Placer County departments talk about doing more with less

Final budget decisions expected next month
By: Lien Hoang Journal correspondent
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One by one, departments updated Placer County supervisors on their budgets Thursday and Friday, all marching to a familiar tune: Do more with less. In the two-day budget workshop, departments from the Sheriff’s Office to Public Works detailed their accomplishments in the last fiscal year, but also the challenges forced by a recession with no end in sight. At the conclusion of the workshop, supervisors set aside more than $5.5 million Friday for the county’s reserve and contingency funds, which could become necessary if state budget decisions incur further costs for the county down the line. The supervisors also made spending adjustment for a total savings of $1 million. Cheryl Davis is the director of Human Services, which deals with welfare, food stamps and other entitlement programs. She told the Board of Supervisors that claims for such public benefits have jumped 250 percent since the 2007-2008 fiscal year, many of them from families that have never needed those services. At the same time, the state has sent less and less money down to counties each year. For the upcoming fiscal year alone, state lawmakers have cut an unprecedented $1 billion from welfare. In other words, Davis said, as demand goes up, state funding goes down. “It’s a very distinct, inverted relationship,” she said at the budget workshop. The county’s Health and Human Services department proposes a net budget of $155 million, down 2 percent from the 2010-2011 fiscal year. That compares with an overall county budget of $720 million, which the board adopted tentatively in June. Placer’s annual budget dance is traditionally plagued by the volatility of state budget negotiations, which often extend months beyond the July 1 start of the fiscal year. This year, however, poses some rare conditions. Gov. Jerry Brown already signed some budget bills on time, granting cities and counties a greater degree of certainty as they put their own fiscal houses in order. However, the California budget includes a series of spending cuts that will be triggered by January if actual revenues don’t meet projections. In that case, Placer is poised to lose as much as $1 million. California legislators this year also balanced their books by shifting some state responsibilities down to counties. The realignment includes transferring 33,000 low-level state prisoners to county jails in the next two years. For Placer County, that could mean a funding gap as high as $47.1 million in that time period if the county jail cannot hold the influx of inmates, according to Principal Management Analyst Bekki Riggan. But she said the gap could be as low as $1.7 million if all goes well. Placer County enters this fiscal year with a fund balance of 8 percent to 10 percent of its general fund and public safety budgets. However, its overall budget is down 4.9 percent from the previous year, signaling yet another upcoming period of austerity. This comes at a time when Placer’s elected officials have attempted to pare down its services. County Executive Officer Tom Miller, whose office coordinates fiscal planning, said the board has spent the last decade cutting back to focus on state-mandated services. Departments said at the workshops they have coped with the belt-tightening by simply cutting staff and services, but also by looking for more efficient practices. That has ranged from moving files online, contracting out services, and opting for flextime rather than paying staff overtime. Jim Durfee, director of Facility Services, told supervisors there could be a long-term consequence to some austerity measures. As staff members get older, they have fewer means to train younger employees, diminishing the availability and experience of their successors. “Some have noticed we’re getting more gray,” Durfee joked. The board will hold a public hearing on the budget Sept. 13 and vote on a final budget Sept. 27.