This time last year, the leaders of more than two dozen groups that provide services to 11,000 needy residents of Sonoma County were holding their breath.
Under a proposed county budget, they faced elimination of nearly $600,000 handed out by the county's Human Services Commission to support their work.
Relief came through one-time federal stimulus money that restored the commission's funding.
But this year that funding and the commission itself again are on the line, one of many controversial belt-tightening proposals aimed to help fill a $42.8 million gap in the county's 2011-2012 budget.
"It's devastating," said Nick Baker, program director at Santa Rosa's Homeless Service Center, the Catholic Charities-run operation that is one of many local social welfare programs supported partly by county money.
The Board of Supervisors is set to decide the fate of the Human Services Commission and numerous other county programs in budget hearings starting Monday.
For the first time in three years of declining county spending, some of the deepest cuts supervisors will consider are to public safety and justice programs, which account for more than half of the projected $379 million general fund. It is the main pot of discretionary money within the proposed $1.2 billion overall budget.
Programs set for elimination include:
Two Sheriff's Office teams, the bomb unit and a team dealing with community crime issues.
The Sierra Youth Center, a probation facility for girls.
In the District Attorney's Office, a team of investigators could be reduced from roughly 16 to 12, and a Sheriff's unit assigned to domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases could be eliminated.
Sheriff Steve Freitas and District Attorney Jill Ravitch have both protested the cuts. Spending for their offices as well as the Public Defender and probation department is set to drop by 16 percent. Most other county departments would see a 20 to 25 percent reduction, a repeat of last year when those divisions also saw larger relative reductions.
Supervisors could choose to turn back some of the most high-profile cuts, including the grounding of the sheriff's helicopter Henry 1, by tapping several special pots of money.
One is the general fund reserve, now at $35 million. The other is a trio of special one-time funds totaling just over $30 million that otherwise cover property tax delinquencies, capital projects and emergency and contingency spending.
Supervisors tapped about $15 million from the latter source last year to help fill a $61.6 million deficit. But County Administrator Veronica Ferguson has recommended supervisors not touch either source this year or pursue another round of employee concessions, which also helped balance the 2010-2011 budget.
Her proposal takes a more direct approach, reducing general fund spending by 4 percent almost entirely through program and job cuts, including the elimination of 223 positions and 63 layoffs, affecting about 6 percent of the workforce.
Supervisors said they were largely on board with that approach, seen as the quickest way to wipe out a structural deficit driven by a historic two-year drop in property tax revenue, the main source of county funding, and a rise in county costs, including retirement spending.
"If we're not doing what we need to be doing, then we're kicking the can down the road," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo. "That's not what I see with this budget."