For the first time in four years, Sonoma County supervisors are set to consider a balanced budget Monday when they begin hearings on a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson's proposed $383.9 million general fund budget still foresees reductions across many county service areas starting July 1. They include continued deferred maintenance at county parks, limited public hours at some county offices and reduced inspections on some agricultural activities.
But this year, those cuts are driven not by multi-million-dollar deficits but by flat spending, forcing departments to absorb cost increases by holding staff and program expenses level.
The proposed general fund budget, representing the bulk of county discretionary spending, is down about 0.8 percent from the current year's plan.
Ferguson called it a "new baseline" for the general fund, which is down 10 percent, total staffing, which has dropped 8 percent, from 2009-2010. To address shortfalls since then, the county has slashed a combined $100 million in general fund spending and 600 filled and unfilled jobs.
Road upkeep, park staffing, land-use planning and library hours all have suffered, while some high-profile services such as the sheriff's office helicopter have been spared at the last minute.
"We know what it is that we're currently doing," said Ferguson. "Is that good enough? Probably not. We know we need to invest."
Affected departments absorbed an effective cut of about five percent, totaling about $6 million, to cover rising salaries and benefits, along with increased service and supply expenses.
Few if any layoffs are expected.
Last minute changes restored about seven filled positions, including a prosecutor and two District Attorney investigator jobs, two probation officers and a sheriff's position connected with the county's graffiti removal program.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who protested cuts to her office last year, said she signed off on the proposed budget only after being reassured that the three positions would be kept this year.
"It's time to stop cutting and start looking at where our essential services are," Ravitch said. "Public safety is certainly at the top of the list in my opinion."
Many of the restored public safety jobs were covered with funds connected to a statewide shift of criminal justice programs to counties.
Other revenue adjustments filled about $4 million of a general fund shortfall projected earlier this year at about $10.4 million. About $3.9 million in one-time money — tobacco tax settlement funds used for capital improvements — is being tapped to pay for a new countywide financial software system.
Property tax, the main source of general fund revenue, is projected to be flat this year, at about $287 million.
The county's overall budget, which includes federal and state money that supports health and human service spending and other programs, is set to grow by 4.6 percent, to $1.28 billion. The growth is largely due to the addition of about $26 million in federal grants for the expansion of Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport and $31 million in funds connected to a shift in human service programs to the county.