Sonoma County supervisors Thursday approved a $1.69 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, dipping into reserves for the first time in recent years to both close the books and set millions of dollars aside to deal with impacts related to the October wildfires.
Adopted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors at the end of three days of lengthy hearings, the 2018-2019 fiscal year spending plan includes funding to alleviate a series of controversial proposed cuts to mental health and substance abuse services.
The budget also funds increased staffing for the county’s emergency management division, a move backed by county officials to improve their preparedness for future disasters and develop a new program to better warn the public about fires, floods, earthquakes and other crises as they unfold.
“I can’t see a single thing in here that doesn’t connect somehow to our fires,” Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman, said of the budget. “It just seethes of ... what we’ve been through.”
Because of the financial toll the fires placed on county resources, supervisors had to balance the budget using about $2.7 million of the $53 million general fund reserve they had coming into this week’s hearings. Supervisors further earmarked $8.5 million from the reserve to help pay for fire recovery-related costs, and they allocated another $3.9 million in reserve funds in case the county has to pay back any of the reimbursements it gets from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA funds are subject to federal government audits that could require the county to return some of the money, officials said.
“In this particular budget, it has been cutting down to the bone, and I think that’s okay,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “That’s why we put money away every year. ... If now is not the time to spend the money, I really don’t know when it is. I believe that all of these investments are worthwhile.”
Supervisors also drew from a few other sources, including dollars related to the former redevelopment agencies and the contingency fund they use to pay for additional needs that arise during the fiscal year, to pay for things the recommended budget had not funded. That includes $1.2 million to support a reorganization of the emergency management division, a step county officials have backed amid sustained public criticism over their failure to send more widespread warnings about the firestorm eight months ago.
A major uncertainty heading into this week’s budget hearings centered around the county’s health department, where officials were trying to close a $19 million shortfall they said resulted from years of inaccurate revenue projections related to Medi-Cal funds. The cuts threatened painful reductions in behavioral health staffing and services provided by community nonprofits.
But the blow was softened greatly by a plan presented earlier in the week by health director Barbie Robinson, who pulled together $16.9 million in one-time funds over the next two fiscal years to help the behavioral health division. Supervisors endorsed that plan Tuesday and agreed Thursday to fund an additional $1.6 million for behavioral health programs.
The general fund — the county’s main source of discretionary spending on public safety, roads and other key programs — is projected at about $455.6 million, down 1 percent from the current fiscal year, though county officials cautioned the numbers could fluctuate as they finalize the adopted budget in the coming weeks. Supervisors agreed to fund about 4,066 jobs, about 83 less than this year, mostly reflecting the elimination of vacant positions.