Public services cuts seen

Fresno County's lean budget could translate into longer waits for the public for services and fewer community health programs, and already means the closure of 30 beds in the new Juvenile Justice Campus, administrators say.

Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors took its first detailed look at projected service reductions tied to this year's tough $1.74 billion budget. The county's 24 departments carved out millions of dollars to deal with financial pressures such as increased salaries and benefits, higher retirement costs, a slowdown in property tax growth and a drop in state funding for some programs.

County administrators compiled a list by department describing the differences between this year and last year. Some entries clearly describe cutbacks in hours or programs; others offer little detail about how the public could be affected by expected delays and staff reductions.

Supervisor Henry Perea said he was disappointed that departments didn't offer more creative approaches to the problem instead of listing everything they couldn't do.

But Board Chairman Bob Waterston said the money simply isn't there: "I just don't think we can do any more."

For the public, the bottom line is projected to be a drop in services -- from office hours to agricultural inspections to health programs. A staff report offered dozens of examples:

Residents paying property taxes in person or calling with questions can expect to wait another 30 minutes at peak tax season. Vicki Crow, auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector, said she won't have the staff to deal as quickly with the surge.

Scales and other equipment such as gasoline pumps may not be inspected annually. Jerry Prieto, the county's ag commissioner and sealer of weights and measures, said holding some jobs open to meet budget demands could mean fewer checks there and delays in other agricultural inspections.

Eleven probation officers may be removed from schools, although Chief Probation Officer Linda Penner said she is trying to find a way to keep them on campus. She's already closed a 30-bed detention pod at the Juvenile Justice Campus.

Cuts in community health include eliminating a children's mobile dental program and a program that screened for tuberculosis, treated people exposed to rabies and offered testing and treatment to people stuck with needles. Dr. Ed Moreno, the county's health officer, estimated overall that the department needed another $8 million over last year's budget to keep services status quo.

Freezing 10 vacant sheriff's deputy positions may mean delayed response to lower-priority calls, according to Undersheriff Scott Jones. For example, patrol deputies may take hours to respond to a loud music call -- or they might not get there at all, he said.

Board members didn't discuss most of the cuts in detail. They did vote to require the County Counsel's office to continue reviewing county contracts.

County Counsel Dennis Marshall had asked to halt reviews of some contracts because the office lost four attorneys. The board, however, decided that was too risky and told administrators to bring back options to pay for that continued practice.

Supervisor Susan Anderson focused attention on the Sheriff's Department, which benefited financially from cuts in other departments as the board gave budget priority to justice and law enforcement functions.

Anderson questioned the sheriff's list of potential service reductions and the department's $12 million overtime budget -- up from $8 million last year.

Jones said the department is trying to keep up with an increasing workload. Overtime also is expected to help cover costs associated with holding open 18 now-vacant positions, including deputies, correctional officers and an assistant sheriff.

Jones said the sheriff is giving highest priority to areas such as the jail and gang, agriculture and methamphetamine-related crime.

Several times during the discussion, board members warned against any thoughts of a financial turnaround. Said Supervisor Judy Case: "I don't believe next year's budget is going to be any better."