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Tough times ahead for county

‘Sustain, adapt, and move forward’ plan for future says Monteith

POSTED January 18, 2011 11:11 p.m.

New Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chairman Dick Monteith delivered a grim yet positive State of the County address Tuesday night, calling for greater community and regional involvement to survive impending, drastic cuts.

The 17-minute speech, entitled “The Time to be Bold: The Time to Build” painted a scene of economic hardship, but also one of great opportunity to reshape Stanislaus County government into a leaner, more effective organization.

“We will build on what we have and we will build to be sustainable and we will build to be better,” Monteith said. “We will rebuild our government.”

Monteith led with the bad news, predicting years of economic struggle to come and a lagging economic recovery in the Central Valley. The poor tax situation will lead to further downsizing in county government, Monteith said, in a year likely to be filled with “painful goodbyes.”

Monteith said that, by the end of the year, the county will have lost more than 1,000 positions – up to 25 percent of the workforce from its high point – which will likely not return. For those who remain, pay and benefits will be “restructured,” with furloughs and dramatically cut expenses.

But Monteith said the challenge of the year will be to implement changes, forced by the budget, in a “common sense,” “responsible” and “realistic” manner consistent with the county mission –  to “serve the public interest by promoting public health, safety, welfare, and the local economy in an efficient, cost-effective manner.” While Monteith said the county will continue to strive to be the best, the end result will be a county government that looks very different from past years.

“We will need to re-establish what levels of service are provided to the public,” Monteith said. “We will need to re-invent how services are delivered. We will need to recreate how county departments interact with one another. And we will need to re-form how county government interacts with other branches of government.”

The re-invention of county government will result in fewer services being offered to residents, Monteith said, though no specific services were cited. He did say some decisions would be “difficult and unpopular,” but that the budget offered few options.

Monteith said he expects passionate people to attend meetings and lobby passionately for their “area of special interest,” and offered – and asked for – respect and civility while issues are debated.

He also asked for those passionate people to consider volunteerism to ensure the future of important programs in a major talking point of the speech. Monteith implored listeners to visit the county Web site to learn about volunteer opportunities, or to reach out to community, civic, faith, or non-profit organizations to volunteer.

“We will need more members of the public and representatives of non-governmental organizations to step up into the leadership roles that previously have been dominated by government personnel,” Monteith said. “… If the programs are worth sustaining, it might be these community individuals and organizations that become essential to delivering these services to the public.”

Monteith took time in the speech to recognize the uncertainty related to the state budget’s impact on Stanislaus County. Gov. Jerry Brown’s initial budget projection would release inmates from the state to the county, shut down redevelopment agencies, eliminate enterprise zones, cut funding for welfare programs, and take county funds – all this while the state already takes a 40 percent larger cut of the county’s property tax dollars than the state average, due to an arcane formula contained in 1980’s Proposition 13.

“Trust me, we know that actions at the state level will have local consequences,” Monteith said. “So we must build local government with the ability to sustain, adapt, and move forward.”

Despite the myriad challenges facing the county, Monteith lauded the county’s efforts to weather the down economy thus far. He complimented county employees who continue to “do more with less.” He lauded Stanislaus County for becoming one of the first counties in state to restructure its pension benefits for new hires.

And Monteith focused on recent successes achieved through regionalism, from the Regional Fire Services project, which brings fire agencies from Modesto, Stanislaus County and Salida together in a cost-savings move, to the recently-completed Animal Services Facility, achieved through work with the partner cities of Modesto, Ceres, Patterson, Hughson and Waterford. Monteith sees more opportunities for regional approaches, including partnering with Modesto for joint building departments and planning services.

Monteith said that these new regional efforts – and much of the restructuring of county government called for in his speech – wouldn’t come quickly or easily. But he returned to the theme of his address, saying that “Now is the time to be bold… Now is the time to lead… Now is the time to build.”

“In the middle of this storm, we are challenged to lead, and we are challenged to look for opportunity, and so we will, together as a community and together as an organization,” Monteith said. “And it will be, and it has to be, together.”

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

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