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September 29, 2020

County’s budget cuts to Sheriff’s Office eased

SANTA CRUZ— The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved an $874 million budget for the coming year that includes cuts and position reductions to every department in the county.

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According to County Budget Manager Christina Mowrey, the reductions include furloughs of 5-10%, which helped reduce the need for some layoffs.

“We are in unprecedented times,” Mowrey said. “And there is still a great deal of uncertainty related to the financial impacts of Covid-19 and the related recession.”

In all, the county eliminated about 50 vacant positions. The budget also included about 30 layoffs, although many employees whose jobs were eliminated will be offered jobs elsewhere in the county, Mowrey said.

Service Employees International Union Local 521 Chapter President Veronica Velasquez called the layoffs “disappointing.”

Velasquez and two dozen other union members on Tuesday marched around the County’s Watsonville offices on Freedom Boulevard. They were calling on the supervisors to save those jobs by issuing more substantial cuts to some of the County’s highest paid employees. They also said the supervisors should instead lower the County’s overhead cost by reducing its physical footprint.

“These cuts make no sense—they’re the easy way out,” Velasquez said. “The last thing we need to do during a pandemic is lay people off when there is so much economic uncertainty. We need people employed to stimulate this economy.”

County staff this year was tasked with addressing a $23 million revenue shortfall caused largely by business closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Transient Occupancy Tax and sales tax revenue makes up the vast majority of the county’s revenues.

The shortfall will be partially eased by the one-time use of $14.2 million from the county’s $56 million reserve, a move that leaves the County with just 7.5% reserves.

Also as part of this year’s budget, the supervisors approved a plan to spend $27,655,000 in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. Those federal dollars must be spent by Dec. 30.

Sheriff’s Office cuts eased

After hearing a grim series of potential budget reductions on Aug. 12 from the Sheriff’s Office—a total of $3.8 million in cuts—the supervisors approved motions to restore two deputy sheriff positions to the county’s Cannabis Licensing Office, along with a code compliance officer, all of whom make up the office’s enforcement arm.

“We’re in the early stages of trying to turn an illegal industry into a legal industry,” Supervisor John Leopold said. “So having the adequate staffing to make sure we can do that well is in the best interests of us all.”

County staff will also look for the funds to restore the sheriff’s Focused Intervention Team (FIT), which pairs law enforcement officials with mental health staff to focus on people suffering mental health crises. That program is not currently possible because Covid-19 restrictions do not allow the use of a housing cell at the jail, Mowrey said, adding that it could restart when a vaccine becomes available.

The FIT program costs about $81,000 per month.

Supervisor Ryan Coonerty called for the program’s reinstatement from February-June 2021, “if operationally possible.”

Coonerty also called for using funds from the County’s Risk Management department to fund de-escalation training for sheriff’s deputies, which costs about $66,000 per year. That motion was in response to Sheriff Jim Hart’s proposal to cancel all “non-mandated” training, which also includes crisis intervention.

Supervisors will revisit that issue at the end of the year.

The supervisors also reinstated the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team.

In addition, a proposal to lay off nine food service workers that prepare meals for the county jail system was put on hold until the rest of the year.

The budget does, however, still include de-staffing the sheriff’s substations in Watsonville and Live Oak, meaning those stations will no longer be open to the public.

The Sheriff’s Office has also suspended construction and accreditation of its DNA lab, which would allow the county to quickly analyze samples taken from crime scenes.

If the pandemic continues, the Sheriff’s Office could close the Blaine Street and Rountree jail facilities, Hart said.

Future cuts could also include disbanding the investigations and property crimes divisions.

Elections

The supervisors approved the $313,991 budget for the County Clerk and Elections Office, which includes $72,000 for a mobile voter outreach trailer.

Supervisor Zach Friend praised the funds for the trailer, saying it will help ensure that county residents are able to vote in the November election.

“I think this is very exciting,” he said. “I think it’s something that the county should really be promoting and I think it’s something I know that the elections clerk has wanted for a long time.”

Funds to study UC Santa Cruz’s impact

This year’s General Services budget includes $20,000 for the City of Santa Cruz for a study on the impacts of the growth UCSC will have.

“If UCSC grows by 10,000 students without mitigating their impacts, it will have tremendous impacts on not just my district but across the county on housing water and traffic,” Coonerty said. “So it’s a small investment to reduce significant impacts in our county.”

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