Supervisors hear from public about $6.4B county budget plan

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Monday received an overview of the $6.4 billion, fiscal-year 2020-21 budget and also heard from residents on spending priorities.

During the teleconference hearing, more than 20 residents who called in asked supervisors to consider defunding the Sheriff’s Department, increasing rental assistance, and strengthening a newly created Office of Equity and Racial Justice.

The COVID-19 public health crisis pushed back the formal budget approval, which normally happens in June.

County leaders have described COVID-19 as their top budgetary priority, and proposed $100 million for a testing, tracing and treatment strategy, personal protective equipment and other resources to combat its spread. The economic downturn created by the pandemic has also affected other budget sectors, with county officials expected to dip into reserves, along with slowing or stopping non-essential services and projects in order to address revenue shortfalls.

The proposed spending plan is $159 million — or 2.5% — larger than the last fiscal year’s budget, and includes money for child health services,food distribution shelter for vulnerable residents and planning to ensure a safe election in November.

According to a county executive summary, the proposed budget calls for spending $2.46 billion for health and human services, slightly over $2 billion for public safety, $632 million for land use and environment, $774 million in the general government category, $105 million for capital projects and $386 million for other financial needs.

Before the supervisors heard from the public, Chief Administration Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer went over the county’s fiscal outlook, telling them that despite a slight increase in spending, “this is not a typical budget.”

“The county faces unprecedented challenges,” Robbins-Meyer said.

Because the county is required to have a balanced budget, planning has its limits, and “we can’t continue all levels of service indefinitely,” she added.

While the county won’t fill vacant staff positions, it’s also not cutting core services, Robbins-Meyer said. “We’re able to do this at a time when many local governments are struggling to stay afloat,” she said.

Escondido resident Justin Joseph said the county’s emphasis on law enforcement spending “is an insult” without accountability.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, the county invests in systems of oppression,” he said, recommending the supervisors focus instead on rental assistance and restorative justice programs.

One woman told the board that in a time of “the biggest public health emergency we’ve had in over a century,”  the county should use its reserves to help residents.

Darwin Fishman, co-founder of the Racial Justice Coalition, said it was time for the county to shift priorities, and improve mental health care and homeless outreach, rather than looking to law enforcement for solutions to serious social issues. In terms of law enforcement, “the status quo is not working,” Fishman said.

Another resident said he advocated against defunding law enforcement because that leads to more crime. Instead, the county should law enforcement partner with social workers, he said.

Jean-Huy Tran, advocacy director for We the People of San Diego, said the county should divert more funding to the Public Defender’s office, rather than focus on prosecuting people.

Shane Harris, president of the People’s Alliance for Justice, said the county should spend $5 million on the Office of Equity and Racial Justice, and pay for a consultant to help develop it.

“It will take a fuller office to deal with inequities,” said Harris, who added that the San Diego City Council passed a more robust proposal for a similar office.

During the hearing, supervisors queried staff members on budget issues. Jim Desmond asked if there is a plan to replenish the county’s reserves, which will decrease around $230 million by end of 2022.

Ebony Shelton, county deputy chief administrative officer and chief financial officer, said there is a plan to do that, over a three-year period.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said using one-time money for certain services “is what got this board in trouble almost 28 years ago, because the budget was not structurally balanced. I think it’s important to point out this is a very risky road to go down.”

If the county’s fiscal reserves are diminished and the economy doesn’t provide revenue to make up for that shortfall, there will have to be serious cuts to the budget, Jacob said. She added that reserves are needed to ensure a proper credit rating, so the county can borrow money if needed.

Shelton said rating agencies are anticipating that issue. Because difficult decisions are involved, the county is “figuring out what our `normal’ looks like,” he said.  “The focus will be on how we ensure a balanced budget going forward.”

The public will have another chance to offer input during a meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, which will also be held via teleconference.

Supervisors will vote on formally adopting the budget on Aug. 25.

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