Five months after start of lockdown, county considers cuts — layoffs unlikely for now

When the lockdown began in March, businesses immediately laid off employees because of declining revenue. Five months later, the Santa Clara County government is taking a slower approach to the economic crisis and it looks like “no one will go out the door,” as one official put it.

This week the five-member County Board of Supervisors, which includes Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, has begun addressing an anticipated budget deficit of between $200 million and $600 million.

Before kicking off discussion Monday of the specifics of how to address the shortfall, supervisors reviewed their challenges, including uncertainty in federal and state funding and the unclear severity and duration of the pandemic. They were stymied by the knowledge that this massive deficit cannot be solved with one-time funding solutions.

The proposed budget up for debate is expected to resolve $144 million of the county’s shortfall, primarily by cutting vacant positions — meaning nobody will be thrown out onto the street.

“We asked certain departments to match, or come up with reduction targets … This is just a start, we expect more later,” County Manager Jeff Smith said. “But we think we gave you a proposal here that is relatively easy because … the majority of the positions are vacant.”

Department heads have come up with plans to move employees around to prevent layoffs.

“So with this budget, no one will go out the door,” Smith said.

Despite the proposed budget cuts and deletions, the county acknowledges there still will be a large deficit that will need continual cost reductions throughout the next fiscal year. Supervisors plan to revisit the budget in November and February.

Proposed position deletions include:

County Manager’s Office: One public communication specialist, one protocol officer and two multimedia communication officers.

Office of Sustainability: One program manager II.

Division of Equity and Social Justice: Two management analyst, one community outreach specialist, one training and staff development specialist, one graphic designer II and one research and evaluation specialist II.

Liability and Property Insurance Division of the Risk Management Department: Elimination of one senior loss prevention specialist.

There weren’t only cuts in the proposed budget. Suggested spending included:

Registrar of Voters: Ongoing funding of $952,800 to fund additional extra help hours.

County Library District: One-time funding of $4,522,136 for the purchase of fixed assets.

Budget Director Greg Iturria said the county is attempting to balance the rest of the budget. The county expects to lose an expected $24 million on delinquent tax payments and penalties because Gov. Gavin Newsom in May signed an executive order mandating property tax relief.

“On everyone’s mind right now is that we don’t have the additional federal stimulus money … many of us hoped for,” Iturria said. “The state budget was adopted with automatic trigger cuts. If the federal government doesn’t provide at least $14 billion in new flexible aid … we need to be prepared for another round of cuts … We want to have some set aside to help us prepare for that.”

Federal funding has been inadequate in volume, in amount and in flexibility, Iturria said. The federal government’s aid has too many restrictions on top of inadequate amount of funds, he said, so the county will need to look for additional funding.

Supervisors were concerned about the elimination of positions and how those deleted positions might be added back if needed.

Iturria assured that through an “add/delete” process, county offices will have flexibility in hiring and filling holes.

Just because a position is deleted doesn’t mean a department can’t come back to the county in the event that a retirement or resignation occurs and be able to institute a needed position somewhere else.

Discussions will continue via Zoom all week. The budget is set for final approval at the supervisor’s meeting Friday. — San Jose Spotlight via Bay City News

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