Reserves tapped to balance budget

The weather may be warm and dry, but county officials are preparing to tap into rainy-day reserves to prevent the public from feeling the pinch of reduced fire services, medical care and road repaving projects in the coming year.

Supervisors will hold budget hearings Monday through Wednesday before voting on whether to adopt a proposed $1.6 billion 2006-07 fiscal budget, an increase of 4 percent over 2005-06.

Much of the increase will go to pay the salaries of 32 additional staff for the newly constructed juvenile hall, set to open in September, and 42 additional posts for mental health services created under state Proposition 63, atax on millionaires approved by voters in 2004, Assistant Budget Director Jim Saco said at a press conference Thursday.

By dipping into the reserves to the tune of $100 million, county supervisors will be able to avoid, for now, possible brownouts at fire stations in the unincorporated areas of the county, including Belmont and Pescadero.

Reserves will also go to subsidize the increasing indigent care costs at the publicly funded San Mateo Medical Center, which grew by $14 million to a total of almost $70 million, according to the latest budget projects.

Roads in rural parts of the county, many of which are already being maintained at a minimum level, are likely to continue to get short shrift, as salaries and construction costs rise without a corresponding increase in gas taxes, County Manager John Maltbie said.

“In fiscal 2008 and beyond, we begin to see deficits, so we need to begin to take steps to address that,” Maltbie said, highlighting fire service, medical care and road repairs as areas of particular concern.

If the budget is approved, this would be the second time in three years county officials plan to use the reserves to balance the bottom line, Saco said.

Even after tapping the rainy-day funds for $100 million, total general fund reserves would stand at a healthy $229 million, several times what is required by law, he said.

“To me one of the biggest nuts for us to crack is the cost of indigent health care,” Supervisor Rich Gordon said. “This budget buys us about one year to deal with that.”

The good news is that supervisors’ prudent spending in recent years has left reserves, which can be drawn on while the county deals with some of its structural deficit issues, Gordon

said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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