Supervisors approve $2 billion Sonoma County budget
Overcoming a projected deficit as wide as $20 million this week, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a $2 billion budget Friday in an uneventful, hour-long virtual public hearing.
The budget was balanced in part with $26.8 million taken from the $149 million PG&E settlement stemming from the 2017 wildfires. The money will be used to restore reserves depleted during the fires, shore up critical funding for mental health and homeless services, expand brush clearing efforts to reduce fire risk and boost staffing at the county’s law enforcement oversight agency.
The settlement money “softened some of the hard decisions,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair.
Officials identified an additional $51 million from other discretionary sources that were allocated to a range of programs, including $20 million for 2021 COVID-19 response and $5.5 million for a mobile support team that responds with law enforcement in cases involving mental health crises.
The county also benefited from federal and state stimulus funds, along with revenue projections that improved since a “baseline” budget was adopted in June.
Last-minute spending decisions by the board also rolled back about $28 million in proposed spending cuts, averting layoffs within the county’s 4,100-member workforce.
However, supervisors approved more than $10 million in cuts that called for elimination of 34 jobs, all currently vacant.
Resolving the major controversy of the budget process, the board allocated $4 million over two years to sustain the sheriff’s helicopter program, Henry 1. That interval, however, will include consideration of Supervisor Lynda Hopkins’ plan to turn the helicopter over to the Sonoma County Fire Protection District, reducing its use for law enforcement.
Sheriff Mark Essick had protested general fund cuts of about $7 million for his department and created political tension with the board by proposing those cuts be filled by terminating the popular helicopter program and closing substations in Guerneville and Sonoma. Friday’s action put a formal end to that need.
Overall, like most local governments, the county is reckoning with sharp drops in tax revenue related to the pandemic and rising payroll costs ― factors that are expected to drive major deficits over the next five years.
The board began its budget review with an estimated $45.7 deficit. The hearings typically held in June were put off until September to give officials more time to nail down their revenue and spending forecasts.
The hearings began this week with Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist, offering his prediction that the county will not begin to experience an economic recovery until 2023.
Hopkins credited county staff with “creative solutions” that were “pulled together while fires were burning. Otherwise, she said, the budget “could have been an absolute disaster.”
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who is leaving the board next year after three terms, said the budget process was “like a roller coaster,” with losses in several revenue sources and the upswing from the PG&E settlement.
“This one in particular has been really hard,” she said.
“Let’s kick some butt going forward,” Supervisor James Gore said, lauding his colleagues and county officials for their work.
“We came into this thinking it was going to be much worse,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.
But Rabbitt, known for his cautious approach to fiscal issues, added, “we do have a deficit we need to solve. We need to be disciplined.”
The adopted general fund budget erased a $20 million shortfall for 2020-21 and slimmed down projected deficits ranging from $34 million to $40 million over the next four years.
The revised deficits ranged from $17 million next fiscal year, nearly $26 million in 2022-23 and $22 million in both of the next two fiscal years, according to county finance officials.
“It’s a significantly better position for the county going forward,” principal analyst Peter Bruland told the board, but not to the point of saying “everything’s happy and fine.”
In closing the meeting, Zane noted the momentous date of Sept. 11, saying the county is now “right back where we were 19 years ago, thanking first responders as we did on 9/11.”
Gorin noted the county surpassed 100 deaths from COVID-19 this week, while residents have lost at least 159 homes from wildfires this fall.
“The journey begins again today,” said Gorin, who lost her home in the Nuns fire of 2017.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or email@example.com. On Twitter @guykovner.