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10 more cut from county

Reduction in staffing could cost more than save

POSTED May 4, 2010 11:35 p.m.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors cut 10 more positions Tuesday morning — nine of which were filled — in their ongoing efforts to eliminate a $10 million budget deficit. But those being eliminated argue that the cutbacks will cost the county more than the move will save.

The decision will see the elimination of five positions with the county Assessor’s Department, saving $506,000, and five employees in the Public Defender’s Department, saving $512,000. Additionally, the Assessor’s Department hours will be reduced by an hour and a half daily, from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

“It’s a grim picture that seems to be getting grimmer every time we discuss it,” said County District 1 Supervisor Bill O’Brien. “There’s just no money.”

This week’s cuts follow the supervisors’ decision a week ago to layoff 52 employees in the Sheriff’s Department and nine from the county library. As many as 120 county employees from 11 different departments could lose their jobs this year, according to county Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson.

Countywide cuts will reduce the number of beds available for adult detainees, the number of courtrooms staffed with prosecutors, and available sheriff’s deputies for patrols. Citizens will see fewer operating hours across county departments, fewer road projects, and reduced maintenance at parks and county facilities. Some parks may even “go dry” with naught but the bare minimum of fire prevention maintenance.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Robinson said.

“There is no action that is going to be before you (supervisors) in the next month, in the next 15 months, that is not going to have an adverse impact on the services provided to the people in this community day in, day out,” Robinson said. “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The cutbacks, though damaging, are necessitated by declining county revenue — both in terms of tax dollars and income generated by providing once-profitable services such as development work. Additionally, department expenses are increasing due to ongoing union-mandated salary step increases.

“It’s a huge problem,” Robinson said. “There are no practical solutions. There are no good solutions. There are no good outcomes.”

Efforts to balance the budget kicked off in earnest last year, when most departments endured a 12 percent cut — 5 percent for public safety departments — despite the use of $15.3 million in one time funds at the time.

This year, the plan calls for a 9 percent across the board cut. That cut will come on top of an April 2010 5 percent salary cost reduction for all county employees, which generated $13.8 million in savings.

Even after using $10 million in reserve funds, the county still stands $10 million in the red for this year’s budget. And next year, the county won’t have the $10 million in reserves to prevent additional, possibly deeper cuts.

“While these cuts may seem painful to the departments, unfortunately, these cuts do not get us to a balanced long term budget,” Robinson said, predicting devastating cuts in the year to come.

But the cutbacks approved Tuesday could end up costing the county more than the moves save, according to department heads.

Information provided by the Assessor’s Department argues that Tuesday’s cuts will likely result in more than $449,280 of lost revenue next year alone. The report argues an understaffed Assessor’s Department will be unable to properly value new construction due to a lack of resources, and as such the parcels could be undertaxed.

In the Public Defender’s Department, a decline in staffing will not result in a reduced workload — or change the County’s legal obligation to provide legal representation to those unable to afford their own lawyers.

“If we don’t provide them, somebody else will,” said Public Defender Tim Bazar. “And the county will have to pay them to provide those services. … Laying five individuals off may be in the very real sense pennywise and pound foolish.”

According to Bazar, if county public defenders are overworked and unable to provide representation, judges will assign an outside defense attorney to the case. The county would then be billed $85 per hour for regular cases or $125 per hour for capital cases, with no control over the number of hours a defender works or the amount of effort the lawyer puts into the case.

County defense attorneys are already overworked, Bazar said, with nearly twice the number of cases as recommended in bar association guidelines. While those guidelines aren’t set in stone, Bazar said that overworked attorneys could be grounds for appeal in some cases.

Eric Bright, a county defense attorney whose job was on the chopping block, told supervisors just how busy his department already is. Every Monday he goes to court and meets 10 to 16 new clients with whom he often has just five minutes to speak with before heading into court.

Still, Bright’s concern was with being able to continue to provide service to his clients, not with being overworked.

“I can tell you this will not be the right decision,” Bright said. “It will cost the county more money to appoint private attorneys. … I am fully convinced that my office is the most cost effective way to provide these services.”

Bazar said that Stanislaus County is among the lowest in least per capita indigent defense costs in the state. Kings County is the only county which comes close, Bazar said, but hard statistics on that county’s costs were hard to find.

Regardless of the potential costs, the county was left with no better alternatives to meet their budgetary goals on Tuesday.

“I know it’s difficult in the best of times and these are the worst of times,” Robinson said. “… Unfortunately, your CEO does not have a better recommendation to you than the one that’s being provided here today.”

Bazar expressed optimism that crime may fall, allowing his department to continue to serve those who need it most. He posited that, perhaps with the cuts to the Sheriff’s Department, fewer people would be arrested and fewer cases would come across his desk.

While supervisors hesitantly agreed to the cuts with no alternatives, they pledged to closely monitor any additional costs that come from Tuesday’s decision. If data shows that the county would ultimately spend less by hiring back employees, supervisors may consider reversing Tuesday’s decision.

“In the end it could be a mistake, but we have to start somewhere, “said District 2 Supervisor Vito Chiesa, whose district includes Turlock. “… Time will tell.”

The Stanislaus County third quarter financial report is available online at http://www.stancounty.com/budget/index.shtm

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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