County air quality officials will consider a variety of cost-cutting measures before resorting to raising fees as a way to balance the air district’s budget over the next five years.
The county Air Pollution Control District Board of Directors Wednesday engaged in a detailed discussion of the district’s long-term budget priorities. The district faces funding shortfalls that could grow to $655,000 per year by 2017.
District managers and a board budget subcommittee will consider such options as tapping into budget reserves, having employees contribute more to their pensions, increasing efficiency and prioritizing workloads.
Other directors said the district should do a better job of explaining the benefit of the services it provides.“A lot of people feel that we are doing things to them rather than for them,” said director Frank Mecham, a county supervisor.
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The board made no final decisions about fees or budget priorities at Wednesday’s meeting. The district’s budget for the next fiscal year is in good shape, so there is no reason to rush into decisions, said county Supervisor Jim Patterson.
Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer, said most of the programs the district administers are unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments. For example, the number of state-mandated requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global climate change, will increase significantly in coming years.
The district has also taken on several big projects that have increased workloads. These include adopting dust-control rules for Oceano Dunes and environmental analysis of increased production at the oil refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
Several board members asked what would happen if the district refused to take on some of the unfunded mandates. This would most likely result in the loss of local control because those programs would be administered and enforced out of Sacramento, rather than through the local air district office, Allen said.
About 70 percent of the district’s expenditures goes toward salaries and benefits for its 23.5 full-time employees. In spite of growing workloads, the district has not hired any additional personnel since 1993, Allen said.
Several public speakers brought up the issue of Allen’s compensation, which totals some $240,000 with salary and benefits.
Pozo rancher Debbie Arnold has made Allen’s pay a political issue in her campaign for the county supervisor’s seat held by Patterson — a campaign in which she has emphasized limiting government bureaucracy.
Air district critic Kevin P. Rice of San Luis Obispo asked the board members to publicly disclose how they voted on Allen’s most recent compensation package during a closed-session meeting in December 2010. Board chairman John Hamon, a Paso Robles city councilman, refused on the advice of district lawyer Ray Biering.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is little more than a political stunt designed to affect the upcoming election, and I don’t think you should respond,” Biering said.