After years of dire warnings about red ink, revenue shortfalls and spending cutbacks, county officials have brighter fiscal news: The budget at the Marin Civic Center is just about balanced.
"We now have a budget that is financially sustainable," said Supervisor Judy Arnold, president of the county board.
County Administrator Matthew Hymel and his chief budget aide, deputy administrator Dan Eilerman, announced that forecasts indicate the county is $2 million shy of making ends meet next fiscal year -- and that in light of increasing revenue, the gap can be filled relatively painlessly by a series of adjustments including eliminating 1.5 vacant staff positions.
The two noted the county's four-year effort to curb spending during the recession, which resulted in an 11 percent staff cutback that slashed annual expenses by about $30 million, has left the county treasury in the best shape it has been in for years.
A rebounding economy that includes an improving real estate market polishes the overall picture painted by officials who five years ago warned that conducting business as usual meant a $50 million fiscal chasm by next fiscal year.
"Our projected budget gap for next year is smaller and more manageable at this time," Eilerman said in a budget planning document issued last week. "For the first time in many years, we are not proposing substantial cuts in services," Hymel noted.
In fact, "the county's budget is relatively balanced for the next two or three years," Hymel said, noting several years of careful planning, belt-tightening and changes "in how we manage our business and meet our mandates more efficiently" have paid off.
County supervisors, who have routinely embraced a series of economies and structural changes proposed by Hymel over the years, will review the new budget forecast in three hearings this week.
Although all county department heads are scheduled to discuss spending program goals, few advocates or critics have attended in recent years as the budget blueprint unfolds. "We certainly want the public to come to our budget hearings," Hymel noted.
Budget planning sessions begin at 10 a.m. Monday at Civic Center with speeches by supervisors, time for public comment, and Eilerman's overview, along with analysis of spending for public safety, public works and planning. Hearings continue at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday with a review of departments including the district attorney, and at 1 p.m. Wednesday with a look at health services, parks and agriculture.
Last year, officials estimated next fiscal year's budget gap would approach $5.5 million, but since then the county has cut expenses by $3 million, largely through "one-time investments" that include paying down pension and retiree health liability a total of $46 million. The move allows the county to cut its required annual pension plan payment by $1.2 million. In addition, a bonus plan offering veteran employees up to $25,000 each to retire early eliminated 15 posts, saving $2.2 million next year.
Next year, the overall budget of about $440 million will require about $20 million in carryover funds from this fiscal year, as well as spending cutbacks including a legal assistant in the public defender's office and a part-time district attorney inspector. In addition to trimming $50,000 from the supervisors' personal pet project fund, the budget calls for a $108,000 cut in labor negotiation consultant costs. Administrators also want officials to beef up a road maintenance account with a portion of future budget carryover funds.
Eilerman noted the forecast does not include cuts that may be imposed by federal and state governments. Although "the state budget appears to be more stable than at any time in recent memory," the situation in Washington, D.C. remains volatile and "federal reductions are likely in coming years," Eilerman reported.
A $5 million fund, part of $65 million in reserves tucked away for rainy days, is included in next year's county budget to provide what officials called a "glide path" for any vital services cut by federal and state legislators.
Contact Nels Johnson via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/nelsjohnsonnews ___