News Column

Sonoma County Supervisors Adopt $1.37 Billion Budget in Record Time

June 11, 2013

Sonoma County supervisors made quick work of their budget discussions Monday, agreeing in just four hours on a $1.37 billion spending plan that increases staffing for public safety, health and human service divisions and maintains funding for road repairs while seeking to hold down expenses in most other programs.

The morning hearing wrapped up an annual process in record time, officials said, providing a stark contrast to past years in the aftermath of the recession, when county budget hearings at times stretched over two weeks, with bruising deficit-driven debates to slash or save programs and jobs.

Now, five years after the historic economic downturn, the county's slow return to fiscal health -- fueled largely by the rebound in local tax revenue and stabilized state and federal funding -- helped make Monday's discussion mostly routine.

"We really lived and died with this budget throughout the year," said Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt. "Everything that was brought forward today, there were no surprises."

The board discussion started at 8:30 a.m. and was over before 12:30 p.m. One long-time county administrator said he could not recall a quicker budget adoption in at least two decades.

The board is set to formalize its unanimous vote Tuesday in a regular meeting beginning at 11 a.m.

The 2013-2014 budget is the first in five years to project an increase in discretionary spending, represented by the $398 million general fund, which supports largely public safety, administrative and fiscal departments.

The proposed general fund, supported mostly by local tax dollars, is up about 1 percent over actual spending in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The overall budget, including state and federal dollars, projects a 6 percent increase over current year spending and expands the county workforce by 4.7 percent, to 3,905 employees.

The new spending plan will maintain the county's additional contribution to road repairs this fiscal year, allocating a $16 million mix of general fund and one-time dollars to support upgrades of the crumbling county road network, ranked as one of the worst in the Bay Area.

All five supervisors chimed in with their support for the allocation, a signal of how high-profile the county's years-long struggle with road maintenance has become.

"We can all agree that it is extremely frustrating and angers all of us," said Supervisor Mike McGuire.

The county has estimated that it could take as much as $920 million over 10 years to improve the 1,382-mile system.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a veteran of the county's recession-era budget battles, which he called "agonizing," said roads stood out as the main issue raised in recent weeks by his west county constituents.

"In the years past we've had significant, vital programs and services where the board has been required to make difficult choices," Carrillo said. "While those choices still remain it's evident that this year it's a brighter go-around."

"We still have some work to do on unmet needs for our infrastructure," Carrillo added.

Advocates for greater road spending welcomed the support -- which taps general fund money rarely dedicated to roads by other counties -- but said it would not amount to much change.

"It is a step in the right direction, but only a small step," said Craig Harrison, co-founder of the group Save Our Sonoma Roads.

Only five of the county's 26 departments and agencies were asked to give detailed presentations of their spending in next fiscal year.

Sheriff Steve Freitas earned board support to keep a narcotic detective position after the end of a state grant that currently pays for the post. The sheriff's office currently has five narcotics detectives, and is also set to regain about 15 correctional officer and deputy jobs in the budget, most of them paid for by state dollars connected to the shift of criminal justice services to counties.

Including salary, benefits and equipment, the total annual cost for the detective job -- $240,000 -- is set to come out of a $3.5 million contingency fund the Board of Supervisors often uses to help community groups and other causes throughout the year.

Freitas said it would help his office keep up with the glut of complaints from marijuana-growing operations in the county.

"The nuisance issues around marijuana are significant," Freitas said. "Even with five detectives we can't get to all of them."

The budget provides funding for a pair of long-sought computer system upgrades, for accounting and budgeting and for tracking cases handled by the District Attorney and Public Defender's offices.

It also allocates a total of $11.5 million to a number of former redevelopment projects, including the county's two large efforts: street and sidewalk improvements along Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley and the Roseland Village commercial and residential plaza.

The board acknowledged a threat that was only hinted at in the budget: Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to reclaim about $300 million in county health services funding statewide, a shift that could take up to $21.6 million away from Sonoma County by the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane criticized Brown's office for what she called "voodoo accounting."

In the longest single presentation during the budget hearing, the board dedicated $7.2 million in county open space funds to help accelerate the transfer of acquired properties to local park agencies and speed their opening to the public.

The decision, after years of park funding cuts, opens up a potentially complicated issue about whether the newly dedicated funding meets its original purpose -- to help with initial operations and maintenance at park properties purchased by the voter-approved Open Space District.

"The question is what does 'initial public access' mean?" said Caryl Hart, county Regional Parks director. "The voters didn't say."

A future Board of Supervisors meeting is planned to address the funding question, which park advocates and officials, especially Zane, have raised amid the decade-long delays that new parks have faced before opening to the general public. The list covers hundreds of acres protected by the county or state, many of them waiting for established trailheads, parking lots, restrooms and other amenities.

"It's the common refrain of the public these days, trying to get access to these properties," said Supervisor Susan Gorin, participating in her first county budget hearing.



Source: (c)2013 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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