Down to the bone

County supervisors wonder where they will cut next

When you’ve already cut to the bone, where do you cut next?

That was the unasked question looming over a special Monday (May 18) meeting of the Butte County Board of Supervisors, as they considered a final budget for 2009-10 that they all agreed was horrendous and was almost certain to get worse—soon.

That’s because the state of California, despite the passage of temporary tax hikes as part of the Legislature’s February budget compromise, was again looking at a huge deficit in 2009-10 estimated at either $15.4 billion, if voters approved Tuesday’s ballot measures, or $21.3 billion, if—as everyone expected—they didn’t.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already said he’s likely to tap city and county revenues for $2 billion or more. For Butte County, that could mean as much as an additional $4 million to be cut from the budget. Interim Chief Administrative Officer Greg Iturria also warned that the state could stop allocated some $600,000 in Williamson Act subvention funds.

The budget situation was plenty bad enough already. Thanks to declining revenues as a result of the recession, the county’s proposed general-fund budget needed to lop more than $10 million, or 8.5 percent, from the 2008-09 figure of $127,326,000, bringing it down to $116,509,000.

In their most controversial step, the supervisors in March decided that would necessitate cutting $2.5 million from the CalFire contract, leading to probable “rolling brownouts” of two of the county’s 12 fire stations each day.

The final budget would have been even worse—cut by 11.5 percent, to $112,584,000—except for two recent developments: The supervisors approved a new fee schedule that will bring in more revenue, and Sheriff Perry Reniff and his staff worked out a deal with the U.S. Marshals Service worth nearly $3 million to house federal prisoners in the jail temporarily.

That allowed Iturria to submit an “adjusted” proposed budget that restored $4 million to the revenues side of the ledger.

And that’s what saved the county library branches—along, presumably, with a highly visible outpouring of community support in recent weeks. The libraries had been looking at a cut of more than 50 percent, from $3.1 million to $1.5 million, and a reduction in hours to just 60 among the six branches. The adjusted budget restored $1 million, allowing them to stay open at current levels (127 county-funded hours per week), a reduction of 19 percent from the original 2008-09 funding.

Outgoing Library Director Derek Wolfgram told the board that the new budget kept the libraries viable and provided “a basis for fighting back” to full status. He praised Reniff as “a shining example of creativity and team spirit in the county” for crafting the jail deal.

Because this was the board’s final hearing on the 2009-10 budget, the supervisors heard from the heads of all of the county’s departments. One by one they trooped to the lectern to explain just how difficult it was to operate with fewer staff, inadequate supplies and outdated equipment. All insisted, however, that they would do their best.

Acting Assessor Fred Holland, for example, noted that staff had gone from 55 in 1980 to 43 today—38 under the proposed budget—while the assessment rolls had grown significantly. He pointed out that his office’s efforts generate money for the county, and “the retention of experienced, trained staff” is crucial.

Development Services Director Tim Snellings said his budget was being cut by 30 percent and his department had gone from 49 to 23 employees in recent years. As a result, he said, the department had “recalibrated” its work, reducing the hours it was open to the public, doing more business online, and setting up an interactive phone appointment system. “Our customers are saying they don’t like the changes, but they understand,” he said.

Not all the departments suffered equally, but all suffered to some extent and a few took big hits. Agencies that generated funds or were self-funding from fees, like the Clerk-Recorder’s Office, generally fared better than the others.

The District Attorney’s Office, for instance, took a 12 percent cut, which translates into eight lost positions, including two deputy DAs. Noting that “only the DA can charge crimes” and that his office processes some 10,000 cases each year, District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the result will be “less crimes charged.”

Iturria repeatedly pointed out that, while the proposed budget was balanced, it was structurally imbalanced, in that it relied on “one-time solutions” such as deferred capital improvements and equipment purchases and did not incorporated future state reductions. Still, he called it a “prudent and responsible budget” under the circumstances.

In the end the supervisors unanimously approved—with Chairman Bill Connelly absent due to a family medical matter—the proposed budget, with some small changes. An additional $250,000 in revenues from the two Indian casinos will be applied to CalFire to reduce the number of rolling brownouts, and $30,000 Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs said was left over from the May 19 election would be divvied up between the Farm, Home and 4-H program and CalFire, with each receiving $15,000.

These days, every little bit counts.