Sonoma County eyes $1.78 billion budget balanced by job cuts

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Sonoma County supervisors will face a multimillion-dollar dilemma this week in adopting a $1.78 billion budget that includes plans to cut nearly 100 jobs.

There’s a $14 million gap between funding requests from county department heads and available revenue, and the supervisors, starting on Tuesday, must decide how to deal with it.

The amount is paltry compared with total spending on the county’s health, law enforcement, parks, roads and myriad other services, but it reflects the fact that the vast majority of county revenues are state and federal funds earmarked for programs beyond the Board of Supervisors’ control.

The county’s elected officials have discretion over just $320 million in the general fund — about 18 percent of the whole budget — and the week’s most critical decisions involve a fraction of it.

To balance the budget, department heads proposed paring their general fund support by 2.2 percent, primarily by cutting 92 positions from the county’s 4,050-member workforce and by reducing contracts, services and supplies.

It was a matter of “aligning their services with the available resources,” County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said in a statement.

The budget also had to accommodate pay raises incorporated in renegotiated contracts with county employee groups, as well as higher costs due to inflation, said Niki Berrocal, deputy county administrator for budget and operations.

The largest group, the 1,900-member Service Employees International Union Local 1021, secured a contract last month that will cost nearly $28 million over four years.

But as part of the budget process, department heads asked for restoration of 65 jobs, at a cost of $20 million, along with an additional $19 million for new services. County officials identified enough revenue for all but about $14 million of the requests.

“That’s where the tough decisions will come,” Berrocal said.

Toughest of all may be the decisions for the Health Services Department, which has a recommended budget of $243 million in the proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. The proposed budget targets $10 million cuts that include loss of 44 jobs, by far the most of any department, but department heads have asked supervisors to restore nine of those jobs.

The Behavioral Health Division, which provides counseling and support to some of the community’s most vulnerable residents, proposed a $1.3 million cut in the proposed budget, reducing its funding to $91.6 million.

The budget’s overarching theme, in the wake of the wildfires and the February floods, is recovery and resiliency, with more than $39.5 million allocated to five strategic areas: community preparedness and infrastructure, housing, economy, safety net services and natural resources.

Examples include:

— A new Department of Emergency Management with a $3.6 million budget to implement a community alert and warning system, an $8.3 million fire services budget and a $900,000 investment in reducing wildfire fuels.

— A Community Development Commission budget that includes $5.9 million for developing 343 housing units.

— A $209,808 service contract with United Way of the Wine Country to manage the Sonoma County 2-1-1 call center providing residents with information on health and human services.

County officials, meanwhile, are hoping for $5.6 million in relief from the state for property tax losses due to the wildfires of 2017.

The state gave Sonoma County $3.6 million in 2017-18 and $5.1 million this year to offset tax losses, but did not include any 2019-20 funding in the governor’s May budget plan.

“We’re still pursuing it,” Berrocal said, referring to lobbying efforts in Sacramento.

The supervisors’ budget hearings are scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, with the only public comment period on the budget at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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