Board increases transparency in 2020-2021 Tulare County budget

2020/2021 fiscal year budget removes 100 chronically vacant positions from the general fund and other departments

VISALIA – Tulare County’s 2020-2021 budget is light by 100 positions, and not because of COVID-19.

Before approving the budget the board of supervisors heard a corresponding presentation from County Administrative Officer, Jason Britt. Britt explained the county reduced 91 chronically vacant positions from the general fund, some of which came from the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. Nine other eliminations came from other departments. The 100 total positions made for a 2% decrease in total authorized staffing.

“Deleting chronically vacant positions is…a great practice at increasing budget transparency. I think that it’s something very helpful to recognizing where actual costs are,” District 1 Board Supervisor Kuyler Crocker said.

Larry Micari, a retired captain from the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department and challenger for Crocker’s seat this election said he was in favor of keeping 100 chronically vacant positions, because they use those funds to balance the department’s other budgetary shortfalls.

“I know there are vacancies and openings in the [Sheriff’s] Department. They have to carry those vacancies to balance the budget. I was involved in the fiscal unit within the Sheriff’s Office,” Micari said during a Sept. 15 forum with Crocker.

Getting the clearest and most accurate view of the budget during the novel coronavirus pandemic has been a goal for public entities around the county as they brace for a decline in revenue. According to Britt’s presentation the county expects to see a .09% decline in local sales tax; a .19% decline in Prop 172 sales tax revenue; and a 6.02% decline in all other revenue coming into the county.

However, Britt said the county should see a 2% increase in secured property taxes and a 4.5% increase in motor vehicle fees.

Still, Tulare County expects to see a 5% increase in their general fund totaling $886,780,331. The increase is nearly a 2% decrease from the 2019/2020 fiscal year where the county enjoyed a 6.9% increase over the previous year.

Within the general fund is a $1 million emergency fund for fires, flood and tree mortality. Britt said it is not enough to handle the extenuating circumstances ahead, in particular when it comes to fires. In the general fund as well is $3 million in capital improvements; $3.3 million for county fire improvements, vehicles and equipment; $1.9 million for economic development; $1.2 million for IT projects and $1.1 million in groundwater sustainability agency members and water program activities.

Despite the pandemic bringing some businesses to a halt, the county expects some growth in property value over the next 12 months. Britt said assessed valuation growth for the fiscal year should increase by $1.9 billion bringing local assessed value to $39.7 billion, up from $37.8 billion last year. The growth rate amounts to 5.044%. Slightly above the three year average of 4.949%.

In terms of fund type, the county is budgeting for growth in operation funds by 5.2%; enterprise funds by .2%; internal service funds by 7.7% and special district funds by 1.8%. The type of fund they expect to see a decrease in is county service areas with a decline of 4.7%.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the 2020/2021 budget was the county’s long-term debt obligations totaling $266 million. According to Britt’s presentation the county holds $232.9 million in pension obligation bonds; $31.1 million in variable rate demand bonds; $1.3 million in a Chevron loan; $1 million in certificates of participation for enterprise funds; $3,800 in bonds for El Rancho Sewer District.

“I do have to say that based on a county of our size…that is a very low debt commitment,” Britt said.

An aspect of the budget that drew the ire of Micari during last Tuesday evening’s debate with Crocker was an approved 2% raise. Micari argued that supervisors should have turned down raises given the economic downturn due to the coronavirus. However, the cost of living increase of 2% was consistent with an April 30, 2019 resolution passed by the board almost a full year before the pandemic led to stay at home orders. Employees on the other hand were issued a 5% raise. Crocker contended during the debate that cutting the 100 chronically vacant employees allowed the county to make good on their promise to raise wages while also maintaining services.

A 2% cost of living increase was also approved for the sheriff-coroner, district attorney, county assessor/clerk record and auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector. This was consistent with the same April 30, 2019 resolution.

Looking forward Britt pointed out some of the challenges that lie ahead for future budgets. The first point he noted was the rising cost of law enforcement and fire, capital and staffing needs. In addition he noted increasing annual retirement contributions; increasing financial share of mandated programs; new countywide financial and human resources system; and the unknown duration and impact of COVID-19.

Britt also laid out his plan to address the continued economic downturn and fiscal uncertainty due to the pandemic. He said the county would continue to implement a robust economic development strategy with an emphasis on assessed valuation growth; use strategic reserves to maintain status quo operations; maintain contingency reserves; invest in revenue-generating improvements, projects and activities; focus on operational efficiency; propose budget allocations that are feasible and sustainable for the long-term; and make budget adjustments if necessary at the mid-year budget review.

In his “looking to the future” portion of his presentation, Britt listed a host of technologically based enhancements expected to be implemented countywide. Included was the procurement of additional laptop computers and technology to expand telework capabilities. Britt stated the county plans to enact: Microsoft Office 365 countywide, a cloud-based suite of Microsoft Office products; online parks reservation system for arbors; Relias e-learning and training platform countywide; eProsector, a new web based case management system for the District Attorney; PrimeGov, an agenda management system for the board and public search portal; OpenGov, a cloud-based budgeting and financial management system; and E-Review, which allows permitting record and processes to become electronic.

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