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County Supes Look for Ways to Close Budget Gap

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:43:00 PM

Facing a $177.6 million funding gap for the upcoming fiscal year, Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi has proposed a $2.4 billion county budget that makes severe cuts across all levels of county services. 

County officials are calling the funding gap the largest in Alameda County’s history, some $100 million more than the deficit closed by the county during the last fiscal year. 

The county’s budget woes are coming in part from reductions in revenues coming back from the state and in part from the economic downturn that has devastated the county, California, and the nation. County property assessment revenues are down 2 percent this year for the first time in 50 years, and appeals for property reassessments (presumably to have those amount of taxes lowered) have tripled in the last year. 

And unless the state Legislature moves soon to break the Democratic-Republican deadlock and produce a balanced budget, the county’s financial situation could quickly get worse. Last week, California Controller John Chiang sent a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislative leaders warning that “[i]n the absence of legislative action, the State will not have sufficient cash to meet all of its payment obligations on July 28.” Alameda County depends upon a portion of the state’s “payment obligations” to operate its budget. 

“Without immediate solutions from the governor and Legislature, we are less than 50 days away from a meltdown of state government,” the controller said in a follow-up press release. “This pre-sents a terrible threat to California’s economy and to the state’s delivery of basic public services.” 

But no state budget deal is yet in sight. 

Meanwhile, in Alameda County, the hardest hit area in Administrator Muranishi’s proposed budget will be public assistance, where the administrator is recommending a $45 million reduction. County supervisors have already approved Muranishi’s plan to limit general assistance (welfare payments) to three months a year for employable recipients, as well as to reduce cash payments to many recipients. 

Alameda County has the second highest general assistance caseload in the state, next to Los Angeles County, with the program mandated by the state but paid for entirely by county funds. 

The biggest actual personnel loss will be in the area of public safety, where the administrator is proposing the elimination of close to 180 positions in the sheriff’s office, the probation department, and the public defender’s and district attorney’s offices. Among the specific results of these personnel cuts will be the reduction of visiting hours at Santa Rita Jail from five to two days per week. Close to one-half of those personnel losses will be among those actually employed by the county, the only area where personnel cuts will not be limited to unfilled positions, as they were in previous years. 

The other major area of cuts will come in county health care, where Muranishi has proposed to take a $30 million cut. 

Of the proposed budget cuts, $76 million are ongoing, permanent reductions in the county’s budget, with the other $101 million coming from one-time strategies. 

Because the state Legislature is almost certain to adopt budget-balancing measures that will cut into funds for local governments, including Alameda County, it is virtually certain that downward adjustments to the county’s budget will have to be made this fall, deepening the cuts already proposed. 

None of Muranishi’s recommended budget proposals have been finalized by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and supervisors could make adjustments in the areas of cuts. The board has set aside the week of June 22 for weeklong deliberations on the proposed budget, with hearing dates on Monday and Tuesday of that week, final deliberations on Wednesday, and final budget adoption on Thursday.