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Hiring freeze touted as potential Placer County budget aid

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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ROCKLIN “ A wage freeze for most Placer County workers was one of the more drastic ideas supervisors brought to the table Tuesday at workshop highlighting the county's bleak revenue expectations. Granite Bay-area Supervisor Kirk Uhler broached the subject of holding wages at current levels for all county workers other than Probation Department employees. He asked for a staff examination of the impact of a two-year freeze on wages and benefits. Uhler said the wage freeze should start with fellow supervisors, who have been mulling putting an increase in their own $30,000 compensation on the November ballot. Any surplus from the freeze would be split between county reserves and the county's continuing obligation to pay for post-retirement benefits for employees, he said. Increased expenses, particularly in the wages and benefit area, combined with declining revenues, have already forced the county into not filling vacant job openings. The county expects to hold at least 135 positions open through the 2008-09 budget year. About 100 positions are now unfilled and County CEO Tom Miller told supervisors that figure could rise to 180. The county employs about 3,000 people. Miller's CEO staff outlined how growth in past years “ and increased funding from that growth “ was able to absorb increased labor costs. Next year, however, the county's increase in labor costs will be dropping. Instead of hikes of $17 million in 2006-07 and $11.6 million this year “ the county is expecting labor costs to increase just $2.3 million. With fewer workers on the job, the county will be re-engineering how it does business to increase efficiencies among existing staff, Miller said. The CEO gave the example of the Auburn library, which is now open six days a week. Under this scenario, it would be open five days a week, Miller said. It's one example of reduced levels of service. One of the most vexing issues for the county is attempting to come up with a $9.6 million spending reduction plan for the Health & Human Services Department's $163 million budget, Miller said. The department is expected to take a double hit from decreasing state revenues “ both in the form of the 10 percent across-the-board spending decrease Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed and from the state's inability again this coming year to provide a cost of doing business increase. The county has estimated that providing services next year at a level comparable to the services budgeted in 2007-08 would cost about $23 million more than current income projections. Looming over the county revenue picture is a state budget crisis. Projections are for a $16 billion deficit. Given that counties rely heavily on state and federal revenues for a range of mandated programs, the full implications to the county will be better known when the state budget is completed. While the county budget meeting took place in Rocklin, in preparation of supervisors adopting a tentative budget spending plan in June for the coming year, foothills residents said Tuesday they were aware that governments are dealing with some serious financial issues in a slowing economy. Auburn's Scott Chisholm suggested one common-sense approach to spending wisely would be to consider second-hand furniture for the county's new office buildings. I saw in the news how one government took money from the budget and spent it on new furniture when they could have bought used, he said. At the same time, they're talking about cutting school funding. Jim Brown of Foresthill said that it's readily apparent that governments are in a deep hole and need to make some tough budget moves. But I don't know if I trust them to do it or not, Brown said. The Journal's Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com, or post a comment at auburnjournal.com.