The Merced County Board of Supervisors passed a balanced budget of $591.4 million on Tuesday that includes long-term safety nets and focuses on public safety and mental health.
The budget includes 35 new positions countywide and an increase of nearly $3.8 million in revenue from June’s proposed budget. The county’s on-hand cash increased from last year’s budget by about $11 million. The increases likely were one-time boosts as the county switched from a cash to accrual-based accounting process, county officials said.
“The outlook for the future is positive, and we are cautiously optimistic going forward,” said Jim Brown, the county’s executive officer. “The economy is improving, and the region is seeing steady improvement in employment figures and permit activity, as well as increasing local revenues.”
Brown said the county will remain fiscally prudent while state revenue is sluggish and drought persists, noting the additional blow to Merced County dealt by the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to send more water to the Delta, leaving less for city drinking water and farming.
The renovation of the old county hospital had a significant impact on the final budget, increasing departmental dedicated revenue, the general fund and other funds by more than $45 million. The project did not affect county costs.
The board also took action to change the name of the Mental Health Department to Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. The board started the process last year when it consolidated the Mental Health and Alcohol and Other Drug Problems advisory boards. This year, the county will begin shifting job classifications and management titles to reflect the name change.
Public safety remained the county’s largest cost at $63 million. That’s 52 percent of the budget. The county added 21 new public safety positions, including deputy positions, correctional officers, a deputy probation officer, deputy district attorney and investigator in the District Attorney’s Office.
Sheriff Vern Warnke thanked the board for granting raises to deputies and adding positions to his ranks but noted the population-to-officer ratio in the unincorporated areas still is dangerously low.
Board members and District Attorney Larry Morse II expressed gratitude to Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, for his work in securing state funding for the Violence Interruption/Prevention Emergency Response, or VIPER program. Morse said the program will be instrumental in lowering the county’s homicide rate and gang activity.
The board took advantage of the one-time funding boosts by applying the money to reserves and the county’s unfunded liability in the retirement system.
Brown said the county’s budget is starting to look the way it did before the recession. The county’s revenue this year is higher than in the 2007-08 fiscal year, which was the peak before the downturn. But the county’s reserves are lower now.
For the first time since the 2007-08 fiscal year, the county added $5 million to its economic uncertainty reserve. The board also added $3 million to the fire fund for the first time in at least three years.
The board also voted to contribute 1 percent, or $1.2 million, to the county’s unfunded liability, a higher rate than the actuary recommended. The county also will give a one-time payment of $5 million to the Public Agency Retirement Services trust and will pay a 1.5 percent rate into the trust this year.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477