CUTS DEEPEST TO PUBLIC ASSISTANCE, HEALTH SERVICES AND PUBLIC SAFETY; BUDGET LIKELY APPROVED FRIDAY
By Steven Tavares
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Listed as a top priority is a mandate protect "vulnerable populations like infants, children, young moms, the elderly, the disabled and those who require food and shelter." Number two is public safety, but when it comes to county funding to those programs, both amount to the two of the largest cuts in the 2012 fiscal budget. Of the $137.9 million in cuts, public assistance accounts for $33.2 million along with $35.9 million for public protection.
In reality, a glance down to number seven on the list of values reveals the main objective of this year's budget: to merely maintain acceptable levels of service. Keeping the status quo has been a bedeviling exercise for the county through these intense economic times and may continue for a few more years.
The total $2.5 billion county budget is actually $25 million larger than last year, while its deficit is actually falling for the first time in three years from a high of $177.6 million in 2009-10. Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi says the economic recovery theoretically beginning last summer is "accelerating its pace," but she added only modestly.
Like most things in life, bad news travels downstream. If the federal government is struggling, states like California struggle while putting more stress on county and city services as evidenced by over $4.3 billion over the past two decades being taken by the state from local jurisdictions. Muranishi reasons this is one of the largest factors in why the county has struggled mightily during the same period to avoid varying degrees of burdens from budget shortfalls.
In some ways the county is already in the hole when it comes to delivering services even before starting a series of week long hearing this week. According to the 521-page budget, state cuts already in effect cut aid to over 20,000 county recipients of CalWorks by reducing the number of months in aid from 60 weeks to 40 while lowering the maximum payment by 8 percent. An estimated $3,600 has been reduced from those receiving checks for SSI/SSP. Over 18,000 recipients of in-home supportive services are now weathering reduced hours and between 80,000 and 100,000 county residents must now offer a copay for prescriptions and dental work along with caps on hearing aids and doctors visits.
The county's proposed budget will again hit children hard with $34.1 million worth of cuts to health services. Child poverty in Alameda County has risen slightly to 14.1 percent. Ninety-eight thousand children are on Medi-Cal and 35,100 benefit from food stamps; an increase of 11 percent.
Despite the loss of revenue from CalWorks, reductions to county programs and increases in revenue, are estimated to add over $54 million, but those numbers are a bit shaky in the long run according to Muranishi. A bulk of those savings come from an area of the budget named the "Fiscal Management Reward Program" The FMR allows departments to carry over net savings from year-to-year, but an over reliance on such budget maneuvers "poses certain risks for the county," said Muranishi. As the county forges ahead with a more bare-bones approach to staffing, it become more difficult to accrue savings for future fiscal budgets.
It's a better than fair bet the economy is bound to pick up more sooner than later and we should feel fortunate since increasingly there is fewer areas of the budget to cuts without catastrophic consequences. "We're feeling the stress of it," said Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. "People are feeling it and the infrastructure is feeling the stress as well."