Fixing Sonoma County's budget woes could cost hundreds of county employees their jobs this year and cut more deeply into a wide array of government services, especially public safety programs.
Community policing and gang prevention efforts, correctional facilities for youth offenders and required legal representation for some criminal defendants are all on the line, officials said.
The job and program cuts, which could affect up to 13 percent of the county workforce, are potential outcomes of a preliminary budget proposal that would slash county spending at all departments by 25 percent.
Of about 500 potential job cuts, 300 could come from departments supported mainly by county funding, including primarily public safety, while the remainder would come from health and human services, transportation and public works and other departments, which are supported largely by state and federal dollars.
The county's overall budget exceeds $1 billion, with about $377 million of that classified as county generated and controlled dollars.
Unlike cuts in recent years, most of the positions at risk are currently filled, officials said.
Sheriff Steve Freitas' 640-member office could bear the largest of the cuts, losing up to 100 jobs, including sworn personnel. He called the impact of the plan "dramatic," saying it would take his office "back to basic patrol functions."
Freitas and other county leaders cautioned that the proposal was a starting point in the budget planning process, which begins today at the Board of Supervisors meeting and will stretch through June, when supervisors are set to approve a budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.
Still, any final proposal along the preliminary lines would significantly reduce staffing and services in the criminal justice system, including the jails, courts and probation, law enforcement leaders said.
"We wouldn't be able to handle the (current) caseload," said John Abrahams, the public defender, whose 50-member office would lose up to a third, or 11, of its attorneys. "This is the beginning of an ongoing discussion."
Already that discussion differs from preliminary proposals in the previous two years, which sought to close deficits while avoiding deep cuts to public safety.
Those moves, and a grab bag of other solutions used to close past budget gaps are either no longer sufficient or available, officials said.
"The sooner we're able to confront this new fiscal reality, the better off we're going to be in the long term," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo, who called the coming budget year, "the worst that Sonoma County has ever faced." Job cuts and layoffs numbering in the hundreds appear likely, he said. "That number is yet to come. Not every department is going to take that 25 percent."
But law enforcement and justice-related departments likely will share more in the cuts than they have in previous years, county officials and others said.
In the past two fiscal years, deficits of roughly $62 million and $22 million, respectively, resulted in the elimination of nearly 300 jobs, but only about 95 layoffs. For those budgets, public safety departments were asked to take cuts of about 10 percent or less, while most others slashed 20 percent from their spending. The majority of the lost positions were vacant.
"We've cut so far into other programs, there's almost nothing left but to cut into public safety," said Ed Clites, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, which represents more than 500 employees in the Sheriff's Office and probation department.