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'Day of reckoning' in the future says county officer

The official San Diego County Board of Supervisors action Jan. 26 was to receive the Urban Counties Caucus study “State Budget Education Project” for board discussion. The discussion of the study on state underfunding of county-operated programs also warned county residents that the 2010-11 budget under preparation by county staff may reflect those shortfalls.

“As we look at the governor’s budget, it is loaded with uncertainties,” said county chief administrative officer Walt Ekard. “The day of reckoning is almost surely coming.”

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger released a budget proposal on Jan. 8 that estimates an $18.9 billion state shortfall for the remainder of fiscal year 2009-10 and for fiscal year 2010-11. The Urban Counties Caucus, which consists of the state’s 12 most populated counties, released a study that ongoing and cumulative state underfunding of programs operated by counties over the last five years has placed a significant burden on counties’ abilities to sustain basic services and to continue serving the public in times of need.

“It doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know,” Ekard said. “In the end, local governments will find themselves hurt.”

While the supervisors’ only action was to receive the report, individual comments by members of the Board of Supervisors and by Ekard advocated state reform. Although many local governments have chief administrative officers, city managers, or general managers, the state has no version of Ekard’s position to manage state operations. Suggestions also called for a bottoms-up review of all state programs.

The supervisors and Ekard also noted that state legislators need to hear from constituents about the importance of local government programs and necessary funding for those activities.

“They need to hear from our residents,” said Supervisor Greg Cox.

Supervisor Pam Slater-Price noted that lobbyists for special interests often provide more advocacy to state legislators than members of the public. “The public has a lot of power when the public uses that power,” she said.

Supervisor Bill Horn mentioned that the state’s workforce has grown by 20 percent since Schwarzenegger took office in late 2003. “We pay the property taxes. We pay the sales taxes. And they squander the money,” Horn said.

In past years of state fiscal uncertainty, county staff has prepared a budget that incorporates some possibilities of decreased state revenue. The final impact of the state budget will not be known until a May revision reflecting income tax revenue is released and the state legislature approves the 2010-11 budget.

“It’s going to be a challenging year,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

The county supervisors will hold budget hearings in early June and will begin budget deliberations in late June. “We’re doing what we need to do in making this county fiscally strong and viable,” Cox said.

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