To balance budget, Sonoma sets stage for painful decisions to come

Sonoma County supervisors Monday voted to eliminate about 177 filled and unfilled county jobs, a decision that will result in the layoffs of about 83 health, planning, agricultural and maintenance workers.

But board members said they will try to save a handful of veterans service and child welfare jobs and find nearly $600,000 to maintain funding to help the low-income and homeless.

In more than five hours of budget hearings watched at times by a standing-room-only crowd, the five-member board gave informal approval to the layoffs as part of 20 percent across-the-board spending cuts for most county departments starting July 1. The measures, which covered about two dozen departments, set the stage for substantial cuts in county services to help offset about half of a $61.6 million deficit in the county's general fund for the next fiscal year.

Services for at-risk pregnant women and teens, mental health counseling for adults, land-use planning and permitting, agricultural inspections and upkeep of county buildings are expected to take a significant hit, officials said.

"We wanted to position the organization for a more sustainable future," said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson. The cuts reflect a need to bring services in line with a now-precipitous two-year decline in the county's property tax revenue, she said.

The $395 million general fund, which is the largest part of the proposed $1.18 billion budget that supervisors directly control, is down 8 percent from the current budget, reflecting mostly a 4 percent drop in the value of the property tax roll over the past year, officials said Monday.

What that means for public safety departments, including the District Attorney's Office, Sheriff's Office and Probation Department, will be discussed Wednesday in what promises to be another closely-watched batch of hearings. Those departments account for more than half of all general fund spending. At stake are 62 unfilled positions. Within the Sheriff's Office, the proposal would eliminate 31 unfilled positions, including 11 deputy slots, and lay off 12 employees, mostly correctional officers.

Today's hearings will cover impacts to regional parks and farm and open space conservation.

Monday's hearings put a diverse human face on the impacts of social services cuts, as supervisors heard from dozens upon dozens of people who benefit from the county programs, including veterans and foster children, or who administer services through nonprofits.

Windsor resident Sharon Spaulding was among more than two dozen foster parents, many with infants and toddlers in tow, present to urge the board to restore $187,000 in funding for foster care and related programs.

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