Fresno County budget is balanced going into hearings

The Fresno BeeJune 6, 2014 

Andreas Borgeas

SPECIAL TO THE BEE

Fresno County's proposed budget will provide for the first time in years surplus revenues that will bolster county offices long devoid of full staffing and also raise the county's cash reserves.

Supervisors and administrators seem relieved, but remain cautious, after several years of deficits and contentious budget hearings.

In his budget statement to supervisors, John Navarrette, county administrative officer, described the spending plan as "positive economic change through modest growth in countywide revenues."

He said it was his first opportunity in six years to present a recommended budget that's balanced.

The budget will grow by $74 million to nearly $1.4 billion in general fund spending -- which supports public safety and other key government functions -- and will total just less than $2.05 billion. It's the first time the county's budget has exceeded $2 billion. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

When budget hearings start Monday there may be a little less anxiety this time around from department heads seeking more staff. While most bargaining units remain in negotiations, county administrators are asking supervisors to continue allowing promotions and support salary step raises and cost increases to the county's health care contribution -- an additional $11.2 million.

Overall, the work force will grow by 69 jobs, raising county staffing to 7,120.

Read the budget

Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said supervisors realize the difficulties Fresno County's departments have undergone.

"We are really trying to rebuild now," she said, "but we are not going to get it all back in one year."

Restoring staff will improve service to the public, said Supervisor Judy Case McNairy.

The county also will put $2.04 million into its general reserves, raising the balance to nearly $16.5 million.

"It does look better," said Supervisor Phil Larson, "we've come a long way in the past five years."

Added Supervisor Henry Perea: "It's a pretty solid budget ... based on revenues we're anticipating, I think it's good."

Despite what appear to be positive numbers, Case McNairy said she is worried that tax revenues could drop if the drought takes a toll on farmland values and crop valuation.

"With the drought and its potential impact, we may be a little over-optimistic," she said. "We shouldn't spend like it's Christmas."

The Fresno County Sheriff's Office will add four staff members, said Sheriff Margaret Mims -- three in the courts and one lieutenant who will transition to the Fresno County Coroner's Office when it merges with the sheriff's office in January.

"They have a plan for me to incrementally add staff, and as long as the employees know we are trying to make progress, I think they will feel a little better," Mims said.

The sheriff said she will ask for even more deputies if supervisors find money available in the new budget.

She also listed vehicle replacement as a priority since some deputies are driving high mileage 2006 vehicles.

"I think it's realistic to believe if they have the funds that they will add deputies and cars," Mims said.

Sheriff's staffing for the new year will be 1,057, down from 1,201 in the 2007-08 budget year.

"We have taken hits at all ranks," Mims said.

The Fresno County public defender's office is in line for the most change. It will get 17 new staff members, an increase of nearly 20% and $1.6 million.

Public defenders complained last year of being short-staffed and presented statistics that national experts described as some of the highest caseloads they had ever seen.

After information about the heavy caseloads came to light, the supervisors talked about the need to increase staffing.

Last year, more than 80% of the public defenders signed a letter to county officials protesting working conditions, caseloads and the limited number of lawyers, investigative staff and office workers compared with other public defender's offices around the state as well as the Fresno County District Attorney's Office.

Under the proposed budget, the office will add seven new lawyers, four new investigators, and six office personnel, expanding the public defender's staff to 105.

"It was very clear that was going to be a priority," said board Chairman Andreas Borgeas. "The public defender is an integral part of the justice system, so underfunding it was compromising the efficiencies in the justice system and creating a domino effect on all the contributing entities. It was time to begin restoration."

Five years ago the department had 78 lawyers. With the seven new additions, the office will have 65 lawyers, including management.

There will be a loss of one senior attorney. Those are the public defenders who get the most complicated cases, which concerns Scott Baly, president of the Professional Association of County Employees and a lawyer in the public defender's office. The association represents public defenders.

But overall, Baly was encouraged by the proposal for additional staff.

"I don't like that they've deleted a higher-level person, but since last year there is a little better feeling in the office," he said.

If you go

Fresno County budget hearings begin at 9 a.m. Monday at the Fresno County Hall of Records, third floor, Tulare and M streets in downtown Fresno.

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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