Stanislaus cuts likely to be very visible to residents

Public Safety Center, Minimum Unit One, Stanislaus County Sheriff's deputy John Derby about to enter the front doors of the facility.  There are 3 sections of the Minimum Unit One, A, B and C.  The 64 beds in B unit are being considered for closure because of budget cuts. June 1, 2009 (BART AH YOU/
Public Safety Center, Minimum Unit One, Stanislaus County Sheriff's deputy John Derby about to enter the front doors of the facility. There are 3 sections of the Minimum Unit One, A, B and C. The 64 beds in B unit are being considered for closure because of budget cuts. June 1, 2009 (BART AH YOU/

Fewer places for the mentally ill to turn for help. More criminals on the streets. Longer lines for birth certificates. Fewer hours at libraries. More brown grass in county parks.

The picture of deep cuts in Stanislaus County services is coming more into focus as leaders prepare for budget hearings next week. It's not a pretty picture.

"This can be described as nothing short of dire," Patty Hill Thomas, the county's assistant executive officer, told county supervisors Tuesday.

Her office released a proposal showing a $41.8 million deficit in the county's $955 million budget, which is $11.4 million lower than last year's spending plan.

County leaders for months have been dialed into curing a $34 million gap in their general fund, representing money over which they have the most control. They're bridging the gap with reserves, layoffs, furloughs and other strategies, including releasing some minimum-security inmates and closing a 64-bed wing at the Public Safety Center.

Sheriff Adam Christianson said he's been scaling back for a month or two the jail's B Unit, which on Tuesday held 26 men awaiting trial or serving sentences for crimes such as auto theft, drug sales or spousal abuse. Many of those released early, Christianson said, are placed in the department's expanding Alternate Work Program, a day-labor program allowing inmates to return home at night.

On Tuesday, 331 inmates were enrolled in the program and 80 more were on home detention, for a total of 421 monitored but not in custody. That eases crowding on the 1,301 in custody at the downtown jail and Public Safety Center west of Ceres, the sheriff said.

"The last thing in the world I want to do as sheriff is release inmates," Christianson said. "I don't want people thinking we're just kicking bodies out the back door. We're not.

"We may end up having more cars washed, more weeds pulled and more graffiti abated."

Closing B Unit should save $800,000 per year "without impact to public safety" because the inmates continue to be monitored, Christianson said.

A plan to expand the jail will be put on hold in favor of a less-expensive option of shoring up the Honor Farm, Hill Thomas said.

The sheriff said he is exploring an idea to charge federal authorities to house federal inmates at B Unit. That income could help to keep deputies employed, he said. He would lay off none under the proposed budget, but 12 vacancies and one sergeant position would not be filled, and four vacant deputy positions would be eliminated.

Bad likely to get worse

Across the county's 27 departments, 454 jobs have vanished in the past year, lowering the total to 4,005 approved positions. That includes laying off 14 people by fall.

September is the county's deadline for approving a final budget, while the proposed budget provides an interim spending plan. County leaders are closely watching the anguish in Sacramento, knowing the state's economic pain surely will trickle down.

"We know this fiscal condition very likely will get worse before it gets better," Hill Thomas said. "We're bracing ourselves for further reductions."

At the county level, responses include shutting libraries for two or three days while 85 employees take days off without pay. The planning and building department expects to go dark 11½ days.

Those departments are among nine whose 1,304 employees will lose 5 percent of their wages over 13 furlough days. Pay reductions will hit managers as well, including District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Assessor Doug Harms.

Fladager's office and that of the public defender will close on Lincoln's birthday, César Chávez Day and Columbus Day, all holidays when courts are closed anyway.

The furloughs are helping most county departments meet mandatory expense cuts of 12 percent. Public safety departments, such as Christianson's, must reduce spending by 5 percent.

Sheriff lowers his salary

Christianson can't reduce his employees' pay through furloughs. So he lowered his own yearly pay of $181,850 by 5 percent. He's the only department head taking that step, although most others will experience the same reduction through furloughs, said county assistant executive officer Monica Nino.

Board supervisors might have a similar announcement about their own pay of more than $70,000 at next week's budget hearings, Hill Thomas hinted.

Nino's office might have preferred to spare some county departments from the 12 percent mandate, especially those making more money than they spend, she said.

For example, property assessors normally take the time to justify their value estimates when appealed, but because that's not required by law, they may take a pass on any or all of the 694 appeals pending. At risk is nearly $6 million in potential revenue.

"We knew we couldn't shy away from this round of cuts because we know that other cuts are coming," Hill Thomas said.

More visible to many will be uncut lawns in county parks, less opportunity for workers serving increasing numbers of veterans and fewer investigations into elder abuse. Responses may be limited "to only the most emergency situations," Hill Thomas said.

"There will be times," reads a budget note from the clerk-recorder's office, "that the staffing level will be insufficient to serve the public. Customers will experience longer lines, slower service and documents may not be ready the same day, which will result in customers needing to return to receive their documents."

Fladager predicts that her attorneys, hamstrung by fewer travel dollars, will show up less often at prisoner-release hearings all over the state to present reasons why convicts should not be paroled. Her investigators won't appear as much to guide detectives at homicide scenes, according to the proposed budget.

Library funds already cut

Other cuts already have been made. Last month, supervisors agreed to reduce mental health services in outlying communities and eliminated some substance abuse recovery services. A year ago, supervisors reduced library hours and laid off three librarians and half of the system's 138 part-time workers.

It's unsettling, county leaders say, how vulnerable they are to the state's money problems. Board chairman Jim DeMartini warned against state officials "robbing local governments of the funding we need to run programs."

"It's gloom and doom up and down the state," Supervisor Vito Chiesa said Tuesday, "and I don't see it getting better any time soon."

On the Net: Paper copies of the 813-page document can be reviewed at any of the county's 13 libraries.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.