County will freeze all current vacant positions, possibly through next year, in an effort to offset revenue losses during the pandemic
TULARE COUNTY – As retail businesses reopened last week, local governments have just began to realize the scope of damage shutting down the economy will do to next year’s tax revenue and their budgets.
In an effort to avoid more severe cuts, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to institute a hiring freeze throughout the county government. Jason Britt, the county’s chief administrative officer, said the decision could potentially save the county more than $64 million over the next 13 months, about $18.6 million of that would be realized as savings to the general fund, the main account for the county’s unrestricted money that funds public safety and health.
“The county has budget reserves but it is unlikely they will be sufficient to do business as usual until the economy recovers,” Britt said. “One of the tools to weather this downtown is a hiring freeze.”
The freeze would require all current and future vacant positions to go unfilled, possibly through the next fiscal year ending in the summer of 2021. Britt estimated there are 600 positions that were currently vacant in county government. Under the freeze, any employment offers made by the county before 5 p.m. last Friday, May 8 will be honored. Public safety positions, such as Sheriff deputies, firefighters and probation officers, are exempt from the freeze. The board did authorize Britt to approve exemptions on a case-by-case basis, such as grant-funded and mission critical positions. He didn’t rule out other ways that departments could reduce their budget without sacrificing positions.
“There may need to be other ways departments can reduce their expenses,” Britt said.
Britt said the hiring freeze was a proactive measure in anticipation of millions in lost or deferred revenue. He said the county is expecting to lose at least $27 million for the last four months of this fiscal year, including $7 to $10 million in sales tax. He said it was too soon to project sales tax losses for the next fiscal year.
“We are at this point we are not clear if the state will be backfilling those deferred payments,” Britt told the board. “The lack of backfilled tax payments would put further pressure on an already strained budget.”
Those numbers are just the baseline as there will be additional costs to reopening government office lobbies for cleaning, sanitizing, plexi glass barriers and outfitting employees with personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves.
“Taking proactive measures will give us an opportunity to stay ahead of a financial crisis,” District Four Supervisor Eddie Valero said. “We need to be prudent at this time to take measures for a healthy Tulare County.”
The county has also spent more than $1.3 million as the lead agency for pandemic protocols. Unlike other Central Valley counties, Britt said Tulare County would not receive direct funding from the federal government to reimburse counties for costs associated with COVID-19 because it was only offered to counties with populations over 500,000 people. Tulare County was just under 480,000 as of Jan. 1, according to the California Department of Finance.
Counties play a unique role in providing community response to this pandemic. Tulare County is responsible for the Emergency Operations Center overseeing the local response to the pandemic. This includes providing human services to vulnerable populations and a growing number of consumers seeking behavioral health, food assistance, and employment services and programs due to the pandemic.
“Because we are 15,000-20,000 people short, we are penalized because of that,” District One Supervisor Kuyler Crocker said. “Hopefully this will be a temporary, one-year issue and we can go back to filling vacancies.”
Chair Pete Vander Poel said this might be an opportunity to eliminate positions that have been vacant for multiple years that could free up money for other things.
“There is a lot that is going to change out of this,” Vander Poel said. “I think it’s very important to look at a right-sizing of our departments.”
Prior to making the motion to approve the hiring freeze, District Three Supervisor Amy Shuklian said the loss in tax revenue underscores the need for quick action to reopen the local economy as soon and as safely as possible.
“These are tough decisions to make but that is another reason we don’t want to wait to see our businesses reopen,” Shuklian said.