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Plumas budget eyes public safety; DA and Sheriff object

By Debra Moore

[email protected]

Another year, another shortfall for the Plumas County budget. It’s a scenario that plays out every year and the 2020-2021 budget is starting off exactly the same — except this year there are more unknowns as county officials grapple with the effect of coronavirus on funding sources.

County Administrator Gabriel Hydrick and Auditor Roberta Allen presented some preliminary numbers to the Board of Supervisors during its Sept. 1 meeting. A public hearing for the budget is scheduled for Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. when more details will be shared.

Hydrick presented a handful of slides with various projections, but the one that struck a chord was the slide that mentioned cuts to the District Attorney, Sheriff’s Office and Jail.

District Attorney David Hollister asked how the cuts were derived and why was public safety alone targeted. (The initial information contained no mention of cuts to other departments.)

Auditor Allen said that the cuts were a percentage of payroll and that public safety represents the “biggest chunk” of the general fund.

Hollister said that jurisdictions are mandated by the state constitution to make public safety its first priority, and he questioned how cutting public safety funding, particularly in the midst of coronavirus and fires, adhered to that mandate. He also questioned why other departments weren’t targeted.

Allen said that other departments would be impacted, and many other measures such as eliminating all vehicle purchases were being considered.

Hollister countered that the county needed to prioritize and likened the situation to his personal household, saying that if he were short on money he wouldn’t turn to his biggest expense — his mortgage — and not pay that. He would look for other areas to cut first.

Sheriff Todd Johns, whose request would be cut by nearly $200,000 according to the information provided, said that he would have to cut personnel, as all other areas have been cut, and that those cuts aren’t sustainable. In addition, “the cost of employees is going up,” he said.

And not just for employees currently working. For the District Attorney, one-third of his $1.5 million budget goes toward two retired employees. The county allocates the cost of retirements across the departments where they worked, but because of an anomaly for two prior employees in the DA’s office, the costs continue to escalate. (These two employees retired from a unique public safety category and each year the state’s retirement system bills the county to fully fund the retirements.) One retired in 2004 and the other in 2017.

The District Attorney called the decision to cut public safety “not a smart move” and asked the county to prioritize. Prioritization is something that Greg Hagwood, the former Plumas County Sheriff and incoming District 4 supervisor, says needs to be done.

When asked about the impact of the proposed cuts on his former department, Hagwood took the opportunity to outline how he thinks the budget process should work.

“There are functions of county government that should be prioritized,” he said. “They have never come up with a published list of priorities and public safety needs to be prioritized in any governmental organization.”

As for the ongoing budget shortfalls, he said the question isn’t just what to cut, but rather how to make more money. “What are we going to do in the future to make sure we have money?” He said that the county has not reached its potential in advancing tourism and manufacturing.

Hagwood also questioned who is setting the spending priorities and said that decision should rest squarely with the Board of Supervisors, after receiving information from officials such as the auditor.

During board discussion regarding the budget, Supervisor Lori Simpson asked if Allen and Hydrick had looked at across-the-board cuts of 5 or 10 percent for all departments. Hydrick responded that he wanted to take a more surgical approach, and protect revenue-generating departments.

In looking at this year’s budget and its funding sources, officials and supervisors think that the next budget year could be even more difficult. While they are still awaiting final TOT and sales tax revenue numbers, it’s thought that they won’t decrease this year based on the number of people who are vacationing in the county, as well as the dollars that were spent locally when people were told to stay home. Coronavirus should only impact the final quarter of the fiscal year (April – June 2020).

However, officials worry that delays in property tax payments and the waiver of fees and interest, will impact that source of revenue, particularly next year.

Board Chairman Kevin Goss said that the day’s discussion was a “good jumping off point.” The budget hearing opens next Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 1 p.m.




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