Some costly commitments are coming back to haunt Tuolumne County leaders.
A newly opened juvenile hall, labor agreements through 2021, increasing obligations for employee pensions, and borrowing to build a new county jail are going to put a strain on the county’s budget in the coming years that will require some serious changes, according to Debi Bautista, county clerk and auditor-controller.
“This organization needs to be changed … or we will be back here every single year with huge deficits, and we’ll never get out of the hole,” Bautista warned the county Board of Supervisors at a meeting Tuesday.
County officials have been working over the past couple months to eliminate a projected $5.5 million deficit in the county’s main operating fund for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The board was informed Tuesday that the projected deficit was reduced to $3.9 million, thanks largely to a projected balance of $1.2 million in the General Fund at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.
Most services provided by the county are covered by the roughly $61 million General Fund, including administration, building and planning, most employee salaries, the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, libraries, parks and recreation, elections, agriculture, air pollution control and facilities maintenance.
Some departments, such as social services and behavioral health, are funded by what’s called “special revenue,” such as fees or state and federal funding.
The board gave county staff three weeks to determine how they would cut expenses in their departments by 5 percent and 8 percent. They also asked them to evaluate how each level of cuts would impact the services they provide.
Bautista said she believed the work it will take to make the changes needed will take more than three weeks, but it will give them a head start when looking forward to the 2018-19 fiscal year.
The problem is that revenues are not keeping up with increasing costs and obligations, some of which are out of the county’s control.
For one, the $20 million Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility that opened in early April is projected to require about $1.3 million from the General Fund to operate over the next fiscal year based on early estimates.
The cost would be about $500,000 more than anticipated in October 2013 and about $1 million more than before the county secured a $16 million grant from the state in 2009 to construct the facility.
A major reason for the increase was the need for 14 employees to staff the facility, instead of 10 as anticipated back in 2013.
Juvenile offenders were previously housed in a facility over 100 miles away under an agreement with Nevada County, which cost the county roughly between $300,000 to $500,000 a year on average.
“We knew if was going to cost more than the old model of sending kids out, but the board at the time called it the social cost of taking better care of those kids,” said County Administrator Craig Pedro.
There are currently four juveniles from Tuolumne County being housed at the new 30-bed facility off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora, County Probation Chief Linda Downey said at Tuesday’s meeting.
In a 2013 memo to the board, former County Probation Chief Adele Arnold cited future growth as the reason for needing 30 beds.
The county previously entered partnerships with Calaveras and Amador counties agreeing to build and operate the facility in exchange for them housing their juvenile offenders there. Pedro said contracts have been sent to those counties, but nothing has been signed yet.
Pedro said he expects the leaders in those counties to discuss the contracts later this month.
“This is kind of a bummer discussion because you don’t want kids in there, but economically you need kids in there to help cover the costs,” Pedro said.
The board approved going forward with the facility’s construction in its 2011-12 budget at a time when the county was going through layoffs and streamlining departments to deal with the effects of the economic recession.
District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce was the lone dissenting vote against that year’s budget, saying he felt it was not the right time to be building a juvenile hall.
“I think that it was a very easy decision to move ahead with at the time with all the arguments that were being made, but I do feel like it was a mistake,” Royce said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The cost-benefit for the kids that are there does not make sense,” Royce continued, “and the position we are in to be able to try to make this thing viable — trying to solicit other counties to send children here — is not a wise way to do things.”
Downey reminded the board that the facility has been open for only one month and they are taking a hard look at their staffing and operations.
“It’s been repeated over and over,” Downey said, “but it’s not about the money, it’s about lives and changing futures.”
The board is also planning to undertake $13 million in debt over the next several years to build a new county jail near the juvenile hall on what’s been called the Law and Justice Center campus.
Most of the funding for the new jail would come from $33 million in state grants. The county’s current jail on Yaney Avenue has been criticized for years in civil grand jury reports and by state officials as overcrowded, outdated, and a potential growing safety risk for staff and inmates.
Another future burden is the county’s payment to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, will rise more than $1 million in the next fiscal year and another $1 million in the following year, part of state-mandated increases to rein in skyrocketing unfunded liabilities.
Further compounding matters is roughly $2 million more per year will be needed through 2021 to cover additional labor costs under new agreements with employee unions that the board agreed to in 2017.
The agreements included adjustments to employee salaries, benefits and job classifications based on a 2015 study of what other similar areas were paying.
“One of the reasons we got here is we did our very best to do good by our employees,” said District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer. “Going back on those commitments, in my view, ought to be our very last option.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.