Santa Barbara County supervisors found themselves faced with $27 million in departmental requests to restore and expand services and staff with less revenue than anticipated in the 2018-19 fiscal year as they began budget workshops Monday.
In any year, providing necessary services while balancing costs and revenues is a challenging job, but county staff noted this year's budget issues have been complicated by the Thomas fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow.
The staff expects the county’s share of the $55 million cost of responding to and recovering from the twin disasters in December and January to total $12.3 million, and that unanticipated expense is being compounded by the resulting loss of revenue, estimated at $2.9 million for the current fiscal year and $3.6 million in 2018-19.
“This recovery process is very complex; it will take several years,” County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato told supervisors, noting that Montecito normally accounts for 60 percent of the transient occupancy tax revenue and 17 percent of the property tax revenue.
She added that until the burned slopes are revegetated, even a “less intense rain event” could have severe impacts that would hit the county with additional costs.
Other issues putting the squeeze on county finances include rising overtime costs, maintenance issues at the Main Jail, rising costs for housing mental health patients and increasing state and federal mandates.
County departments shaved off more than $5 million through reducing staff by 10.9 full-time equivalents and cutting services to balance their proposed budgets, with the Behavioral Wellness Department cutting $2.3 million and the Sheriff’s Department cutting $1.5 million in services.
But at the same time, departments are asking for additional funding to restore some personnel and services and to expand some programs, and it will be up to supervisors to decide who will get how much for what with the limited funding available.
“It sounds to me like our only strategies left are pension savings and the marijuana tax,” 1st District Supervisor and Board Chairman Das Williams commented after hearing the Behavioral Wellness request for $2.35 million in restoration requests and public pleas to increase funding for the Recovery Learning Centers in Santa Maria and Lompoc.
Cannabis costs and revenues are, in fact, not included in the proposed budget at this time, Myasato said, although they will be incorporated in the recommended budget to be presented during the June budget hearings.
Anticipated revenues are estimated at $5 million to $25 million — if voters approve the tax measure on the June ballot — but costs won’t be known until staff can determine how many additional employees will be needed for application processing, compliance monitoring and enforcement.
Some of the requests for restored and expanded programs gained support from supervisors, while others ran into solid opposition, like going paperless for supervisors documents, one of the initiatives proposed for the Renew ’22 program aimed at improving efficiencies and cutting costs.
“That’s one of my goals, to get you to (go paperless),” Williams said.
“I just want to say, uh, no,” 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam said firmly, adding later, “I am a living anachronism. I must have analog communication.”
“I’m a paper guy, too,” 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said. “But we’re asking a lot of people, department heads, to do things they don’t want to do, so I would support giving it up.”
Another was a proposal to hire a consultant to conduct an in-depth audit of all departments, not just on how money is being spent but primarily on how well they are organized and supervised and how they could improve their processes.
“I think that’s the responsibility of the CEO and the department heads,” said 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf.
But Lavagnino said he supported auditing management practices to “re-evaluate where people work and how they work.”
Although a suggested general purpose sales tax increase of 0.25 percent to 1 percent could raise an estimated $1.89 million to $7.56 million in revenue annually, it also did not find favor with supervisors
“Good luck. I see that as ‘no shot,’” Lavagnino said, adding he would actively work against it.
Adam said the county should tell the public what it plans to spend tax money on, and “if they like it, they’ll support it."
A proposed survey of residents to see what the county is doing well and what it could do better as a way of improving customer service won mixed response.
“Customer service is helpful, but I’d give it a low priority,” 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said. “I don’t see it reducing cost or increasing revenue.”
“I’m not sure a survey would push us in a different direction,” Lavagnino said.
But other proposals, like centralizing the human resources functions in one department, won general support. Currently, some of the larger departments handle human resources issues on their own, which supervisors noted has caused problems with high-dollar claims.
“I agree with centralizing HR,” Hartmann said. “It’s absolutely essential.”
Adam agreed: “I totally support centralizing HR. I think this has been a long time coming.”
Adam pushed hard for maintaining infrastructure, particularly the county’s roads. While he generated some support, funding seemed to be the major stumbling block.