Seven years after the Great Recession, the 2015-16 County budget is beginning to show signs of normalcy and reflect an improving economy.
While largely a status quo budget, meaning departments will continue to work with the same funding as last year, this year we were able to continue our slow climb toward recovery, with a strong focus on building our reserves, increasing public safety funding, and restoring our Parks Department.
The Board worked to build our reserves to help us prepare for future downturns by using $3.5 million in money owed by the State to the County since 2004 for “unfunded mandates.” We used the money from the State to increase our reserves, now at 7.9 percent of the general fund. Our goal is to get the reserve to 10 percent in seven years (from our low of 7 percent). That will put us in a much better position to sustain established programs when the next economic downturn comes and will improve our ratings in the financial markets to access the cheapest rates when we have to borrow money. Another $1.8 million of the “unfunded mandates” payment was allocated to fund one-time capital projects, including for parks in the Fifth District.
With support from the voters for Measure K on last June’s ballot, we were able to re-establish the County’s Parks Department as a standalone department, after being merged with Public Works for the last five years. The ballot measure has allowed us to improve park and recreation services and address deferred maintenance.
We also were able to maintain our County and community services, mostly at status quo funding levels.
Public safety is a top priority of mine. This budget adds four new Sheriff’s patrol deputies and one sergeant for the cannabis enforcement unit. This is in addition to the six deputy positions added last year. With these actions, we’re well on our way to reaching our pre-recession levels of deputies on patrol.
In the District Attorney’s office we added a new attorney focused on consumer protection. We also coordinated with the City of Santa Cruz, the court system, the Public Defender, District Attorney, the Sheriff, and Police Departments to build the Bob Lee PACT (Partnership for Accountability, Connection and Treatment) program to provide recovery services instead of incarceration when applicable. It’s been a tremendously successful program (previously known as the Downtown Accountability Program), which has reduced arrest and citation rates up to 70 percent for repeat offenders.
The Probation Department was extremely successful in obtaining grants for a number of programs, including SEEDS, which will provide funds for a new garden and kitchen – and agriculture and culinary skills – at the Juvenile Probation Center on Graham Hill Road.
Through an energy alternative program called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), which offers increased dependence on renewable energy resources as opposed to fossil fuels, my office has been the leader in establishing a tri-county (Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito) CCA, which may ultimately include the three counties and their 18 cities. We received the largest State grant issued for such an organization, and a feasibility study is scheduled to be completed by the first of next year.
We will continue to struggle to maintain the 600 miles of roads in the unincorporated county. A sizeable reduction in gas tax revenue is anticipated to continue over the next two years, reducing the ability of the Public Works Department to properly maintain the road system.
For the first time, the County will have an Office of Economic Development as a division of the County Administrative Office. This will allow us to undertake an array of economic generating projects and programs envisioned in our first economic vitality strategy and vision plan that I have championed in an effort to better plan for building on our economic strengths and to provide job opportunities for our residents.