Contra Costa County District III Supervisor Mary Piepho, who represents much of East County, emphasized that this is a preliminary look at the upcoming budget, but was happy with Twa’s report. The county’s situation could always change, as the state faces its annual budget crisis, making for a moving target at the county and city levels.
“He thinks we’re going to be in decent shape but is cautiously optimistic,” Piepho said. “It’s definitely the first bit of good news we’ve had in many years. Our employees and department heads deserve significant recognition.”
Twa’s presentation pointed to the phasing out or elimination of several expenditures through labor negotiations with the county’s 7,662 employees to show that the coffers look healthier heading into fiscal year 2012-13. The county budget dealt with a $29.2 million pension cost increase in 2011-12, a cost that won’t be factored into the upcoming budget.
County employees will also be put back on furloughs, saving roughly $8.2 million in payroll. Twa also believes property tax revenues will flatten out, not decline, in the upcoming fiscal year. Property tax, which peaked in 2007-08, is the main source of funding for the county.
The budget will also be aided by the fact that 617 employees retired in 2011. Altogether, the county administrator estimates that $45.9 million of last year’s budget will not make its way to the next annual ledger.
“It has not been an easy process at all,” Piepho said. “Our employees are being paid less, they’re doing more to maintain services. If we can all catch our breath this budget cycle, this would be a nice reward.”
Some of Twa’s major goals for the county in the upcoming fiscal year include building a reserve to address building maintenance needs and use money from a half-cent sales tax increase to hire back public-safety employees. In 2003, the county employed 3,041 public-safety officers. That number has steadily dropped, to 2,538 in 2011. Nearly every department has seen lower staffing levels because of the economic recession, a trend Twa would like to buck soon.
However, the budget projections aren’t rosy for every department. Projections show that the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District will be completely insolvent by the upcoming fiscal year. The district shows a deficit of nearly $1 million in this fiscal year, but a budget stabilization fund of about $10 million keeps it in the black. In the upcoming year, that black turns to red by virtue of a proposed $2.86 million deficit at the end of fiscal year 2012-13.
The county is floating the idea of a parcel tax on the November ballot to help keep the county’s fire department alive.
Despite the fire department outlook, agencies outside Contra Costa County have given kudos to the local budget, Twa’s presentation noted. The Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada gave the county a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award, the first time Contra Costa has been honored with such.
“We are getting where we need to be,” Piepho said. “It does remain a work in progress. We need to be very careful we don’t go backward.”