State

More pain ahead for Stanislaus County

When Stanislaus County leaders began warning a couple of years ago that hard times would get worse, they weren't kidding.

Evidence of the ongoing downward slide should show in reduced hours at local libraries and the offices of the assessor and tax collector, a newly released draft budget suggests. Greenery in parks could turn brown. And more criminals will be released early from jails.

County supervisors on Tuesday will consider a $912 million spending plan for the coming fiscal year that is $46 million leaner than the current budget, which drew moans and groans when it was approved a year ago. And this time next year likely will produce even more tears, officials predict, when the county faces another deficit of perhaps $15 million.

"This will be another painful year," said Rick Robinson, the county's chief executive officer.

In three years, the county will have shed 818 positions, including six more layoffs likely to be approved Tuesday. That's a loss of nearly 18 percent of the work force, reduced to 3,785 from a high mark of 4,603 in 2007.

Facing termination next week are two people in public works and one each in planning, computers, general services and the Area Association on Aging.

The draft budget's bottom line shows a $37 million difference in revenue and spending, to be plugged with reserves and one-time fund balances resulting from serious scrimping. Strategies include 13 furlough days for all employees, reducing pay by 5 percent.

Customers and clients will find most county offices locked and dark on 10 days of the year starting July 1; specific dates will be revealed in coming days. Each department will make business decisions to schedule three more furlough days for their employees, said Monica Nino, county assistant executive officer.

Particularly troubling is a sharp decline in discretionary revenue, largely tied to property taxes, because it pays for the bulk of services over which county supervisors have control. The rest is constrained by state and federal law.

Children and adults most at risk of abuse will have fewer case workers looking out for them, and substance abuse programs and public guardian services are expected to shrink as well, according to the 828-page document.

"When we come out of this economic crisis, we'll be a much smaller organization," Nino said. "We'll be smaller, but spending within our means. And we'll be more efficient."

Many departments already are.

About 10 are taking advantage of a new incentive allowing them to keep 75 percent of any savings they produce in a given year, instead of that money being swept back into the general fund.

For example, prosecutors and probation officers should be spared the agony of layoffs because they refrained from hiring when workers retired or resigned, leaving vacancies. Tax collector Gordon Ford said he'll buy new tax processing equipment with his savings.

"It was a conscious decision" to build savings under the new incentive, said Auditor-Controller Larry Haugh. District Attorney Birgit Fladager said layoffs are "just awful."

Agencies that bust their budgets are required to carry over 100 percent of that deficit to the next year. Not surprisingly, not one of the county's 27 departments finds itself in that predicament, Nino said.

Tuesday's vote would provide an interim spending plan until September, when a final budget would come up for approval. In the meantime, county leaders will keep a close eye on Sacramento, where state legislators' action will affect county services.

For example, no one knows whether the state will knock out funding for In-Home Supportive Services — a potential $2 million loss for Stanislaus County. Many other social services, including welfare, are in limbo.

Tuesday's meeting of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

The county's budget can be viewed at www.stancounty.com/budget.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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