Friday Dec 12 2008
Our View: Recession requires openness, honesty from county leadership
Job cuts, salary reductions, and drops in service levels are now on the table as Placer County settles uncomfortably into recession mode. A typical reflex action by the wielders of the heavy axes is to keep a low profile while carrying the big stick. But for governments — not just Placer County but all local ones covered by open meeting laws and the Brown Act — decision-making must be done openly. Joe Q. Public has a right to know what’s being done with its money and how. That means elected officials and staff communicating during every step of a process. That’s upholding the public trust during a time when everything down to a simple pothole fill on a county road is getting increased scrutiny by passersby. Call it the ugly part of government. It’s easy enough to dispense raises, money for projects and create new jobs. During the boom years in Placer County, with sales tax and property tax revenues skyrocketing, county government was able to do so. Now it’s time to ratchet down, given a $10 million drop in projected revenue that leaves the county taking measures like last week’s four-day mandatory furlough program. While the Board of Supervisors has to contend with a voter-mandated $30,000-a-year compensation that includes no benefits, it would be easy enough to yield a heavy hand against unionized employees who make more — in some cases much more — than them. But supervisors, in their deliberations, always have to keep in mind that the county’s 2,000 or so employees are Placer’s greatest assets. The idea of leading by example was exemplified last month when Supervisor Rocky Rockholm took $10,000 out of his own bank account to pay for a charter flight that he took to attend a board meeting that had originally been paid for by the county. Acts like that show the public and employees that there is a genuine attempt to shore up a budget. It’s also a signal to other governments, particularly state legislators, that when a financial crisis hits, it’s time to leave pride and party politics at the door. The county hasn’t resorted to dreaded “across the board” cuts and shouldn’t be considering that measure going forward. What it needs to continue to do is to look at all expenditures, keep what is judged essential and put everything else on the table to determine what can be kept, what needs to be put on hold, and what needs to be discontinued. Supervisor Robert Weygandt, who was on the board during the last recession in the mid-1990s, also showed leadership at the last meeting by suggesting that open-space preservation allocations — which this year are set at $1.2 million — could be up for discussion. Law enforcement has been one of the high expenditure items in the county budget for several years and taking a hands-off approach there would be a mistake. The idea of increased use of inmates on county work projects needs to be discussed. So does greater use of early releases and in-home monitoring for jail inmates who have been convicted of non-violent crimes. The decisions will be tough ones but ones supervisors and county officials must make openly and honestly.