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Social services costs soar in county
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This year’s Stanislaus County budget is largely on-track, but unfunded state and federal mandates represent major challenges going forward.

County supervisors heard the final budget update of the 2011-2012 fiscal year on Tuesday, learning that most county departments are operating well within their spending limits. Unanticipated costs related to the upcoming Presidential Primary election and maintaining the 12th Street Parking Garage and the Finch Road Animal Services Facility represented the sole large overages in non-social service areas.

But soaring social service program costs have the county worried about making ends meet in the future.

“Although we're seeing some modest signs of improvement, unfortunately, there are still some dark clouds on the horizon that leave us concerned,” County Assistant Executive Officer Stan Risen said.

Foster care costs have come in $1.7 million more than expected, as new state legislation has extended the foster eligible age to 19 this year. The legislation did not provide additional funding, and the county expects costs to rise further as the foster eligible age eventually hits 21.

Psychiatric care costs are surging as well, up nearly $1 million. County officials attribute the rise to the increasing number of indigent adults in the county, many of whom are former state prisoners who were “realigned” to county care.

Those rising costs, plus others attributed to In-Home Supportive Services, left some supervisors questioning how Stanislaus County can ever balance its budget.

“I can’t imagine that we can keep it up,” Supervisor Vito Chiesa said. “I see it as a real liability there.”

Stanislaus County faces a structural deficit as high as $19 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. That would continue a trend for the county, which has operated at a deficit since 2009. Since then, the county has committed $50 million in reserves to balance its budget.

“Obviously, the continued draining of reserves is not sustainable,” Risen said.

The county has attempted to balance the budget by sharply cutting from every agency in county, down nearly 900 employees from a 2008 peak. But for every cost cut, the county finds itself facing a new challenge in the form of unfunded mandates.

 “I'm not sure the revenue can keep up,” Chiesa said. “… Short of using more reserves, it's pretty tough.”

Despite the challenges, the county budget process is working, said Supervisor Dick Monteith, as the board reviews the budget quarterly to deal with the ever-changing budget picture.

“We're in for a long little ride, but buckle down, and we'll get through this,” Monteith said.

The 2012-2013 Stanislaus County budget will be released to the public on May 25. The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors will consider approving that budget at a June 5 public hearing, in the Supervisors’ chambers at 1010 10th St., Modesto.