Stanislaus County's budget picture is coming into focus, and it's not a pretty sight.
Continued declines in property and sales tax revenue could force spending cuts of up to 10 percent in every department — a belt-tightening that could cost at least 150 county workers their jobs, officials say.
"It's fairly dire," said Stanislaus County Chief Operations Officer Patty Hill Thomas. "What we foresee is a significant decline in the ability to provide services to the public in this community."
Figures haven't been finalized, but officials are predicting a $23 million deficit in the county's $250 million general fund. That's the discretionary account that pays for basic services such as law enforcement.
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Supervisors will get a clearer look at the situation at their Tuesday meeting, when they'll hear a forecast on the upcoming budget year, which starts July 1.
The news will be sobering.
Sheriff Adam Christianson warned Wednesday that the cuts county leaders are asking for could force him to lay off deputies and jail guards and close part of the Honor Farm, the minimum-security jail that houses roughly 322 inmates.
The facility costs $4.4 million a year to run, but it's out-of-date and needs an expensive renovation, Christianson said. Closing the site may be the most cost- effective solution. The closure would happen in phases, with three of the Honor Farm's four barracks closing this year, leaving fewer than 100 inmates in custody there.
Released inmates wouldn't simply be "cut loose," Christianson said. "I want them held accountable to the court sentence imposed upon them," he said. "But the reality is that whatever program I put them in costs money."
Released Honor Farm inmates likely would be transferred to a work program, where they'd serve on crews that paint over graffiti and pick up trash.
Christianson said he'll ask the county Board of Supervisors to go easy on cuts to his department to avoid that scenario.
"There's nothing left for me to give except personnel costs and that's what forces me to consider a reduction in force," he said. "I'm going to tell the board that I believe laying off deputy sheriffs and releasing inmates creates a public safety risk."
It's still early in the budget process and several factors will change the county's budget outlook, Hill Thomas said.
One is the possibility of increased payments to the county's employee pension fund, which has been hard hit by investment losses. The Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association requested $22 million to fill its budget gap; county Chief Executive Rick Robinson is asking to pay $12 million.
Another variable is the county's employee unions. Leaders are asking them to agree to a 5 percent pay cut, Hill Thomas said.
Some employees will give up more than pay. The county has trimmed all its vacant positions, leaving leaders with no choice but to eliminate filled jobs in the upcoming budget year, Hill Thomas said. Figures are still rough, but she said at least 150 jobs could be threatened. The county's work force already has been whittled to 3,969 employees, the lowest number in years.
The biggest question is how budget balancing in Sacramento will affect Stanislaus County. Cuts at the state level would mean reductions in state-funded county programs such as mental health services. It's also a possibility that the state will siphon county tax dollars to balance its own budget.
"They are so irresponsible in the way they've dealt with their own deficit, it's just wreaking havoc on the people who provide the services — the cities and the counties," Supervisor Vito Chiesa said.
Hill Thomas noted that county leaders don't see light on the budget horizon any time soon. Property tax revenues that were wiped out seemingly overnight will take several years to rebuild, she said.
Leaders are taking a long-term view that will mean permanent changes in how the county provides services, Supervisor Dick Monteith said.
"We don't feel that this downturn is going to be resolved over a year or two," he said. "It's time for us to start looking at streamlining our organization on a permanent basis, not just to address our immediate challenge, but to develop a different philosophy of running government."