Politics & Government

State debt to cost Fresno Co. $780,000

Money again dominated the conversation Tuesday as the Fresno County Board of Supervisors faced more tough financial issues.

Supervisors agreed to take nearly $780,000 from the county's paltry contingency account to pay a debt to the state. But board members put off other decisions -- such as questions of staffing in probation and the county counsel's office -- as they grappled with a $1.74 billion budget that doesn't stretch far enough.

The county is struggling this year with a combination of financial problems, ranging from increased salaries and benefits and higher retirement costs to a slowdown in property tax growth and a drop in state funding for some programs.

All 24 departments have projected service cuts to the public based on the tight budget.

Tuesday, board members agreed to spend down the contingency account -- leaving it at less than $270,000 -- to pay penalties associated with shorting the state on court fines and recorder index fees. A state audit turned up the error.

Several supervisors expressed frustration over the mistake and concern about the state of the contingency fund, which is meant to cover unexpected costs.

More cash still could be funneled into the account, such as a projected $1 million savings from health insurance rate reductions. But County Administrative Officer Bart Bohn warned there will be more requests for money from that account.

Later, the board couldn't agree on how to handle roughly $950,000 repaid by the state for mental health services in prior years. Administrators recommended sending the cash to the contingency account, and then using part of it to restore several positions in the county counsel's office.

Bohn said the cash should be treated as reimbursement for general fund money that covered mental health department shortages in prior years. But several supervisors said the money should be used for mental health services.

Ultimately, the board left it in a trust account and didn't address the county counsel's staffing issue.

The board also discussed, but took no action, on the status of probation officers at 11 area schools. Supervisor Henry Perea had proposed cutting management and support positions within the department to keep probation officers on campuses in the Fresno, Clovis and Central unified districts.

"This has to be a priority," he said.

Chief Probation Officer Linda Penner said she is working with the school districts to restore the program. Because of budget cuts, probation officers have pulled back from four to three days a week on campus.

Penner called it "one foot in, and one foot out." But she described herself as optimistic that a deal could be struck with districts.

Peter Summers, executive director of prevention and intervention at Fresno Unified, said discussions are under way: "We're trying to figure it out."

In other action Tuesday, the board:

*Agreed to continue its strategic planning process.

*Refused, on a split vote, to endorse a resolution urging Valley congressmen to support the State Children's Health Insurance Program.