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Few Turn Out For San Diego County Budget Hearings

Audio

Aired 6/8/11

San Diego County is so financially healthy it is paying for new capital projects with cash. But the social safety net the county provides for people who have fallen on hard times is wearing thin.

About 300 nonprofit organizations showed up at the county board chambers this week to ask for money. They were vying for a share of the county’s tourist tax dollars (TOT) – about $2.5 million .

But when it came time to talk about the rest of the budget -- the sheriff’s department, fire services in the back country, health and human services -- the chambers were almost empty.

“For the regular budget, which is close to $5 billion, I had three speakers,“ said Bill Horn, supervisor and chair of the board.

One reason could be because the county is not cutting services. Although the budget is 2.3 percent lower than last year, library hours remain the same and public safety has grown a little. But people who work in Health and Human Services Agency say they are being stretched to the limit.

Patricia Gonzalez, who works at the county’s Family Resource Center in Lemon Grove, was one of the three people who spoke.

“As we all know," she said, “the economy has had a big impact on public services.”

Gonzales said the county has enrolled an extra 25,000 people in CalFresh, formerly called food stamps.

“But when those people arrive,” she said, “they have to wait longer and sometimes make multiple trips to get assistance, because we don’t have enough staff to deal with the increase in enrollment," said Gonzales. "It is clear the county is in good financial shape. The county says that its employees are its greatest assets. When we are in work sites working harder and harder with less and less, and seeing clients wait longer and longer, it’s hard to understand that statement.”

The county’s labor groups accuse the board of maintaining reserves of more than $2 billion, while squeezing social services.

“Is there really $2.2 million of reserves? “The answer to that is no,” said Don Steuer, the county’s chief financial officer.

Steuer said that money is to cover many things, including an emergency fund. It has also allowed the county to embark on major capital improvement projects, including a new operations center, without borrowing any money.

“The majority of our capital expenditures up to this point have been cash,” he said. ”In other words, we didn’t issue debt. We did a brief analysis on how much money we would be saving taxpayers by paying cash for these, and the number rapidly approaches a billion dollars over 30 years.”

Steuer said budgeting this way makes good financial sense in the long run. He said social services are under pressure, but there’s no extra money to bolster their budgets.

“A lot of it is doing more with the same," he said, "with business engineering and other initiatives to increase the numbers of clients they can serve, in spite of the fact that the funding is relatively flat from the state.“

Constance Soucy has a different long-term picture. She’s with Access to Independence, a group that provides services for the disabled.

“The San Diego County Board of Supervisors’ priority needs to be services, not savings,” she said, “10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day, many are residents of San Diego County. We need more services, not fewer services. Now is the time to use the rainy day fund because a tsunami of seniors is coming, and a flood of others in need are already here. “

Rabbi Laurie Coskey of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice has a theory about why so few people came to the budget hearing.

“I think people don’t know what the county is responsible to the people for,” she said, “ and so I think there’s a lot of educating that needs to be done. “

Coskey said if the county is so fiscally healthy, why are those working in the county jails and benefits offices taking pay cuts and extra work loads, while top administrators continue to get pay increases.

The county plans to pass its budget by the end of this month. The supervisors are still receiving written public comments until June 15th.

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