Santa Barbara County’s projected 2012-13 budget looks a bit friendlier than those of years past, but during the first budget hearing the public pleaded with county supervisors to save public safety positions, homeless programs, the Human Services Commission and other items slated for the budget ax.

On June 11, the board delved into the first of three day-long sessions, hearing from 13 different departments about their operating expenses and how service cuts would impact the public. The board was expected to continue and finish its budget deliberations Friday, June 15.

At $11 million, the county’s shortfall makes salvaging difficult but more doable than last year, when the board stared down a $72 million budget hole. Chandra Wallar, county chief executive officer, noted that expenditures totaled more than $800 million, in addition to $28 million designated for future uses, while revenues trailed at $746 million.

She said the state budget shortfalls, the state prison realignment, escalating retirement costs and ongoing economic uncertainty have created “structural and long-standing fiscal problems” that will require service cuts and other difficult measures to rectify. “There are many proposed reductions in this budget that were difficult and even distressing for the departments,” Wallar said. “In many cases, services are reduced to only those levels that are legally mandated. Many good programs having long-term benefits are not being recommended for funding, as we struggle to maintain core public services and mandates. Nice-to-have programs are virtually eliminated in the proposed budget.”

Ongoing salary and benefit reductions have saved the county $15 million this fiscal year, helped along by other savings through furloughs and a new retirement tier that increased the retirement age and reduced the pension payout for new non-public safety employees. But she warned that the board must wring more out of public safety unions by reducing or eliminating previously negotiated salary increases and to include them in a less costly retirement tier. Public safety now accounts for 50% of general fund expenditures, up from 34% in the 2002-03 fiscal year.

In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the board is expected to be burdened with a deficit of $18-20 million. Wallar urged the board to develop a strategic plan that would, among other things, avoid one-time plugholes and find ongoing solutions, manage and reduce workforce costs, define the county’s core services, raise new revenues and build a financial reserve to cushion unexpected costs and future economic downturns.

“This is a budget that can best be described as cutting away some bone,” Wallar explained. “The new reality of severely limited revenue and growing costs demands that we rethink the old assumptions used in developing previous budgets.”

Most department heads have been coping with significantly reduced staffing levels in the past five years, translating into bare-bones services for the public. Sheriff Bill Brown said, as he did during last year’s budget hearings, that “I have been presiding over the systematic dismantling of the Sheriff’s Office since I took office in 2007.” The cuts included the elimination of the community services unit, five deputies dedicated to the Santa Ynez Valley, a full-time rural crime deputy position, the bulk of the D.A.R.E. program and several civilian support positions.

The ranks of sworn officers have dropped 29% during those years. The department’s $112.7 million operating budget for the next fiscal year proposes the elimination of 21 more positions, including 12 Sheriff’s deputy positions, seven custody deputy positions, a utility worker and an administrative office professional. The department received funding under the Public Safety Realignment Act to add or restore 18 positions in the last fiscal year; however, he said the proposed reductions would add to significant increases in voluntary and involuntary overtime for civilian and sworn staff. Moreover, hours for the Santa Maria booking station would reduce operating hours from 24 hours to 12. The current budget does include $2 million for future North County Jail operations, which are estimated to cost $17 million by 2017-18.

Brown asked the board to fund three custody deputy positions and one sheriff’s deputy position for court services for half a year at a cost of $227,064. He also asked them to focus on ways to seek out new revenue streams to shore up public safety departments.

“Do all that you can in the next year to work together across political ideologies and party lines to identify and seek out new revenue-generating sources for the county,” he said. “It’s time to make something happen. Whether it’d be through increase in tourism, well-planned development, the expansion of oil production or some other mechanism, we desperately need new revenue streams.”

County fire chief Michael Dyer said he’s expecting a $1.64 million budget shortfall that would translate into the closure of Engine 11 in Goleta and the loss of nine firefighters at Station 22 in Orcutt. “We will not have as many firefighters on scene in a critical timeframe in one of the most populated areas of the county,” he warned.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her department will manage to maintain existing service levels because of carryover one-time funds from savings achieved in the current fiscal year, savings from employee concessions and efficiencies, including taking on 50 volunteers in training to help with the office’s workload.

The board is expected to spend $170,000 for a deputy district attorney focused solely on truancy issues, and a part-time legal office professional. Asked by supervisor Janet Wolf if the office needed another deputy district attorney, Dudley said her office would benefit more from another investigator. “What has happened is, I brought in all these volunteer attorneys, but the support staff and the investigations stayed the same, so we’re generating more work from the attorneys’ perspective,” she said.

Conservative watchdog Andy Caldwell of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, said the county has ignored potential windfalls of revenue in the oil industry, the agricultural community and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. He also accused the county of wasteful spending. “You’re going to spend $1 million to stop growth on the Gaviota Coast, but question the need to fund public safety?” he said.

“This county has sacred cows they don’t want to sacrifice and others they don’t want to see live,” he said. “It’s time. In this budget book, you should have had a real plan by now, a plan on how to get out of this. It’s only going to get worse unless you change the way the county does business.”

Community Services director Herman Parker alarmed some supervisors with a proposal that would reduce contributions to shelter providers by $45,000; eliminate the Human Services Commission and $200,000 in funding to conference and visitors bureaus and the film commission; eliminate two park ranger and four maintenance worker positions and reduce the county building landscape maintenance contract by 51%.

With more cuts expected for Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health, shelters like Good Samaritan Services may have to shut down some facilities, warned executive director Sylvia Bernard. “We can’t serve more people with fewer resources,” she said.

Several North County mayors, as well as others, lobbied for a new countywide economic development coordinator to build revenues sources. They also urged the board to preserve monies for the conference and visitors bureau.