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Sonoma County adopts $1.78 billion budget, restoring millions in proposed cuts

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Sonoma County supervisors approved a $1.78 billion budget Friday that sets aside millions of dollars for unforeseen expenses, a possible recession, emergency response and recovery and a host of health services while cutting only nine jobs from a 4,000-member workforce.

The spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 also dedicates up to $6.8 million to unfunded pension obligations, which officials said was the largest single prepayment in county history on an obligation that totals about $370 million.

In two day-long budget hearings earlier in the week, the supervisors erased $14 million in cuts made in County Administrator Sheryl Bratton’s proposed 234-page budget by granting requests from county department heads. The board also approved $10 million for new programs and $3 million in requests from individual supervisors and community organizations.

Those actions left about $15 million in funding requests unfulfilled, which officials hailed as an achievement.

“We showed some restraint,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “It’s important to show restraint.”

“I think we’re in a good place,” Board Chairman David Rabbitt told an audience of several dozen department heads and other administrators, also acknowledging the shortcomings.

“I know there are still so many things you want that are out there,” he said expressing hope that future budgets would provide more revenue.

Officials noted that about $4.4 million in one-time funds were applied to ongoing expenses — including eight jobs, with six in health services — which will have to be reconsidered in the 2020-21 budget.

Sound budgeting policy holds that you match ongoing funding with ongoing expenses, reserving one-time funds for nonrecurring expenses.

The supervisors have discretion over just $320 million in the general fund, about 18% of the budget dominated by state and federal funds earmarked for programs beyond local control.

The board acted quickly, approving the budget in just an hour Friday morning, after marathon sessions Tuesday and Wednesday hashing over a spreadsheet that started with more than 100 budget items.

The lighter workload Friday morning even allowed some family time.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins’ infant son, Linden, wearing a white knit cap, cooed pleasantly during the meeting, nestled in both his mother’s and Zane’s laps.

Opening Wednesday’s meeting, Supervisor James Gore remarked that “gambling and cannabis are saving our budget this year.”

Nearly $11 million in funds paid by the Graton Resort & Casino since 2013 contributed to the budget, along with $2.6 million in cannabis taxes, fines, fees and penalties collected since 2017.

On the negative side, the county was short $5.6 million in property tax revenue in the wake of the 2017 wildfires.

On Tuesday, Rabbitt noted the need for a “soft landing” with cash reserves to offset a recession, and Supervisor Susan Gorin, a former Santa Rosa councilwoman, recalled the “painful” experience of managing city finances during a historic slump.

Among their decisions Friday, the supervisors set aside $2.5 million in an “economic uncertainty” fund to help weather a downturn “economists are predicting will likely happen at the end of 2020,” according to a county press release.

Another $2.5 million was earmarked to replenish reserves “to make sure we’re not at the rock bottom level,” Rabbitt said.

The county currently has reserves of nearly $41 million, enough to cover a month of operations, and would like to have twice as much to provide a two-month cushion.

The budget also maintained a $5 million contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses and a new $5 million “sinking fund” for infrastructure needs, such as demolition of a dilapidated Bodega Bay pier, seismic retrofitting of the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building and repair of fire- and flood-damaged roads.

Adult mental health services escaped from the largest proposed cut: $3.8 million from the program that includes residential care homes for more than 200 people diagnosed with acute mental health conditions, considered one of the community’s most vulnerable populations.

About 70 people had turned out at the only budget public comment period on Tuesday to protest the cuts, which also drew a sharp objection from Zane.

The board agreed to fund the residential treatment program, along with more than $2.5 million to continue peer counseling and family services for the next two years.

Another $800,000 was allocated to maintain six jobs involved in disease control.

The budget invested more than $41 million in recovery and resiliency programs, including $3 million to create a community alert system, $8 million for firefighting agencies and $15 million for a program that includes affordable housing development.

The Sheriff’s Office got back nine jobs that had been cut in Bratton’s proposed budget, including two community service officers, two detectives and three sergeants, enabling continued operation of the Sonoma Valley and Guerneville substations.

In closing Friday’s hearing Bratton and Rabbitt warned that funding will be tighter next year.

“I don’t mean to be the curmudgeon,” Rabbitt said, noting the abundance of one-time money will likely diminish.

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

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