Top 10 of 2010: No. 2: State budget crunch was tough for schools, cities

The countdown continues for the Top 10 Stories of 2010 as selected by the Tribune editorial staff. The series publishes every day, culminating New Year’s Day with the top story.

Local government and school district officials countywide will be watching closely to see what steps incoming Gov. Jerry Brown takes to address a budget gap projected at more than $25 billion through the next fiscal year.

Budget cuts and belt-tightening have become common themes in local cities and school districts over the past few years, and San Luis Obispo County, which faced a $17 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, is halfway through year three of a “five-year pain plan.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that state funding for the K-12 system and community colleges will receive $47.5 billion in the next fiscal year — $9 billion less than four years ago, according to a presentation Brown gave at a budget forum in Los Angeles on Dec. 14.

“(Brown) presents his budget on Jan. 10, and I don’t think anyone is expecting us to be free of cuts,” said San Luis Obispo County school Superintendent Julian Crocker. He said the county’s 10 school districts have slashed about $45 million from their budgets over the past two years — or about 15 percent over that period.

The cuts have resulted in teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and the loss of programs and services, such as summer school and adult education in some districts.

There are some bright spots, however: Crocker said he was encouraged by the interest Brown has shown in the public school system and his straightforwardness when discussing the probability of additional budget cuts.

Meanwhile, city officials believe a ballot measure that passed in November will not only protect local redevelopment money, but also compel state lawmakers to take a new approach to balancing the budget, instead of borrowing.

“Cities had a double-edged sword,” said Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara, a member of the League of California Cities’ board of directors. “We were not only victimized by the economy, but victimized by the state to balance the budget on our backs.”

In May, five cities in the county sent more than $3.6 million to the state following a court ruling that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could take local redevelopment funds to help close the state’s budget deficit.

Doing so prevented those cities — Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Paso Robles and Pismo Beach — from using the money for projects aimed at revitalizing areas deemed as blighted.

The state also deferred $14 million this fiscal year that would be used for local transit and street and road maintenance, Ron De Carli, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, said in a previous interview.

City officials lobbied for Proposition 22, which prohibits the state from taking property tax revenues and redevelopment funds from cities, counties and special districts, and from shifting gasoline tax funds allocated to local governments for street maintenance and improvements.

The measure passed Nov. 2 with 60.7 percent of the vote statewide.

Ferrara said the League of California Cities plans to work with the counties’ lobbying group, the California State Association of Counties, and push for a “seat at the table” with the state Legislature during the budget process to discuss the impacts on city and county programs and services.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.