Monday, April 23 , 2018, 7:57 pm | Fair 55º


Harris Sherline: Santa Barbara County’s Financial Reality

It's time to restructure local government and plan for a future with fewer personnel

It’s hard to understand why so many people in public office are such poor money managers. The latest example of the sheer financial fecklessness of politicians has recently been playing out in the Santa Barbara County budget hearings for fiscal year 2010-11.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

A newspaper article about 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf’s campaign for re-election credited one of her supporters with saying, “The (sign) of a successful leader is one who shows a careful consideration of balancing the needs of the county.”

The question is: Exactly what are the “needs” of the county — or any jurisdiction, for that matter?

My personal agenda in this regard is pretty straightforward, perhaps simplistic, but the county’s priorities should be public safety first — law enforcement, fire protection and certain public health services — followed by maintaining the roads and other infrastructure, then everything else. It doesn’t include such expenditures as growing the employee pension obligations or borrowing more money to build new buildings at a time when the number of employees is shrinking — or should be shrinking — and the county is faced with a budget that has a very large deficit.

The Board of Supervisors ignored the advice of its own CEO, Mike Brown, who warned that it will be impossible to balance the budget without “a fundamental reorganization that adjusts to economic reality.” He further cautioned that “all departments will need to absorb increasing costs of retirements, and several departments are also facing long-term revenue challenges.”

This resulted in the board taking control of most of the department heads away from the county’s own CEO, opting to have them report directly to the board itself, which means there will now be five supervisors directing the managers. Having spent more than 50 years in business as both a professional and an executive, I can tell you that such an arrangement is guaranteed to create confusion and behind-the-scenes politicking, which is hardly a formula for efficient management.

It’s relatively easy to paper over a budget deficit, at least temporarily. The problem is that it invariably hits the proverbial brick wall of reality.

Most people are painfully aware that we have a political class that either doesn’t understand or refuses to face reality when it comes to government budgets, as the following recent headlines graphically illustrate:

» “The Fastest Growing Class of U.S. Millionaires: Government Workers Making 2X Private Workers” (Forbes, “The Millionaire Cop Next Door”)

» “$239,000 Conductor Among M.T.A.’s 8,000 Six-Figure Workers” (The New York Times)

» “Special Report: County Budget 2011-11 Pinning Our Hops on Low Flow Toilets” (Santa Barbara COLAB newsletter, Volume 19, Issue 6)

» “Schwarzenegger Preps ‘Terrible Cuts’ to Close Deficit” (, May 11)

» “State Budget Woes Grow Deeper as Rosy Projections Come Up Short” (Sacramento Bee, May 12)

» “Yolo County Proposes Layoffs, Spending Cut” (Sacramento Bee, June 4)

» “California Will Run Out of Money Without More Borrowing; Controller Says State Can Pay Bills Through Summer, Warns of Budget ‘Gimmicks’” (Los Angeles Times, June 2)

The sum and substance of all of this is that there is simply not enough money in the till or in the anticipated tax revenues of the various government entities to pay for everything politicians or government employees want.

Santa Barbara County can’t continue to borrow its way out of its fiscal dilemma, and the Board of Supervisors soon will be forced to face that reality. Furthermore, I’m not at all convinced that most of the members understand that the current situation is unsustainable.

In 2009, California was forced to issue IOUs to pay its bills because the state ran out of cash. The county doesn’t have that luxury. If the Board of Supervisors doesn’t get real about managing its budget very soon, Santa Barbara County surely will run out of cash at some point. And I don’t believe the supervisors will be able to rely on borrowing to generate the funds they will need at that point.

Addressing the issue of the county budget, Lanny Ebenstein, president of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, recently noted, “It is likely that additional hundreds of positions will be cut in the coming years. ... The services that the county provides are vital. For this reason, the Board of Supervisors should approach the county budget in new ways, and institute procedures for its long-range development in light of fewer personnel.”

It’s time the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and the employee unions face reality and restructure county government to operate with a permanent decrease in staffing.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,

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