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Cuts lead to reduced service levels in county offices

POSTED June 7, 2011 10:56 p.m.

Budget reductions enacted on Tuesday will be felt in “every area” of Stanislaus County’s service, county staff members said, from recreation opportunities to road maintenance.

“Service levels are going to drop precipitously for the people of Stanislaus County,” County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said. “That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Funding was eliminated for the Police Athletic League. Four fishing accesses on the Westside will be closed. The Chief Executive’s Office will now provide only minimal support to area Municipal Advisory Councils.

Library hours will be reduced, as will the hours of the Board of Supervisors’ five field representatives. The county’s internal audit function will be “virtually eliminated.” Funding for Modesto City/County airport improvements will be entirely eliminated.

Recreation will be severely cut. General assistance grants will be reduced 8 percent. The sheriff’s department will no longer participate in a methamphetamine task force. Longer lines and reduced level of services are expected at every county office.

In total, 28 vacant positions will be eliminated from the county workforce, though nine other positions would be restored. Nearly 150 positions, many filled, have been eliminated from the county in the past year alone. The change will leave the county with 883 fewer positions than in 2008/2009, and at less staffing than in 1996.

 

Cuts forced by declining revenues

The $894 million proposed 2011-2012 fiscal year budget, down $24.5 million from a year ago, was approved by a 4-1 vote by the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning. Supervisor Bill O’Brien cast the lone dissenting vote, saying the cuts went too far, especially in public safety.

But given a “new normal” of continuously declining tax revenues, the supervisors were left with little choice, according to Board Chairman Dick Montieth.

“It’s always difficult to make changes,” Montieth said. “We always want to go back to the old ways. But the old ways are gone.”

Discretionary tax revenues continue to decline for Stanislaus County. While revenues have declined $72 million over the past three years, $52 million of that has come in the county’s General Fund – the only chunk of money the county can allocate entirely as it sees fit.

The declining revenues are driven by falling tax revenues, which account for more than 50 percent of the county’s revenues. Though sales and use taxes are recovering in part, the recovery isn’t enough to offset property tax revenues.

The county had never seen its property tax roll decrease until 2007. Since then, it has decreased each year, with a 4.5 percent reduction in 2011/2012.

Three years ago, the county forecast that the decline of property tax revenues would cease this year. Now, it seems those revenues could continue to decline for at least three more years, said county budget planners.

“The sad truth of it is, this is not the end of the reductions that are coming,” said Supervisor Jim DeMartini. “I don’t see anything in the state that is going to turn around right away.”

 

Still gaps in budget

While the budget approved Tuesday was balanced, the county still faces numerous budgetary challenges – including millions in unfunded, unmet needs.

“There are gaps in this proposed budget that are significant, and the impact that their service demands could have on this budget are also significant,” said County Chief Operations Officer Patty Hill Thomas.

The county faces a $2.1 million exposure in In-Home Supportive Services wages and benefits due to the elimination of federal funding. A $1.9 million exposure in increased welfare caseload increase, a $2.9 million increase in indigent healthcare costs, a $750,000 unfunded June 2102 State Primary, and unknown costs related to health insurance increases also challenge the county budget.

And the situation could become even direr, should the state proceed with a plan to transfer hundreds of state prison inmates to local county jails or not approve tax extensions. Those proposals could cost the county upwards of $10 million.

The budget must change to address these challenges – and whatever else the state may levy on the county in the months to come. County Board of Supervisors will revisit a final 2011/2012 budget at their Sept. 13 meeting.

With further cuts almost assured in the months, weeks, and years to come, it’s up to local nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and community groups to step up where the county steps out, Stanislaus County Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson said.

 “It is time for the local community to take responsibility, to step out, and to use the resources that are still available to them,” Robinson said.

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

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