Budget crunch claims victims in Contra Costa County | December 12, 2008 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Newsfront - December 12, 2008

Budget crunch claims victims in Contra Costa County

Human services departments see heavy cuts, more to come

by Geoff Gillette

In an effort to slow or stop the financial hemorrhaging in Contra Costa County, members of the Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to amend their budget to reduce spending by $18.5 million. Caught in the crossfire of what is necessary and what can be provided are children and the elderly, as more 200 positions throughout the county will be lost.

At their Dec. 9 meeting, supervisors were brought face to face with the people who would be most affected by these cuts. More than 270 people packed into the board room in Martinez, with better than 100 of them asking for time to speak to the board and plead with the supervisors to find another way.

New County Administrator David Twa outlined that the situation for Contra Costa County stems from many factors, one of them the state of California's massive deficit and the efforts of lawmakers to balance the budget. "As you know," he explained, "what happens too often is these things roll down hill."

As lawmakers reduced the funding for many local agencies and projects, it has created a greater demand on the county to provide funding, and with revenues drying up that is becoming a greater and greater challenge. And it's only going to get worse. Twa is forecasting that assessed property values next year will continue to decrease, as much as 8 percent.

As a result, Twa said he plans to meet with all department heads in January to examine the possibility of consolidation of services. In February he will be back before the board with further cuts in the area of $10 million to $24 million.

"It is bleak, it is difficult. There are no easy solutions for this year or next year," Twa said. "We're trying to balance the needs of our employees with the need to provide services as the economy continues to decline."

Officials looked toward the area of Employment and Human Services as an area to cut because that department receives less state and federal funding, forcing the county to make up the difference. Department Director Joe Valentine examined their budgets, looked at positions that were both staffed, and unstaffed and offered up a proposed reduction in the workforce.

The plan will call for deep cuts in Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services. A total of 200 positions will be eliminated, with layoffs occurring as of Dec. 31.

"This is the most painful proposal I've ever submitted in my entire career," Valentine stated.

The supervisors briefly looked at the possibility of a mandatory furlough for all non-emergency county personnel in order to save money, effectively shutting down county government a few days during the year and forcing employees to take unpaid leave on those days. However, the furloughs would have to receive union approval.

Public comment on the resolution lasted more than three hours, with each speaker allotted two minutes. Many spoke of the work done by the social workers employed by the county, the lives they've saved, the children they've protected. And they spoke of how cutting back on their departments will put the children and the seniors in the county at risk.

Under the proposed cuts, Adult Protective Services would see its workforce reduced from 14 caseworkers to five. APS worker Valorie Van Dahl said the cuts come at a time when caseloads are continuing to increase. Van Dahl said one of the most profound problems they are facing is financial abuse.

Van Dahl said that each year seniors in California lose $4.8 billion in cash and assets. In Contra Costa County she said that amount would be around $134 million. "Most of the people this happens to are good people," she said. "They are lonely, they are befriended, and they become victims."

David Mitchell, a 69-year-old Danville resident, called on the board to rethink cutting funding for the foster care system in Contra Costa County, calling it "the best of the best." Mitchell and his wife have fostered 400 children over 39 years and he said the county's program has become the model for the rest of the nation.

Some spoke about how the system saved their lives, others talked of the lives they've seen changed, some brought pictures of their families.

After the public comment finished, board members briefly discussed the furlough option before voting 5-0 in favor of the cuts. District 3 Supervisor Mary Piepho said even though board members appreciated the words of all those who spoke, in the end they had little choice but to approve the spending cuts. "We can't spend money we don't have. And we're not getting it locally, and we haven't been getting it from the state for years."

Piepho said part of the problem is that the state has continued to mandate programs and services but is only funding them at the 2001 level, which has created a funding gap that has grown to $33.2 million annually.

"The gap keeps increasing each year," she explained, "and we've been backfilling it, but we just can't backfill anymore."

"If we're flat now and we're going to lose another 2-8 percent next year, you're going to keep seeing these efforts and actions," she added.