County adopts spending themes largely shaped by disaster responses

By Rollie Atkinson, SocoNews Staff, SoCoNews, June 21, 2021

$2 billion operating budget for new fiscal year

At the end of a full week of workshops, public sessions and final deliberations, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on June 18 unanimously adopted a $2 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2021-22, which begins on July 1.

The spending plan was largely dictated by the ongoing series of natural disasters including the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfire recovery and prevention and the economic rollercoaster of pandemic impacts and one-time federal assistance and loss of local market, taxable and visitor activity during the pandemic. The budget also was augmented by $10 million in Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) wildfire settlement funds.

Included in the budget is $43.3 million in continued spending for COVID-19 pandemic related costs for testing, tracing, monitoring and vaccinations. Last year the county government expended 770,000 staffing hours and $121 million for its pandemic response. Most of these costs will eventually be covered by one-time federal grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA.) Some of those funds will cover an extended residential rental assistance program.

Aided by the pandemic and emergency response funds still flowing to the county from state and federal coffers, the $2 billion county budget projects a $17.3 million surplus in the coming fiscal year. But future years of county operations project a gradual increase in budget deficits leading to an annual deficit of $20.8 million by 2024-25. Not fully accounted in these future deficits is the county’s perpetual shortfall in covering its employees’ pension fund. While the supervisors are allocating an extra $3.75 million to pay down pension liabilities in the coming year, an unfunded amount of $825 million will remain.

The $2 billion budget also relies on the supervisors releasing reserve funds below target levels. By the fiscal year of 2024-25, the county expects to have only 8.6% in reserves, short of its 15% goal.

“Over the last three and a half years, Sonoma County has experienced a lifetime worth of disaster and disruption,” said County Administrator Sheryl Bratton. “This past year, with pandemic and fire, has tried us as much as any. Yet we emerge from it with hope, ready to move forward and embrace new challenges. Our county’s finances have stabilized. We can see a return to normality from our COVID-disrupted lives. We are ready to embrace the future. And we enter fiscal year 2021-22 with a clear vision of how we will not just embrace, but build that future.”

Natural disasters have been a fact of life since 2017, the year of the Tubbs Fire that destroyed 5,643 residences and local businesses and killed 22 county residents and 44 people overall. There have been major wildfires in every year since, plus a historic Russian River flood in 2019. And now there is the lingering pandemic and the mounting drought.

“Here in Sonoma County, we have proven to be resilient in the way that we respond to and recover from adversity,” said Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “This budget makes us even more resilient. We are anticipating future challenges and making the investments to stay out in front, providing the tools to keep Sonoma County safe and thriving.”

The $2 billion budget also includes funds for homeless shelters and safe parking programs ($2 million); $5.85 million for preliminary work on a new county government center; $1.8 million for repairs to the county’s Veterans Memorial buildings; and $5 million to address the county’s Strategic Plan priorities including healthy and safe communities, racial equity and social justice, organizational excellence, climate action and resilient infrastructure.

The 2021-22 budget includes salaries for 4,106 employees, including 1,069 in law enforcement and court services and 1,590 public health care workers.

New to the budget this year are sales taxes funds approved by the voters in 2020 for mental health services (Measure O) and the expansion of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (Measure P.)

The county anticipates as much as $24 million in increased sales tax revenues to fund Measure O initiatives. For 2021-22 these include: increased residential care facilities ($3 million); a new crisis stabilization unit ($4.5 million); residential crisis intervention ($1.4 million); inpatient adult hospital services ($1.5 million); children’s shelters ($551,000); and other funds for supportive housing, substance abuse disorder needs, homelessness-related services and retaining $11 million in unallocated reserves.

Of the county’s $2 billion annual budget, only $351 million is available for “discretionary” spending. The bulk of county funding is restricted to local portions of state and federally mandated programs and services. Discretionary funding this next year includes $3.5 million in new funding to support fire services and $2.5 million to remove hazardous trees. Another $3 million in discretionary funding was invested to improve the county’s immediate response to disasters.

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