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County Human Services department faces dozens of potential layoffs this year

Sonoma County government’s largest department says financial headwinds may force it to cut about 70 jobs from its ranks, though officials intend to keep the number of actual layoffs far lower by eliminating positions that are vacant and using other maneuvers such as reassigning employees.

Reductions are proposed in the workforce at the county’s Human Services department because state and federal funding levels, which account for the bulk of the department’s revenue, are expected to decline in the next fiscal year while operating costs are increasing, officials said.

The reductions would be the largest batch of financially motivated job cuts since the fallout from the recession more than four years ago, according to Christina Cramer, the county’s human resources director.

Human Services handles government assistance efforts for low-income people, in addition to adult and aging programs, protective services for children and other initiatives. The threatened jobs represent roughly 7 percent of the about 950 staff members now funded in the department, which has a budget of more than $325 million.

Funding levels for public assistance such as CalWorks and CalFresh — the state cash and food assistance programs — depends on the size of caseloads, according to Karen Fies, director of Human Services. Those numbers have recently been “trending down a little bit,” Fies said.

“Because Sonoma County has a fairly robust economy and the unemployment rate is low, people are able to find jobs,” Fies said. “So the people who are receiving public assistance benefits — there aren’t as many of them right now.”

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday authorized the department to begin layoff procedures, but supervisors will still need to sign off on any final job cuts during budget hearings next month.

“I know for all of us on the board this is not an exciting item,” said Supervisor James Gore during Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s kind of a harbinger, I think, of what we’re going to be seeing as we get into budgets and later on. This doesn’t even include the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and other things, so it’s something that we ought to keep our eyes on, as supervisors, and make sure that we’re doing it appropriately,” Gore said.

Human Services officials have already met with any staff member they thought “might even possibly be impacted,” Fies said.

Because of the board’s approval Tuesday, the department can now meet formally with union representatives to flesh out a more detailed plan.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the largest labor group representing county employees, is not yet convinced that any layoffs are necessary, according to Joel Evans-Fudem, president of the union’s Sonoma County chapter.

“We certainly haven’t said ‘Oh yeah, this is fine,’” Evans-Fudem said. “But we’ll see what they say when they actually sit down officially with us.”

Evans-Fudem said he was looking for more details from county officials about the fiscal pressure behind the potential layoffs, and he was critical of the county’s list of positions that may be eliminated, noting that “there’s not too many upper management positions in there.”

Because of current job vacancies, only as many as 24 layoffs may ultimately occur, according to county officials. Of those two dozen jobs, Evans-Fudem estimated about a dozen were “on the chopping block right now.”

Fies said the number of people who leave county employment could be significantly lower than that, potentially even zero.

“My goal is to keep everybody within the doors and within the department,” she said.

Human Services isn’t the only department facing financial challenges ahead of the county’s budget hearings next month.

The Health Services department is planning to leave about 40 jobs unfilled unless more funding materializes, according to Christina Rivera, the county’s budget manager.

Also, the Transportation and Public Works department still needs to close about $1.2 million of a projected $3.7 million shortfall in its road operations budget.

Separately, that department is still looking at a $4.1 million funding shortfall to cover damage related to this year’s severe winter storms.

Supervisors will work to resolve any lingering budgetary obstacles when the county’s budget hearings begin June 12.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.