How many times do we have to read editorials, commentaries and blogs about the out-of-control spending in Santa Barbara County before the Board of Supervisors does something?
Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see an article about the county budget. Joe Armendariz, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association; Terry Tyler, a retired certified public accountant; Lanny Ebenstein, an economics professor at UCSB; and Andy Caldwell, executive director of the county Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business, have all written extensively about the looming financial threat to the county’s survival.
They generally contain similar statistics — about employee compensation and benefits, the amount of the pension liability, and the long-term prognosis if the situation doesn’t change.
Yet, we see almost no action, other than some tinkering around the edges, which seems a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Armendariz and Caldwell have frequently appeared at Board of Supervisors meetings, generally to call attention to the county’s plight and to warn of the consequences of not doing anything about it, invariably without any result, other than perhaps boredom by most if not all the supervisors.
What we don’t see or hear much about is the Board of Supervisors taking any action to avert disaster.
Last November, Caldwell pointed out that property taxes “have the most significant impact on the county’s fiscal health” and that the rate of growth is “much lower than the average growth rate of 8 percent over the last 30 years” and that it “will not be enough to bring property tax levels to pre-recession levels.”
“Despite signs of economic recovery in the county, expenditures continue to grow at a faster rate than revenues,” according to the 2010-2011 budget, which projected “increases of nearly $24 million, largely as a result of negotiated salary and benefit increases, and an anticipated revenue decline of nearly 1.5 percent,” which will not be enough to bring property tax revenues to pre-recession levels.
Can the county declare bankruptcy and, if it could, what would happen?
We can get an indication from the bankruptcy of the Bay Area city of Vallejo, where the end result was that police officers and firefighters were forced by the court to take a cut in pay and benefits.
When the train finally goes off the rails in Santa Barbara County, the supervisors will undoubtedly wring their hands and decry the situation. However, despite being well aware that at some point the county will be unable to pay its bills, the Board of Supervisors hasn’t taken any significant actions to avert the impending disaster.
No cuts, or at least not much, especially for the employees who are represented by the unions, which seem to have the attitude that their excessive pay and benefits can’t be cut, even if they ultimately eat up as much as 80 percent of the discretionary budget. Obviously, the 20 percent that would be left to operate the county’s various departments and agencies is not possible. But, hey, their “entitlements” can’t be touched.
So, while the county sinks under the weight of its debt, members of the Board of Supervisors can’t seem to bring themselves to make enough in the way of cuts to ensure that the doors will be kept open.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.