San Diego County unveils $7 billion budget proposal

The San Diego County Administration Center.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The County of San Diego released a $7 billion budget Thursday, May 6, that increases funding for public safety and health and human services for the next fiscal year starting July 1.

The plan increases spending by $480 million, or 7.3 percent, over the current year, with behavioral health, sheriff and public assistance programs accounting for the biggest expenses.

The county Health and Human Services agency makes up the biggest source of spending at over $2.7 billion, or 39 percent of the county’s total. That spending would increase by 8.3 percent over the current year.

Second is public safety, at nearly $2.2 billion, or 31.2 percent of expenses; it would have a 7.2 percent increase over this year.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan said in a statement that the largest allocation goes to behavioral health, with new positions added for child welfare services.

Fletcher also said the increased public safety funding will help cover 141 positions for mental health and substance abuse care in jails.

And the county’s capital project spending will include $75 million for the second phase of the Youth Transition Campus, which will replace the current juvenile detention center, built in 1954.

“I have fought since 2019 for our budgets to reflect the needs of our community and year-after-year we have successfully increased funding and services to ensure our residents, especially our most vulnerable, are being taken care of better than the year prior,” Fletcher said. “The draft budget appears to continue that trend in some areas.”

County Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer said the budget reflects priorities of racial equity, social and environmental justice, sustainability and economic opportunity.

“It also focuses on helping our residents and businesses come back strong after the devastating impacts of this pandemic,” she stated in the budget summary.

Finance and general government, the next largest budget group, accounts for $769 million, or 10.9 percent of the budget. It is projected to have a 1 percent cut over last year’s spending of $776 million.

Land use and environment accounts for $611 million, or 8.7 percent of the county’s proposed expenditures. That category also shows a cut, with projected spending down by 6 percent compared to this year.

But the decrease is due to the exclusion of the Air Pollution Control District, which became an independent agency as of March 1, reducing county spending on its operations by $80 million. The district will control its own budget and staff, with no expected cuts to service, the county stated.

County officials expect to increase some environmental measures, with a new climate action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, more than $41 million to protect San Diego’s waterways and coastline, and almost $12 million to acquire 500 acres of open space.

The biggest source of spending across departments was services and supplies at nearly $2.8 billion, or 39.7 percent of the county’s budget. That’s expected to increase by $126 million, mostly driven by costs for COVID-19 response — including testing, treatment, contact tracing, vaccinations and meals delivered to at-risk seniors, the county stated.

Salaries and benefits is the next largest category of spending, at nearly $2.7 billion, or 37.8 percent of the budget. It’s projected to rise by $147 million because of increased staffing, labor agreements and boosts to retirement contributions.

Another $165 million would go toward improvements and land acquisitions for parks, library, health and public safety projects, more than doubling the amount invested in those projects from $143 million this fiscal year to $308 million next year.

That increase includes the $75 million slated for the second phase of the Youth Transition Campus. The first phase is under construction now and will open in November.

Other capital spending would cover the East Otay Mesa Fire Station, the Casa De Oro Library, and a new animal shelter.

Among its spending highlights, the county stated that the budget allots almost $813 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment, with the goal of lowering
staff-to-client ratios and increasing mobile outreach. It also lays out $10 million for mobile crisis response teams, which will replace law enforcement personnel in responding to some mental health emergencies.

The budget would add another 166 positions for adult protective services, child welfare services and other social safety nets.

The Board of Supervisors will consider the budget during public hearings over the coming weeks and must adopt a final budget before the end of June. Fletcher signaled that the board is likely to adjust spending priorities before then.

“This is a strong step in the right direction, but there is more work to do between now and when the budget is adopted on June 29,” Fletcher said.

—Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune