts.

The county’s $1.59 billion budget could budge very little, according to budget director Paul Clementi. Growth in property tax revenue, which accounts for 79 percent of the county’s discretionary general fund — money not tied to a specific use– was weakened by slowing home sales due to higher interest rates, Clementi explained. The largest overall revenue source was usually state and federal  funds, but California’s projected $27.6 billion gap made the county’s budget process a cautious one.

All departments were asked to make no new funding requests, and they all complied, Clementi said. However state funding to county Public Health, Behavioral Wellness, and Social Services could be negatively impacted. 

Altogether, the county employs the equivalent of 4,644 full-timers. In Health & Human Services there are 1,987 people working in behavioral wellness, child support services, First 5, public health, social services. The next largest section is Public Safety, which has 1,689 full time positions working in court special services, the fire and probation departments and the district attorney, public defender, and sheriff’s offices.

The county was toeing a “Prudence and Progress” policy for putting together the budget, as was suggested in April workshops. On the prudence side was the decision to put $9.6 million toward projects to avoid the debt service that would have resulted from borrowing the money. Also $6.4 million was allocated toward the Disability Rights California lawsuit settlement requiring improved mental-health processes at the jail. Another $5.2 million was being set aside for homeless services at Hope Village and La Posada in case anticipated funding did not come through. When American Rescue Plan funds were found to finance the homeless programs, it freed $250,000 which now will be divided between the five supervisorial districts for community benefit projects.

The District Attorney’s office is facing a potential 45 percent cut in federal grants for the Victim Assistance program. District Attorney John Savrnoch said his office could sustain the “state- and nation-leading victim witness” program this current year, but if the loss went into 2025-26, $697,000 might have to be offset through salary savings or a new funding source.

Supervisor Bob Nelson said that a decade ago, he didn’t believe the county would be able to bridge the pension gap; now, he said, they’re within spitting distance. | Credit: Courtesy

The five supervisors thanked department heads for staying prudent and not asking for more funding. Bob Nelson of Orcutt observed that the budget reflected their values of fiscal responsibility: “This continues the tradition of the past 13 years of aggressively paying down the pension debt,” Nelson said. “We’re withing spitting distance of really getting our arms around that.”

Steve Lavagnino of Santa Maria added that although no increases were made, the decision to continue funding almost $5 million to libraries, plus over a million to warming shelters, veterans services, youth safety programs, and other community grants, reflected the county’s priorities. He also gave a “shoutout to all employees. It’s not easy to do the job you’re doing with the vacancy rate we have,” he said, adding that some negotiations were ongoing. “I know we have a lot of great people, and we want to keep them.”

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