San Benito County is likely to face a $5.3 million shortfall for 2012-13 if it maintains the same level of expenditure as it had this year. The county supervisors hosted a public hearing Feb. 28 to inform residents of the situation and gather input on how they should proceed to fill the gap.
“I was hoping to hear that the revenue would start increasing, but that is not the case,” said Supervisor Jerry Muenzer.
County Administrative Officer Rich Inman went over the numbers at the beginning of the hearing Tuesday evening as county department heads, members of the SEIU county employees union and residents packed the supervisors’ chambers. He said in the last two years, the county staff has been reduced by 18 percent. To fill the gap, just with cuts to the workforce, the staff would be reduced an additional 26 percent.
“There may be other means by which to lessen the impact of further cuts to services,” Inman said. “We could ask for more concessions. I would start at the top with department heads and unrepresented employees.”
Supervisor Margie Barrios asked if they would also look for concessions from employees in bargaining units, and Inman said they could negotiate with them but those groups are not obligated to take cuts.
With the need to make drastic cuts, Inman brought up three areas of discretionary spending that were discussed for cuts during the budget hearings last summer. If they were to close the library, stop contributing to community-based organizations and cut the contribution to the Economic Development Corporation, it would save $739,343 from the millions needed.
He said that in the past, the departments had been asked to present plans for a flat cut, such as 16 percent from each department. But he explained that since some departments such as the sheriff’s department take up a larger portion of the budget, it may not be the best way to make cuts.
“Tonight is just a broad overview,” Inman said. “It will be a lot more specific.”
Inman said he would be meeting with department heads next week.
When the supervisors opened up the floor to members of the public, four residents took the opportunity to speak.
Roxy Montana, a former grand jury member, spoke about the importance of keeping funding flexible for the grand jury. She said that since the investigations vary each year, the jurors need to be able to ask for additional funding if it is required to complete a query.
“Each term is different,” she said. “Some years we return funds. This grand jury is going to need additional funds to complete its term.”
Martha Booker, the president of SEIU Local 521, was one of two county employees and union members who spoke.
“I understand the budget needs to be balanced and everyone is part of the process,” Booker said. “No one understands it better than us. We’ve been furloughed. We’ve had salary steps frozen.”
She urged the supervisors to cap vacation and salary accrual to avoid excessive payouts when high-paid employees retire.
“We are willing to work together to protect the public services,” she said.
Another union representative said the supervisors need to work together with employees to balance the budget.
“Our San Benito County family is going through challenging times,” she said, noting that the union had approached the county administrative officer about creating a budget committee.
The county supervisors’ budget committee agreed to set up a meeting with the bargaining units.
Ruth Erickson, a member of the Friends of the San Benito County Free Library, spoke in favor of keeping the library open.
During his opening presentation, Inman had noted that if the library were closed completely it would save the county more than $600,000 and would eliminated 7.5 full-time equivalent employees.
“With the Hollister School District closing (school) libraries, we will probably be the only county with no library,” Erickson said. “There would be hundreds of children wandering the streets. With more children there, it would require more police time because they are going to get in trouble.”
She said thousands of people use the library, not just for entertainment and recreation but for education and job resources.
“I’m just shocked,” she said. “We cannot run it with just volunteers. That is illegal. But the volunteers will help.”
At the end of the meeting, Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he would like to meet with bargaining units about pensions and benefits. Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz said he wanted to put the vacation and sick leave accrual on a future agenda for discussion.
Supervisor Margie Barrios said the idea of closing the library and parks saddened her.
“To think we might close them – we will be a ghost community,” she said. “It’s affordable for families, so if they go away family unity will be hurt. It will increase crime and gangs. That will be the last place I want to go.”
Muenzer noted that each department needs to find ways to be more visitor-friendly and to support the business community.
Supervisor Robert Rivas said there was no easy way to solve the problem.
“This year we need to reinvent ourselves as a county,” he said.
By the numbers
2011-12 general fund budget $33 million
2012-13 projected revenues $25.7 million
2011-12 estimated roll over $1 million
2011-12 concessions $1 million
Anticipated shortfall $5.3 million
2010-11 full-time equivalent employees 271
2011-12 FTEs 222
Reduction of FTEs needed to fill 2012-13 shortfall 58