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There's a budget storm on the horizon

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The first major storm couldn’t have come at a more metaphorically relevant time. SLO County officials even noted the ominous weather when they unveiled financial projections for the coming fiscal year.

 

“Just cutting to the bottom line here, it’s a gloomy day and it’s a gloomy forecast,” County Administrator Jim Grant told county supervisors on Oct. 13.

 

Looking ahead, county officials are expecting a $24.3 million gap in the budget, and estimate it could grow to as much as $30 million. County revenues are expected to fall 2.7 percent by the time officials put together the budget. Conversely, expenditures rose 3.7 percent, which county financial experts attributed mostly to increases in some department salaries and pension rates.

 

In effect, the budget running through the 2010-11 fiscal year will be a “status-quo budget,” meaning no new spending. No matter how the county scales back its own spending—which will likely come out of existing services and employee salaries—many officials are concerned with looming cuts from the state. And looking farther down the line, several officials worried that cutting expenses won’t be enough to solve the problem unless the county also addresses its own structural issues and how money is spent. In other words, depending on federal bailouts and making short-term savings may only serve to delay more hardships.

 

“It’s not just that we’re going to be able to bite the bullet for five years and then throw money back out there,” Supervisor Adam Hill said. “It’s not going to happen.”

 

Public safety funds, which have been relatively immune to cuts most other county departments have dealt with, are quickly becoming a point of tension. Members of the county’s largest union, SLOCEA, and management employees chose not to take a 3 percent cost of living adjustment they were entitled to this year, Principal Administrative Analyst Dan Buckshi said. That saved about $5 million.

 

But the public safety departments took their salary increases anyway. Supervisor Bruce Gibson said the Sheriff’s Department has so far failed to provide the county with statistics that would show where money is being spent and where it can be cut.

 

“We need to be spending our money in the most cost-effective way,” Gibson said.

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