The Board of Supervisors is slated to approve a $6.88 billion budget for fiscal year 2021-22, incorporating many of the appropriations increases sought by public safety agencies.
The board is expected to vote on the budget as part of its policy calendar Tuesday, without lengthy debate or discussion, which already took up nearly two days during hearings earlier this month.
After those meetings, supervisors generally agreed that $16.9 million in additional appropriations would be required to shore up multiple departments, largely in the public safety sphere.
The largest increase — $5.5 million — is earmarked for the Sheriff’s Department, which needs the funds to sustain patrol staffing in unincorporated communities, according to Sheriff Chad Bianco.
The difference between what the sheriff originally requested and what the Executive Office recommended was almost $20 million, but Bianco said he would find ways to remain lean while fulfilling the department’s responsibilities to the public.
“We’re working at an absolute minimum,” he told the board.
The sheriff said he would be returning a $15 million surplus to the general fund this fiscal year, which ends Wednesday.
An additional $1 million will likely be going to the District Attorney’s Office, which DA Mike Hestrin had requested, noting that he would be returning a $1 million surplus in the current fiscal year but would rather use the funds to cover numerous unfunded state mandates. One is a requirement for prosecutors to review lifetime sex offender registration cases, which now fall under a “tier system,” allowing some convicts to have the designation expunged from their criminal records.
Hestrin told the board on June 14 that a nearly $18 million deficit had been eliminated over the last six years and the office, which has seen a net loss in prosecutors while caseloads have increased dramatically over the previous decade, will continue to hold the line on spending.
“We got here by keeping our belts tight,” he said.
The Fire Department is set to receive $2.5 million more for “surge staffing,” or the ability to have extra personnel available for dispatch to locations countywide during wildfire season.
A previously unplanned $360,000 allocation has also been promised to keep the Blythe Animal Shelter running another year, as well as $190,000 for Department of Animal Services Director Julie Bank to hire a new deputy director.
The county closed the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus to save money in 2020-21, and shuttering the Blythe facility would have created too many complications, critics argued during budget hearings.
Animal Services has struggled with budget deficits for most of the previous decade, and the current fiscal year was particularly rough as license fee and impoundment revenues plummeted during the public health lockdowns.
The newest feature to the county budget is an Unincorporated Communities Initiative Fund, to which the board is expected to allocate $5 million. The impetus behind the set-aside was a countywide survey that led to numerous complaints stating unincorporated areas have been badly under-served.
No discretionary funds have been obligated in the budget to slash unfunded pension liabilities with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. The county’s pension gap is $3.6 billion, and Supervisor Jeff Hewitt advocated for at least $10 million to be spent on reducing the debt load.
“A budget reflects our priorities, and we’re closing our eyes like we don’t care what happens over the next year or two,” Hewitt said during the last budget hearing.
The supervisor expressed a belief that inflation, now at an accelerated stage, will escalate to possibly unprecedented levels, prompting the Federal Reserve to steadily hike interest rates to tame the beast, and he felt certain the upward spiral of the stock market will turn into a crash.
He said advancing payments on the county’s debt would save money in the future.
Supervisor Chuck Washington and Chair Karen Spiegel deemed using discretionary funds a poor choice, sharing in county Chief Financial Officer Don Kent’s view that a better way to pay down the debt would be using the Pension Liability Trust Fund, currently at $50 million.
Spiegel requested that the Executive Office schedule a hearing to review the matter further this summer.
The proposed fiscal blueprint is about $70 million, or 1%, larger than the 2020-21 budget.
Officials pointed out that federal infusions provided meaningful offsets to budgetary challenges over the last year.
The county received almost $500 million under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act of 2020, though some of that money could only be spent on narrow objectives. A total $479 million has been promised under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Half of the sum has already been received, and the other half will be released to the county next spring.
The county’s discretionary revenue is slated to top out at $921 million in 2021-22, compared to about $895 million in the current fiscal year.
The reserve pool is projected to swell to $284 million at the start 2021-22 — $60 million more than what had been predicted last June. However, the Executive Office said funds will need to be siphoned out of various accounts to meet ongoing needs, likely whittling reserves down to $231 million over the next 12 months.