Board spares Henry 1, funds rural roads

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday signaled its intent to support an additional $8.5 million in spending to save a number of high-profile programs and jobs from the budget ax in the coming fiscal year.

In their third day of hearings on the county's proposed $1.2billion spending plan, supervisors tentatively restored funding for two big-ticket services: the Sheriff's Office helicopter Henry 1 and the Sierra Youth Center, the probation center for girls.

Henry 1 received $900,000 to go along with $500,000 already budgeted or shifted around in the Sheriff's Office to cover the helicopter's operations through next June. The $1.4 million total will support a five-day work week for the all-purpose aerial crew that until recently was on call seven days a week.

Sheriff Steve Freitas praised the informal vote backing the helicopter program. "It's a huge benefit to the citizens of this county and the people that come here as tourists," he said.

The Sierra Youth Center, which serves about 15 delinquent girls at a time, received about $870,000 to go along with $270,000 budgeted to help with the center's closure, had supervisors chosen that option.

Supervisors are seeking to close a $42.8 million gap in the county's projected $379 million general fund, the main pot of discretionary money, down $16 million from the current year. The deficit is driven by an $11 million decline in general fund revenue — including a $3.1 million drop in property tax — and the continued increase in county costs, including retirement spending.

The budget put forward by County Administrator Veronica Ferguson called for most of that gap to be filled through reduced spending, including a 16 percent cut in general fund support for public safety departments and a 20 to 25 percent cut for all other departments.

Most of those cuts were endorsed this week. But some of the deepest and most politically unpopular reductions the board put off for potential restoration.

On Wednesday, as expected, supervisors turned back a proposal to abandon maintenance on about 100 miles of rural roads. The proposal generated substantial controversy in recent days, and supervisors said they weren't willing to support it as one the many belt-tightening moves envisioned to help fill the budget gap.

"I'm not opposed to privatizing some roads; I'm really not," said Supervisor Valerie Brown, who had sharply criticized the proposal from the county's Transportation and Public Works Department. "I just don't think you can spring it on people at this juncture."

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