San Mateo County facing $25M shortfall

Belt-tightening and possible program cuts loom on the horizon as San Mateo County officials prepare for a projected $25 million budget shortfall due to increased labor costs and dwindling funds from the state.

Today, County Manager John Maltbie will present a plan to supervisors that would eliminate the deficit by 2013. The plan includes reducing the funding of indigent medical care at San Mateo Medical Center, eliminating vacant positions, exploring changes to employee benefit plans and departmental budget cuts.

The county’s hefty reserves would be used to soften the impact, particularly in the first year, Maltbie said.

Supervisors are expected to make decisions on the budget by next month.

While the county’s fiscal 2008 deficit doesn’t compare with those of neighboring counties — Santa Clara has a $227 million shortfall; San Francisco’s is $229 million — it is still imperative to take action, Maltbie said.

“If we don’t deal with it now, our deficit will be $86.2 million in 2013 and our pain will be what their pain is now,” he said. “Dealing with it now lessens the consequences on our vulnerable populations.”

The county’s overall budget hovers around $1.7 billion. While the county is mandated to provide a certain level of staffing for law enforcement and medical care, news of the shortfall worried those in so-called nonessential departments.

“We’re always concerned when there are possible reductions. We’re just waiting to see what the board wants,” county Parks Superintendent GaryLockman said.

Since 2002, the parks department has cut 32 percent of its budget, eliminating jobs, closing youth camps and shutting trails, he said.

Officials at the Health and Human Services Department are concerned about the shortfall, department spokeswoman Jennie Loft said.

Growth in salaries and benefits are the biggest factor in the shortfall, Maltbie said. They have increased 8.4 percent since 2003, primarily due to negotiated increases, retirement enhancements, additional positions and yearly double-digit health benefit increases, he said.

Of the 847 positions added since 2002, 89 percent of them have been at the San Mateo Medical Center, Burlingame Long-Term Care facility and the county’s health and human services department.

The county also expects to feel the impact of the state’s projected $10 billion deficit. County leaders are waiting for the governor’s January budget to determine how specific programs will be affected.

tbarak@examiner.com

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