State budget puts county jobs at risk

If the county’s newly adopted “2004 legislative platform” can fairly be called a road map of the issues facing the Board of Supervisors, then next year will be a bumpy ride for Butte County. The folks who will feel those bumps the hardest will be the ones who end up underneath the vehicle.

For starters, the county is running on money it only thought it had. The gap in state payments to the county from the recently reduced vehicle license fee is already at $2.8 million, and another $7 million may be cut from so-called “realignment” funds used to provide health services. With another $6.6 million cut looming, money that can only come from the general fund, a lot of jobs and services are at risk of being cut.

“The situation is very dire,” legislative consultant Paul Yoder told the board Tuesday. “We are telling all our clients to expect not to receive at least one-third of the 2003-2004 backfill.”

County CAO Paul McIntosh said he has already directed department heads to look at how programs and personnel can be slashed.

“It kind of puts a gloom on the holiday season,” he said, adding that it was too early to know where cuts would be made, but that “Everything is on the table.”

“Would you rather have a cop on the street or get a [library] book on loan?” he asked. “The state may think they can run on deficits, but we sure as hell can’t.”

Instead of paying the money it owes to local governments, state legislators have opted to give refunds to drivers who paid higher car fees, adding another $475 million to its debt. To solve the state’s gargantuan budget problem, the governor has proposed borrowing $15 billion and setting aside 1 percent of revenues per year as a rainy-day fund to cover future deficits.

The only thing the county can do to get its VLF money any faster is to make a “hardship” claim to the State Controller’s Office. This would ostensibly put Butte County closer to the top of the list when refunds are handed out, but it wouldn’t ensure that the state actually makes the payments.

The governor’s budget will be out Jan. 9, and state legislators may by that time have figured out where to find the money to keep local governments in business. But McIntosh said that legislators will probably not put anything in writing until after the March election.

“There’s a lot of politics being played,” he said. “In this state, we don’t rely on a traditional funding base, so we’ve morphed this whole financial structure into something totally different that makes no sense.”

The county may also take critical cuts in criminal justice grants, court fees, and SB90 funds (used to provide health services—the state already owes the county $4 million) and will probably pay more in health insurance and retirement benefits. County heads are trying to finds new sources of income from grants, raising service fees and taxing Indian casinos.