For the past two years, Sonoma County supervisors have relied on employee concessions, reserve funds and job attrition to cover county budget deficits.
But now county leaders say job cuts, which were utilized to a lesser degree in the past, appear to be the main way out of a projected $42.3 million deficit for the budget year that starts in July.
"In the last three years, we've gone from bad to worse to devastating," Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo said about the anticipated impact of further downsizing on the county workforce.
The Board of Supervisors began its public deliberations Tuesday on the county's current and future budget woes.
At the center of the nearly two-hour discussion was a preliminary proposal to cut county spending at all departments by 25 percent and reduce the 3,700-member workforce by as many as 500 positions.
Hundreds of layoffs could result from any final decision, which would come in June when supervisors approve a 2011-2012 spending plan.
"It's going to be a very difficult and trying time," County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said at the start of her presentation to the board.
The job cuts are an attempt to address head-on a three-year shortfall caused mainly by a historic drop in property tax revenue, rising government costs including those linked to retirement benefits and reductions in state and federal funding.
The new strategy would rely more on job cuts and less on the employee concessions and one-time special reserve funds used the past two years to solve deficits of nearly $62 million and $22 million, respectively.
Those budgets avoided large-scale layoffs by cutting mostly vacant positions, but that may have delayed the inevitable, several supervisors said Tuesday.
"I don't want to go another year of not making the necessary cuts to stop the bleeding," said Supervisor Mike McGuire. "What the county administrator is recommending today is a no-gimmick budget."
Ferguson advised the board not to tap further into the special reserves, now at nearly $29 million, or use the general fund reserves, now at $35 million.
The $377 million proposed general fund is part of the roughly $1.1 billion overall county budget, which also includes state and federal dollars.
Ferguson said cutting vacant jobs first could spare some employee layoffs. About 240 unfilled positions still exist in the county workforce, but Ferguson said not all of those open jobs would be in line for elimination.
A package of retirement incentives also could help limit layoffs. The board will discuss those incentives later this spring.
Supervisors touched briefly on the rising cost of retirement benefits. County contributions to pensions, now around $90 million annually are set to rise by millions of dollars over the next five years to account for the 2008 stock market losses and other benefit changes.
"Unless we bend that curve downwards, we're not going to make a lot of progress in the long-term," Bob Williamson, a retired Santa Rosa finance executive, told supervisors in his public comments.
Ferguson said she hopes to reach some agreement by June with employee groups about creating a lower tier of pension benefits for new employees. Because of the county's informal hiring freeze, savings from such a move would likely not help the county budget for several years, she said.