Santa Clara County bracing for bruising budget decisions next year
The Santa Clara County government center is pictured in this file photo.

Even after cutting jobs, Santa Clara County is looking at a budget deficit of roughly $205 million next year, with tough decisions having to be made come February.

Despite the grim outlook, the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 15 forged ahead and made clear what their priorities would be.

“I want to see … (County Executive Jeff) Smith fund a budget that adequately supports individuals affected by COVID-19 and small local businesses and employees that were directly impacted by our orders,” said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg. “The largest problem facing the county’s children and families is the virus and its impacts.”

The county’s shortfall is calculated from the combination of the general fund deficit and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center deficit.

The general fund is about $65 million in the red even after supervisors made cuts in August and again in November. If no cuts were made, county staff estimated they would be facing a general fund deficit of $251 million.

Meanwhile, the medical center’s deficit is about $140 million — cuts made earlier this year reduced that from a previous projection of a $180 million shortfall.

But these numbers are just estimates.

A staff report said the deficit could swell or shrink because of uncertainty associated with the pandemic. County staff also reminded the board the 2021-22 fiscal year would not begin for seven more months, allowing for estimates to change significantly before then.

One thing, however, is certain: The biggest chunks of the multi-billion-dollar budget are salaries and benefits for the county’s nearly 22,000 employees. In 2021-22, county officials estimate staffing costs to increase by more than $100 million over the previous year.

Supervisor Joe Simitian said his priority is to uphold safety-net services, as well as abide by the county’s mission statement, which includes providing quality services and promoting healthy living and a “prosperous” community.

“We need to get past some of the traditional notions of where the neediest of us live and work,” Simitian said. “We need continued understanding that we are living in unconventional times, and that requires unconventional thinking in terms of our … responsibility.”

Simitian preached fiscal responsibility but not in the cliché sense, he argued.

“One of the principles that should be always in our thinking is that every dollar we don’t spend well is a dollar we don’t have to do good work in the community for people that desperately need our help,” Simitian said. “If we care about the people we say we care about, if we don’t spend the limited resources we have to good effect, it’s at their expense, and they will be harmed if we don’t spend that money wisely.”

While the county has a responsibility to respond to COVID-19, it also still has an obligation to continue providing established county services, Simitian said.

Ellenberg said she wanted to see continued funding for programs supporting black infant health and maternal health, universal meal programs, programs serving older adults, expanding digital equity and expanded behavioral health services, including the expansion of mental health services throughout the county’s schools.

Supervisor Mike Wasserman suggested his colleagues keep in mind what he called the “K.I.S.S.” acronym he created: “Keep it simple, supervisors.”

“I’m optimistic by nature,” Wasserman said. “I believe while we have tough times ahead of us, especially tough times in the next 30 days due to surges and spikes in (COVID-19) positivity and hospitalizations, I believe things will get better.”

Wasserman expressed his belief that stimulus money from the federal government would come, and that the vaccine would soon take care of the pandemic. Meanwhile, 10 months ago, just before the pandemic, the county was in good financial standing and was able to provide essential services, he said.

Wasserman further encouraged his colleagues to tame down their “extracurriculars.” For example, Board President Cindy Chavez wants the board to fund a $1 million program to provide menstruation products for low-income women in the county.

“To budget administration: please continue to fund the county’s main goals of public health and safety while at the same time fighting COVID-19 on all fronts,” Wasserman said. “I know that’s a Herculean ask, but you’ve been doing it for the past 10 months and we need to do it for a couple more months. Please stick to our core mission, our core mission services.

“This is not a time to go off and do other things other organizations are expected to do,” he continued. “This is a time to do what we’re expected to do and fight COVID-19 at the same time.”

The board will take up 2021-22 budget discussions again in February.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese.

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