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Local News

Santa Barbara County Fiscal Gap Widening Under Heftier Employee Salaries, Pensions

Board of Supervisors will hear budget proposals from all departments this week before making decisions on Friday

Santa Barbara County plans to use one-time money and reserves to balance its budget for the next year, which has higher costs for employee salaries, benefits and pensions. 

The gap between revenues and costs is widening — to $13.7 million for 2013-14 — and retirement costs are expected to peak in 2014-15, according to County Executive Officer Chandra Wallar. Departments have almost reached the end of their reserve funds, which made ends meet in the past.

Employee salaries, benefits and pensions make up 58 percent of the total county budget, and the cost-per-employee has been increasing significantly over the past five years.

The average cost per safety employee has risen 40 percent since the 2008-09 year, from $117,600 to $164,600 projected for the 2014-15 year, according to budget director Tom Alvarez. Non-safety employee costs increased 21 percent over the same period, from an average of $97,900 to $118,500 per employee.

Concessions — negotiated cuts to employee groups — have expired and many unions will be getting raises starting next year, Alvarez said. Firefighters will receive a 4 percent increase next year, 4 percent in 2014-15 and another 4.5 percent increase at the beginning of 2015-16.

In addition to the current expenses, the county has to think about the $290 million in deferred maintenance, the unknown costs of implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the $18 million or so in yearly operational costs for the Northern Branch Jail, which may be completed in 2018, Wallar said. The Board of Supervisors plans to put away several million dollars each year toward the operating costs before it opens, with $3.4 million next year.

The county spends 60 cents of every general fund dollar on public safety, including the Sheriff’s Department, Fire Department, Probation Department, District Attorney’s Office, courts and the Public Defender’s Office, Alvarez said. This will jump up to almost 65 cents with the addition of the new Santa Maria jail.

The Board of Supervisors will hear presentations from every county department this week and is expected to make decisions on Friday. The supervisors will have a choice to restore some services, though it would widen the funding gap even more.

Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam reminded his colleagues about the huge amount of maintenance that needs to be done.

“We have this giant liability that’s increasing as we fail to address it,” he said. “I’d be for throwing more money at assets deteriorating as we speak.”

The budget numbers change slightly as the documents get prepared, but they represent the board’s priorities, according to Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf.

“It’s a value document for all of us,” she said, adding that the supervisors will deliberate to decide what’s best for the county. “The outlook is much more positive than it’s been in the past. Every year I was on the school board we were cutting.”

The service-level reductions proposed for the next fiscal year include shutting down Engine 11 at the Goleta Fire Station on Storke Road and Frey Way, to which the Goleta City Council vehemently objects. It would shut down the engine but keep the ladder truck fully staffed, halving the number of people on duty at all times for this station serving western Goleta.

The county Fire Department also proposes cutting three firefighter positions at Orcutt’s Station 22.

Other proposed service-level cuts include:

» Agricultural Commissioner: The county proposes eliminating the contract with the University of California for Cooperative Extension Services, which includes the county’s 4-H program.

Many people opposed this cut at Monday’s meeting, asking the board to reconsider keeping such a valuable program for young people.

“The 4-H club is like family to me,” said Carmen Cordero, a member of the Goleta club.

She said the program helped her learn leadership skills and the importance of getting involved in the community. Program organizers said participation has grown 23 percent in the last two years, and the county has become a statewide model of public-private partnership for the funding collaboration.

» Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services: ADMHS wants to reduce the number of contracted acute and long-term beds and eliminate the juvenile justice mental health services provided to the Probation Department.

» Community Services: The budget suggests eliminating contributions to 14 regional conference and visitors bureaus, reducing contributions to shelters and reducing Orcutt Park landscaping.

» Probation: This department proposes cutting the targeted gang intervention program, standby transportation taking juveniles from the south county to the Santa Maria Juvenile Hall — which would require law enforcement officers to drive them — and reducing capacity from 110 to 90 beds at the juvenile hall.

» Public Health: The proposed budget recommends cutting staff and consolidating the Santa Maria Women’s Center with the primary care practice at the Betteravia County Government Center.

» Sheriff’s Department: The department proposes cutting seven custody deputies and reducing the Aviation Support Unit budget, which soared past estimates with repair costs in the current year.

Santa Barbara County’s Main Jail has been overcrowded for years, which wasn’t helped by the state’s public safety realignment program, but the proposed budget states that the jail capacity would be reduced alongside the cut of custody deputies. Details will be presented at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors budget hearing.

The combination of Fire and Sheriff’s Department air support into the Aviation Support Unit was, and is, expected to save money, but the unit has been faced with huge maintenance costs and problems with radios and mechanical failures.

Repairs for one helicopter cost more than the entire unit’s maintenance budget for the year.

Budget presentations are scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Board Hearing Room at the County Administration Building, 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

  2013-15 Budget Hearing Materials by Giana Magnoli

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