State budget pain rolls down to Butte

The county budget proposal to be circulated Sept. 18 at a special Board of Supervisors hearing is diplomatically titled “A Budget of Challenges,” but it very well could have been called “A Budget of State Betrayal.”

According to Butte County CAO Paul McIntosh, the legislative hijinks displayed this past budget cycle by the current crop of legislators in Sacramento has blown an $8.2 million hole in the county’s budget—money that will have to come out of county services.

“It’s insidious,” McIntosh said of the way the state has, over the last decade, begun passing more costs and less revenue on to counties. “It’s like being nibbled on by ducks.”

This year, though, it’s more like being mauled by a bear. While the county budget will technically be getting more in funding from state and federal sources, the mandated services the county has to provide will be both more numerous and more expensive. So-called “SB 90” services, named after the Senate bill that required counties to provide them, are a good example. While counties are obligated to provide care and education for young people with mental-health problems, the state has for the second year in a row reneged on its legal obligation to pay the counties back for that service. In Butte County, that translates into almost $4 million that will likely have to come out of the general fund.

Increases in the costs of health care, retirement benefits and workers’ compensation will also hit the county hard, to the tune of more than $7 million. McIntosh says the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) used by county employees suffered badly in the stock market downturn of 2001, but due to its accounting methods did not realize the losses until this year, when benefit payouts will have to be shored up by higher county contributions. Next fiscal year, the amount the county contributes to the plan is likely to hit $5.7 million. PERS has also given notice that it may raise health care premiums as much as 25 percent next year. Who will pay for the increase has not been determined.

McIntosh also announced the likelihood of yet another transfer from the Behavioral Health Department to the Social Services Department of about $1.5 million. The county just recently moved a comparable amount between the two departments, prompting some in the mental-health field to charge that the move could cause a number of severely mentally ill people to end up homeless, in jail or dead within the next few years.

Other state impacts to Butte County this year include:

• A $1.15 million increase in contract payments to the California Department of Forestry, which provides fire suppression services to the county. The increase is caused by a large salary and benefits increase handed to CDF employees this year by Gov. Davis.

• A $2.18 million gap in collections of the vehicle license fee, which the state is considering a “loan” from cities and counties. Butte County has filed an application of early repayment with the state, but no action has yet been taken on it.

• A $626,000 share of a fine incurred by the state when it failed to update its child support collections mechanisms to comply with federal standards. McIntosh’s budget proposal states that “neither Butte County, nor any other county, has had any authority, responsibility or culpability whatsoever” in the state’s failure to comply.

• A $529,000 grant loss that will result in the loss of three currently unstaffed positions in the Sheriff’s Department. Badly needed dispatchers will probably not be hired either.

• A $93,209 hit to county libraries, equal to almost half the yearly book budget.

The current budget proposal will be hammered out by the supervisors in public meetings held over the next few weeks. A final meeting on Sept. 30 will determine the actual budget. With the current proposal characterizing the budget as one that “limps through the fiscal gauntlet presented to Butte County this year in hopes next year will be better,” the meetings are expected to be contentious and somber by turns.

On the chopping block are at least six county jobs, a slew of public-works projects, an upgrade in public-safety radio systems, a remodel of the Sheriff’s Office lobby that would have made it accessible to the handicapped, and a curtailment in programs that were supposed to help the district attorney prosecute statutory rapes, elder abuse and child abduction.

When asked what role our local representatives in state government played in creating or mitigating the current budget fiasco, McIntosh refused to criticize them publicly, offering the stock line, "We continue to work with our elected representatives to find solutions to [these] problems."