State shortfall puts pinch on county

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about reaction of regional and local officials to the state’s ongoing budget shortfall.

   The “State Budget Education Project” prepared by the Urban Counties Caucus has the attention of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Board discussion of the study on the state’s underfunding of county-operated programs warns county residents that the 2010-11 budget being prepared by county staff may reflect those shortfalls.

   “As we look at the governor’s budget, it is loaded with uncertainties,” said Walt Ekard, county chief administrative officer. “The day of reckoning is almost surely coming.”

   Gov. Schwarzenegger released a budget proposal on Jan. 8 that estimates an $18.9 billion state shortfall for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2009-10 and for Fiscal Year 2010-11. The Urban Counties Caucus, which consists of the state’s 12 most populated counties, released a study that ongoing and cumulative state underfunding of programs operated by counties over the past five years has placed a significant burden on counties’ abilities to sustain basic services and to continue serving the public in times of need.

   “It doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know,” Ekard said.  “In the end, local governments will find themselves hurt.”

   While the supervisors’ only action was to receive the report at their meeting on Jan. 26, individual comments by board members and by Ekard advocated state reform. Although many local governments have chief administrative officers, city managers or general managers, the state has no version of Ekard to manage state operations, they said. Suggestions also called for a bottoms-up review of all state programs.

   The supervisors and Ekard said that state legislators need to hear from constituents about the importance of local government programs and necessary funding for those activities.

   “They need to hear from our residents,” said district 1 Supervisor Greg Cox.

District 3 Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, this year’s board chair, noted that lobbyists for special interests often provide more advocacy to state legislators than members of the public. 

   “The public has a lot of power when the public uses that power,” she said.

District 5 Supervisor Bill Horn, board vice chair, mentioned that the state’s workforce has grown by 20 percent since Schwarzenegger took office in late 2003. 

“We pay the property taxes. We pay the sales taxes. And they squander the money,” Horn said.

   In past years of state fiscal uncertainty, county staff has prepared a budget that incorporates possibilities of decreased state revenue. The final impact of the state budget will not be known until a May revision reflecting income tax revenue is released and the state legislature approves the 2010-11 budget. 

   “It’s going to be a challenging year,” said District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

   The county supervisors will hold budget hearings in early June and will begin budget deliberations in late June. 

   “We’re doing what we need to do in making this county fiscally strong and viable,” Cox said.

   
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