With the worst recession-driven woes apparently behind them, Sonoma County supervisors are set to consider increased spending on some core services and public infrastructure when they begin hearings Monday on a spending plan for the next fiscal year.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson's proposed $1.3 billion budget foresees new investments in public safety staffing and social service and health programs, most of it funded by state and federal dollars.
It is the first time in five years that discretionary spending, represented largely by the proposed $398 million general fund, is forecast to rise, though actual year-to-year discretionary spending has increased during the period, including in the current fiscal year.
The proposed 1 percent increase would maintain the $8 million in additional funding allocated last year by supervisors for repairs to the county's beleagured road system. The total proposed support from the general fund for road work is upwards of $16 million.
Advocates for greater spending on road upkeep said they were pleased to see their pressure pay off.
"(County supervisors) keep saying they want to make roads a priority," said Michael Troy, co-founder of the group Save Our Sonoma Roads. "That's spoken by dollars."
The funding was added last week in a supplemental package and was possibly the most closely watched item in the whole proposal, a stark change from battles in recent years to save big-ticket services and programs slated for elimination.
In contrast, Ferguson called the 2013-2014 proposal a "steady-state budget" — the first in her 3.5-year county tenure after last year's flat spending plan to avoid cuts in services and staff.
The challenge now is to hold down spending in most areas and be disciplined about how the county reinvests, Ferguson said.
"Do we say it's all bright and sunny?" she said "The reality is in budgeting you have to be more responsible than that."
The overall budget represents a 6 percent increase over total spending in the current fiscal year.
It does not account for Gov. Jerry Brown's move to reclaim $300 million in state funding from county health programs statewide. The transfer could take $5 million from the county in the coming fiscal year, starting July 1, and up to $21.6 million annually by the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
The budget assumes only marginal growth in property tax revenue, the county's main source of discretionary dollars, projected to climb by about .75 percent. Sales tax revenue is projected to rise by about 3 percent.
Payroll costs, meanwhile, continue to climb. The county workforce is set to grow by about 4.6 percent in the coming fiscal year, while employee salary and benefit costs are projected to rise about 5 percent, to $516.7 million.
The main factors include county costs for employee pensions, worker's compensation and health care.
The county has sought to reduce its skyrocketing pension costs, up more than 400 percent since 2000. That overhaul began this fiscal year with new contract agreements with the county's largest union and its top officials, managers and unrepresented employees.
Chris Thomas, the assistant county administrator, said the projected higher rise in payroll was not outside a standard range given the varying cost of employees.
He stressed that actual payroll costs could be less because the budget does not assume concessions from ongoing contract talks with nine other bargaining units, including public safety employees.