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El Dorado County eyes more layoffs

Surprise $1.5M deficit has El Dorado looking for services to cut
By: Raheem Hosseini Telegraph Correspondent
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An unexpected $1.5 million deficit has put El Dorado County in a fiscal vise, with officials now considering what services to abandon for the sake of survival. Officials had eked out a balanced budget as recently as last month, but the completion of the county’s property tax assessment roll undercut budget administrators’ most conservative projections and opened up deficits that hadn’t been foreseen. At the time administrators began building this year’s budget, which went into effect July 1, projections from the Assessor’s Office showed property tax assessments coming in 2 percent to 4 percent lower than the previous year. “We felt we needed to be as draconian as possible,” senior policy analyst Mike Applegarth said of building in the 4 percent assumption into a tentative budget approved last month. It turns out they weren’t draconian enough. “When it came in at (negative) 6.2 percent, it was jaw-dropping and it blew that $1.5 million hole in our budget,” Applegarth told The Telegraph. “So it’s back to the drawing board.” The Board of Supervisors last week tasked staff with moving forward with 150 employee reductions by March 2011. Some of those employees will be able to take advantage of an early retirement incentive program that trades thousands in yearly medical coverage for the early departure of eligible employees, but Applegarth cautioned that the tradeoff has to make sense for the county and result in the needed savings. The county is also having to prepare for an anticipated $16 million shortfall next year. Officials in the Chief Administrative Office will be meeting with individual departments to prioritize services and supervisors have expressed an interest in reviewing what’s kept and what’s not. Two years ago, the county responded to a $20 million deficit by eliminating 100 positions. “At this point we’ve cut so much it’s no longer possible to make proportionate reductions in county departments,” Applegarth said. As a result, the county must reset the expectations of the public and its own employees, Chief Administrative Officer Gayle Erbe-Hamlin told supervisors during a July 26 budget meeting. She said the county must forgo hopes of a fiscal turnaround and instead plot the county’s reduction in size and function. “Expect the worst and know that it will be even worse,” was her message last Monday. Because 65 percent of the county’s general fund is devoted to law and justice departments, they will be severely impacted, Erbe-Hamlin promised. The Sheriff’s Office has outlined $464,000 in savings through five early retirements and a reduction in overtime, according to Sheriff Fred Kollar, but that may not be enough according to the CAO’s grim projections.