Public debates parts of San Diego County budget

The San Diego County Administration Center.
The San Diego County Administration Center.
(File Photo/The Union-Tribune)

County plans to counter drop in revenue caused by COVID-19 with $200 million from reserves over two years

Public hearings on San Diego County’s proposed $6.4 billion budget kicked off Monday morning with several people saying the Sheriff’s Department should be defunded and more should be done for social justice and law enforcement reform.

While the budget proposal includes funds for social justice programs, some of the roughly 20 speakers said the gesture was mere lip-service to the issue and did not go far enough.

“The will and the voice of the people is clear at this moment in time, and the county budget doesn’t fully reflect the will and voice of the people,” said Justin Joseph of Escondido.

The budget presentation outlined proposals for various departments that are dealing with revenue reductions related to the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she was particularly concerned about the plan to use $231 million from the county’s reserves over two years with an expectation that new money will come in over three years to replenish it as the economy recovers.

“It’s very important to point out this is a very risky road to go down, and there will be a day of reckoning,” she said.

County Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer began her budget present with a reminder that this has not been a normal year.

“Despite a slight increase in year-to-year spending, this is not a typical budget,” she said. “Heading into a new fiscal year, the county faces unprecedented challenges.”

Besides the pandemic, the county’s proposed budget also reflects the region’s response to unrest and calls for social justice that have erupted locally and nationally in recent months. The board already had created the Leon Williams Human Relations Commission just days before the death of George Floyd in May, which sparked protests and calls for police reform across the country.

Last month, the board established an Office of Equity and Racial Justice to address systemic racism, which would be staffed by five employees and funded with $5 million in the proposed budget.

The county also is expanding the authority to the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board to provide independent oversight of the Sheriff’s and Probation departments, and the proposed budget includes $450,000 for the board and three full-time employees.

“When all this started, we were building a budget that planned to expand many services,” Robbins-Meyer said. “But the dramatic developments of recent months abruptly changed that, and now we face new realities.”

While the proposed $6.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2020-21 is $159.2 million more than last year’s budget, Robbins-Meyer said the 2.5 percent increase is driven by federal CARES Act funding that includes $100 million to address the COVID-19 outbreak, which she called the county’s top budget priority.

Cuts have been made to every county group except Health and Human Services in the proposed budget.

Robbins-Meyer said revenue has plummeted, and the county is responding by cutting vacant positions, dipping into reserves and making other adjustments without cutting core services.

Chief Financial Officer Ebony Shelton said using reserves and one-time funding to balance is not without risks.

She identified $274 million in budget shortfalls in four areas and proposed strategies to fill the gaps, including $109 million in one-time resources, $71 million in unassigned general fund money, $28 million in service reductions and $66 million in savings from deferrals or suspensions of projects and staffing.

Proposed service reductions would cut $18 million from Public Safety, $7 million from Land Use and Environment, $3 million from Finance and General Government but nothing from Health and Human Services. Shelton said the cuts to Public Safety includes 70 vacant positions in the Probation Department with no impact to the safety of the public.

Shelton also noted that of the $71 million in unassigned general fund balance to fill the gap, $57 million would go toward Public Safety to maintain core services.

The proposed bottom line results in Public Safety funding dropping from $2.06 billion last year to $2.04 billion in the new budget, Land Use and Environment funding dropping from $650 million to $630 million, Finance and General Government dropping from $1.28 billion to $1.27 billion, and Health and Human Services increasing from $2.26 billion to $2.47 billion.

The proposed recommendations to balance the budget would result in the reserves dipping below what is required.

The reserve balance was $712.1 million at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, while the anticipated year-end balance at the end of the 2020 fiscal year is expected to be $611.5 million.

Shelton said the administrative code requires the general fund reserve to be equal to two-months of expenses for unanticipated needs, which is estimated at $707 million, leaving a gap of more than $95 million. The shortfall is expected to increase by $135 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, she said.

Providing more detail to the Public Safety Group proposed budget, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Holly Porter said appropriations would drop by about $13.5 million, a reduction from about $2.06 billion to $2.04 billion. The county would cut 100 full-time positions now vacant, including 30 in the Sheriff’s Department and 70 in the Probation Department.

While one speaker said defunding law enforcement would lead to greater crime, several speakers said it would make for a more peaceful San Diego.

Darwin Fishman, co-founder of the Racial Justice Coalition, said the county should do more to fund non-law enforcement programs to address social issues.

“It’s time to shift the priorities and not look for the police for solutions,” he said. “We’re asking you to shift your priorities for funding and look for human-centered solutions.”

Public comments on the budget will be heard again at the next board meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. COVID-19 restrictions prevent people from attending the meeting in public, but comments can be made online through eComment.

People who would like to speak via teleconference at the meetings must fill out the online Board of Supervisors  telecomments form and submit it prior to the start of the hearing. They will receive instructions on how to call in to the hearing after submitting the form.

People also can view the Chief Administrative Officer’s Recommended Operational Plan for the budget online.

The clerk of the Board of Supervisors must receive all comments before budget hearings formally close on 5 p.m. Aug. 19, and supervisors are scheduled to deliberate and adopt the budget at 2 p.m. Aug. 25.

To watch the meetings online, visit https://livestream.com/sandiegocountynewscenter, htts://www.youtube.com/user/countysandiego, or https://twitter.com/SanDiegoCounty.

Live television broadcasts of the meetings can be seen on Cox channel 24 or 19 and Spectrum channel 24 or 85.

To listen to the meetings by phone, call (619) 531-4716.

— Gary Warth is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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