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Frugality is the focus as SLO County leaders discuss California budget's effects

Over at the county General Services Division, workers are emptying their own wastebaskets. At a different building, the county is putting off replacing gutters. Renovations on the Honor Farm dorm won’t happen anytime soon.

These are among the nitty gritty cuts in spending that came out during a gloomy Board of Supervisors presentation Tuesday about the state and county budgets, what money is being saved, and what to expect, insofar as anyone can predict the county’s fiscal future.

The discussion touched on a good deal more than wastebaskets and who should empty them. The chief focus was the state budget and its effect on the county, which relies on the state and federal governments for 40 percent of its income.

The county has been chipping away to make cuts large and small for years now, but the search for frugality has taken on a new intensity as 2011 progresses. “When we were a little more flush, there was not this level of scrutiny,” said Dr. Penny Borenstein, the county health director.

The doctor was speaking about her own bailiwick, but she may as well have been speaking for the government as a whole.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposals drew the most attention, but only after strong caveats from county administrators that state budget numbers and assumptions are vague to begin with and will shift often in the months ahead.

“A lot of the information is ambiguous and unclear, “said Assistant County Administrator Dan Buckshi. His boss, County Administrator Jim Grant, added that “there are a ton of legal, financial, timing” and other questions still unanswered.

However, they were able to make some broad generalizations based on the current numbers, which project a $9 million county shortfall for the coming 2011-12 fiscal year and a $25 billion deficit for the state — $8 billion through June of this year and $17 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2011, and ends June 30, 2012.

Brown is proposing to close the state budget gap through a series of measures, among them $12.5 billion in program cuts and $12.5 billion in taxes, including vehicle license fees and sales taxes. The Legislature must approve the budget in a timely fashion, however, and Buckshi expressed skepticism about whether it would do so.

In addition, voters statewide must weigh in for Brown’s plan to work, and that is far from a certainty. Brown hopes for a statewide vote in June to approve a planned five-year extension of three taxes currently set to expire June 30.

Brown is also suggesting a shift of state responsibilities to local governments. Again, there was skepticism about whether he would throw in money to pay for the transfer.

Among the specifics about which county leaders were able to conjecture:

The state plans to have counties take over 37,000 prisoners, including 100 to 130 in San Luis Obispo County. These would be nonviolent offenders. The state also plans to turn over 30,000 parolees statewide to counties.

CalWORKS could face a 13 percent cut in its budget, which could shove recipients off the program, which the county pays for partially, onto general assistance, which the county pays for fully.

The $1 million subsidy the county gets for the Williamson Act will disappear. Under the act, farmers and ranchers receive a property tax break in exchange for a promise to not develop their land for a specific number of years.

As much as $1 billion might be redirected from the First Five program, which, as the name implies, is aimed at helping children through their first five years of life.

Cutbacks in the fire service could leave the state — and the county — with fewer firefighters covering a larger area.

Health and Human Services will be hit the hardest, Buckshi said, but libraries and other services also will feel the pain.

All of this is highly volatile, administrators stressed, but they are working to keep up with the bouncing state fiscal ball. Every move to save money, they added, has a consequence. When employees empty their own wastebaskets, for example, it means a custodian is out of a job.

Department heads will continue to seek cuts as the year progresses. County administrators will monitor the state budget situation and report regularly to the Board of Supervisors. They have scheduled a study session in March about health care.

The county has 2,403 full-time employees. The highest number was 2,710 in 2003, when the county hospital was open. The number has dropped from 2,600 in the past three years, a 7.5 percent decline.

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