San Luis Obispo County budget outlook remains grim and tight, analyst says

The county has tightened its belt enough to hold off economic disaster, according to a year-end report presented to the Board of Supervisors, but times remain grim and austerity will be the rule for the foreseeable future.

Principal Administrative Analyst Vince Morici acknowledged to supervisors Tuesday that he was “telling you about a game you’ve already lost; you know the score.”

The fiscal year that ended June 30 was the final one under the leadership of former Chief Administrative Officer David Edge and his chief aide Gail Wilcox. Both lost their jobs during the summer in what became for the administrative office a season of scandal.

Supervisors have named veteran administrator Jim Grant to replace Edge until December 2010, as they search for a permanent successor.

Morici’s report reflected various cost-saving measures instituted by Edge. Whatever else they might think about Edge’s management style, supervisors praised his staff and county department heads for their efforts to save taxpayer money.

Among those efforts was a “hiring chill,” under which only the most important positions were filled.Department heads also absorbed prevailing wage increases.

Generally speaking, Morici’s report showed that the county took in less money, but also spent less.

Many departments came in at 5 percent or more under the amount they had budgeted to spend, he said. Others, like Planning and Building, had a serious revenue shortfall — $2.7 million — but offset it with $1.7 million in spending cuts, with the result that the shortfall was “only” a million dollars; not good, but not as bad as it might have been.

Overall, the savings were enough that the county was able to finance its $1 million Williamson Act program, which the state had stopped paying for. Under the Williamson Act, ranchers and farmers with agricultural land get a tax break for not developing their property.

Many of Morici’s remarks repeated what supervisors and people throughout the county already know: Local government continues to be slammed by the recession, the slumping housing market and uncertainty — some have called it incompetence — in the state budget process.

The state government has “borrowed’ money from the county, but Morici said he didn’t expect to see any of it anytime soon and when it does come, it will arrive in dribs and drabs over time.

For example, the state ordered a special election in May, which cost the county $342,000. The state is supposed to repay that but has not said when.

Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo is the most powerful Republican in the Assembly and “will be working closely with all of the stakeholders as we go through the upcoming budget negotiations to fight for full reimbursement” of the special election money, according to his media relations aide, Jennifer Gibbons.

Blakeslee has tried to minimize the impact of state budget cuts on counties, Gibbons added, but his efforts have been shut down in the state Senate.