County defers tough cuts to next year

While cuts in health care services and fire station staffing could be needed as soon as a year from now, county officials want to increase spending by $65 million in the coming fiscal year rather than save the money, according to proposed budget figures released Friday.

Although they may be a comparatively small portion of the county’s total $1.6 billion budget for 2006-07, skyrocketing indigent care costs at the county-run hospital and a lack of revenue for county fire services in parts of Belmont, Pescadero and other unincorporated areas point to broader problems, Supervisor Rich Gordon said.

“There is enough money to get us through this coming year, but there are some red flags in this budget that are going to require future attention from us: the San Mateo Medical Center, fire services and the long-term costs of retirement and retiree health,” Gordon said.

Unless more revenue is found or services cut the county will face a $23 million deficit in the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to county Manager John Maltbie. No cuts are being proposed for the coming fiscal year.

The biggest single expense facing the county is unfunded retiree health and benefits costs, at about $100 million.

The county hopes to reduce that by 80 percent by 2007 by paying down about $80 million from reserves, according to Deputy County Manager Reyna Farrales.

With about $140 million in reserves, socking away the $65 million isn’t necessarily the best use for the money following years of reductions after the economic downturn, officials said. “I think we are being cautious in this fiscal year,” Board of Supervisors President Jerry Hill said. “We’ve been able to maintain a healthy surplus, as I see it.”

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the budget, however, is the 25 percent increase in indigent care costs at the San Mateo Medical Center. The increase of $14 million will force the county to dip into the general fund to the tune of $68 million in fiscal 2006-07, Hill said.

Fire services, which are funded mostly by property taxes, have been hurt by declining home sales and a legal settlement with airlines requiring the county to refund about $900,000 million due to reduced airport property values since Sept. 11, 2001. The projected cost for fire service in unincorporated San Mateo County is about $6.4 million for the coming year, officials said.

proposed budget

Fiscal 2005-06

» Budget: $1.5 billion

» Total employees: 5,546

Fiscal 2006-07

» Budget: $1.6 billion

» Total employees: 5,683

Fiscal 2007-08

» Budget: $1.5 billion

» Total employees: 5,683

Note: 2006-07 and 2007-08 are projections until adopted

To comment

» What: County will hold a series of public hearings on the proposed 2006-08 budget

» Where: Board of Supervisors’ chambers, Hall of Justice 400 County Center, 1st fl., Redwood City

» When: June 26, 9 a.m., June 27, 9 a.m., June 28, 9 a.m., with adoption scheduled for June 28, 1:30 p.m.

For a complete hearing schedule visit the Web at: http://www.co.sanmateo.ca.us/smc/county/home, and click on County Manager’s Office in the green sidebar. Source: San Mateo County ecarpenter@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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