Top 10 Stories of 2011: No. 3 — Budget cuts hit California, SLO County hard

Editor’s note: This is No. 3 of The Tribune’s Top 10 stories of 2011 as selected by the newsroom staff. Each day through New Year’s Day we will count down to the top story of the year.

A staggering succession of budget cuts made in municipalities throughout San Luis Obispo County mirrors the statewide struggle to provide needed services at a lower cost.

Roads are rougher, sidewalks riddled with more cracks and grass at parks left fallow as local governments continue to trim from already lean budgets.

When the recession struck in 2008 and cities began to face steep declines in revenue, government employees faced a new level of scrutiny nationwide, and a growing awareness of public salaries became a focal point of heated discussions.

Governments also struggled with the rising cost of pensions — prompting many local cities and the county to create two-tier plans as a way to secure a stronger financial future.

Public employees were also forced to take pay cuts, work fewer hours or go on furloughs, or were required to pay more for their health and retirement benefits.

Additional looming statewide cuts make it inevitable that more changes will come. Those cuts could eliminate as many as five days from the 2011-12 public school year.

In San Luis Obispo, a fierce battle erupted between the city’s public safety unions and city leaders — leading to an election — over how pay and benefits are determined.

San Luis Obispo residents made their position clear with more than 70 percent of voters favoring paving the way for the city to implement future pension reform and agreeing that public safety unions should no longer be able to use a third-party arbiter to decide pay and compensation. That same change was made in other cities statewide.

San Luis Obispo County was the first locally to implement a two-tier pension plan to contain labor costs. The county has 2,314 employees. Of those, 2,083 are now in a bargaining unit that includes a second tier, where new employees receive generally lesser benefits than veteran employees.

Meanwhile, additional duties are being given to employees as the state continues to make cuts. In April, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new policy into law that redirects lower-level offenders convicted of certain nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual crimes to serve their time in county jails instead of state prisons.

In addition, inmates with lower-level felony convictions released from state prison will now be supervised through the county Probation Department rather than state parole.

The change adds more inmates to a cramped County Jail, increases the workload in the county court system and gives county probation officers more people to supervise.

In October, 117 California Men’s Colony employees were sent layoff notices, along with about 26,000 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation workers across the state, as part of a cut in staffing resulting from a corrections department reorganization. Public schools were not spared from the budget crisis. Classroom sizes have grown, electives eliminated and bus routes reduced.

For the first time in recent memory, a local school district, the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, declared that it might not be fiscally solvent by the end of the school year. That forced the county Office of Education to step in and provide oversight and support.

Should the issue not be resolved, the school district could face being taken over by the state.

Community college and university students in San Luis Obispo County also experienced increases in the cost of classes. College students struggled to get the classes they needed as courses were eliminated to save money.

Further state cuts to education are probable.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune