Santa Clara County cuts hundreds of jobs to reduce deficit
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith speaks to reporters at the County Government Building. File photo.

County officials this week approved eliminating more jobs to bring a gaping budget deficit down to just north of $140 million — that’s about $60 million less than projected last fall.

The projections are also much better than last summer, when supervisors thought they might battle a shortfall between $200 and $500 million.

But reaching this point hasn’t come without sacrifice, and required the Board of Supervisors to approve more cuts Tuesday. Supervisors voted unanimously to eliminate more than 500 jobs that were vacated through a voluntary separation program. The separation program allows eligible employees to collect three months salary after leaving, but it also permanently prevents separated employees from being rehired.

The county’s savings from this action are estimated to be about $76 million per year.

“The board took … difficult actions (last year) involving layoffs … and other approaches to stabilize the budget,” said County Executive Jeff Smith. “Because of those actions we come to you today in better position than we had reason to believe we would be.”

In the 2020-21 fiscal year, the county is set to end with an estimated $278 million in its general fund, significantly less than the $409 million a year ago. The budget gap largely stems from decreased revenues from both the state and federal government, and increased costs from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, more than 580 county employees applied for the voluntary separation program, or “VSIP.” Santa Clara County employs about 19,000 people, and is third largest employer in the county after Apple and Alphabet Inc, the parent company of Google.

Wren Bradley, a county social work supervisor in the child abuse emergency response unit, said she planned to retire with the separation program. But she didn’t realize that meant a reduction in workforce.

“Had I known my department would not be replacing me, I never would have taken part in this program,” Bradley told supervisors Tuesday. “I was misled, during even our negotiation, on this matter.”

In an interview Thursday, Bradley said job cuts like these threaten public safety.

“I leave in less than a month and they have no plan about what to do with my unit,” Bradley told San José Spotlight. “It puts children in jeopardy.”

Among the jobs cut this year are 34 from Technology Services, 43.5 from Behavioral Health Services, 119 at Valley Medical Center, 18.5 in Public Health, 35 Probation Department workers, 17 in the District Attorney’s Office, 7.5 from the Sheriff’s Office and 9 from the Public Defender’s Office.

Sheriff’s Office pushes back

Sheriff Laurie Smith said the cuts unfairly targeted her department. The county has been eliminating primarily vacant, funded positions in an effort to reconcile its budget, but her office treats those vacancies differently.

“When we have vacant positions, we’re always trying to fill our positions,” Smith said. “We use the salary savings from vacant positions to pay overtime so we can maintain essential services.”

It takes about 18 months to fully vet and train a corrections officer, Smith said. When she tried to hire new deputies, Smith added, her exemption requests from the hiring freeze were denied. So the positions were artificially vacant.

Smith also pointed out the county is still paying $30 million to the Sheriff’s Office for overtime.

“No agency should be predicated on spending overtime for day-to-day operations,” Sheriff Smith said.

County Executive Smith said his office will collaborate with all county departments about the effects of staffing reductions, and that will be worked into the 2021-22 budget. Smith said he’s more optimistic about the county’s fiscal health now and looking ahead to next year.

“We made the commitment early on in November when someone resigned that we would delete their position in order to accomplish the savings anticipated on a current and ongoing basis,” Jeff Smith said. “We created a process for department heads and managers so that they had warning that someone intended to take advantage of the (separation) program.”

Layoffs made last year, including 38 filled positions eliminated in November, will also go into effect in March.

Supervisors approved a $3.8 billion budget in August that included the elimination of about $144 million worth of jobs that were mostly unfilled, and some services.

Smith said Santa Clara County “can always change in the future,” if the cuts impact services too deeply.

County officials Tuesday also pushed off a second round of investments in the California Rebuilding Fund, a loan program set up last year to help the state’s small businesses. Supervisors last year earmarked $6 million for Santa Clara County’s small businesses. The second investment was expected to be $19 million, but county officials said Tuesday there just wasn’t any money to spare.

Instead, county officials will look for federal funding to fulfill this promise.

The county will release its 2021‐22 recommended budget on May 1.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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