The ax falls

County budget proposal reflects hard times at state level

Budget, budget, who’s got the budget? The board ponders its spending options while debating the merits of a proposed $318 million budget approved Tuesday. The final budget will be hashed out this month.

Budget, budget, who’s got the budget? The board ponders its spending options while debating the merits of a proposed $318 million budget approved Tuesday. The final budget will be hashed out this month.

Photo By Tom Angel

Thanks to what administrators say is a state-generated, $10 million hole in the county budget, layoff notices will soon be sent to 55 county employees whose positions are slated to be eliminated. But there is some hope that those employees will be able to stay on the county payroll, as administrators say an early retirement program should trim the budget enough to avoid actual layoffs. As of Tuesday, nearly 120 county employees had sent notice that they planned to retire early in exchange for an immediate disbursal of benefits.

After months of warnings that the state’s budget problems would not just trickle but rain down upon rural counties like Butte, county Chief Administrative Officer Paul McIntosh presented the board with a budget that recommends what he called “painful, yet necessary, reductions in services and resources in just about every category.”

With Chico’s Jane Dolan representing the sole “no” vote, the board adopted the proposed budget, which would eliminate 145 county positions, 55 of which are held by current employees. What follows now are a series of public hearings—beginning with one at 1 p.m., Tuesday, June 22—leading up to a final vote.

Rudy Jenkins, who represents workers in the Butte County Employee’s Association, told the board to watch for a potential backlash from citizens who expect more services from county government but will be receiving less.

“This budget, and probably next year’s budget, is going to have a profound impact on your constituents,” he said. “Services are going to be reduced and your folks are going to be impacted.”

County CAO Paul McIntosh blames the state budget mess, unfunded mandates and rising costs in employee benefits for causing a $10 million shortfall that the county will have to make up by reducing services.

Photo By Tom Angel

In public safety, the area of most concern to the board, budget cuts could mean the loss of eight sheriff’s deputies, plus a sheriff’s lieutenant, sergeant, clerk and administrative analyst. At the District Attorney’s Office, two prosecutors are on the chopping block, as well as six investigators, three investigative assistants, a clerk and a mental health counselor. The probation department would lose an officer and two office assistants, all positions that are currently occupied. In all, 49 public safety positions would be eliminated, 21 of which are currently staffed.

The departments that would take the biggest hits from this budget are those that provide social services, which have seen the greatest rise in both costs and number of services in the last few years. Many of the services provided by departments such as Behavioral Health are mandated by either the state or federal government, but much of the funding for those services comes directly from the county’s general fund, which McIntosh has said is being bled dry by unfunded mandates. Grant funding for non-mandated services has also dried up, so the social service departments are being asked to tighten their belts, reduce services and contract out for whatever they can. Almost half of the proposed layoffs come from the social service sector, with 50 positions being eliminated, 20 of which are currently staffed.

The budget also calls for taking 44 California Department of Forestry employees off the county payroll by reducing fire services, closing three rural fire stations during the winter and using only two firefighters per engine in the Chico area rather than the current three per engine. McIntosh blamed the reductions on CDF’s newest labor contract with the state, which raised firefighters’ wages and health benefits. That contract was signed by then-Gov. Davis amidst accusations that he was trying to curry favor with unions in hopes of fending off the recall effort that eventually tossed him from office. While CDF had asked the county for 22 percent more in funding to maintain its current operations, the proposed budget offers a 10.7 percent increase, which would put the cost of fire services at close to $11 million a year. Already, there are signs that the county is considering starting its own fire company, but any effort to do so would probably take years to bear fruit.

The proposed wintertime closures of fire stations in Robinson Mill, Stirling City and Jarbo Gap have stirred opposition among residents there, who say such closures could lead to the loss of property and even lives.

“People who live out in the rural areas don’t get a lot of services, and generally don’t even want a lot of services. But we still need the basics. It’s not a good idea to abandon your forts on the frontier.” said Forbestown resident Katherine Weiss, who is helping organize the effort to keep rural fire stations open year-round.

At the board meeting Tuesday, McIntosh said the county had offered “what we could afford” to CDF and left it up to them what services would have to be curtailed.

“They have set these priorities, not us," he said.