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Wincing, the Santa Cruz County supervisors pass a budget with $25 million in cuts.

By Jessica Lussenhop

LAST THURSDAY, as the county Board of Supervisors wrapped up unfinished business in its 2009-10 budget, it was asked to accept a 6 percent reduction in LAFCO's budget. County Administrative Officer Susan Mauriello read off the amount--$5,913--to a few sad guffaws. "Don't spend it all in one place," someone quipped. "Every little penny counts," scolded Mauriello.

It does sound like peanuts when you're trying to close a $25 million budget hole. But with the words "It passes unanimously" from Supes chairman Neal Coonerty, the board did just that with a $367 million budget that features more cuts than a barbershop.

Nearly every department in the county is taking a 20 percent hit in the next fiscal year, which officially begins today. County offices will be closed one day a month and a week during the holidays, and almost 2,400 county workers have accepted unpaid furlough hours. Two weeks ago, members of SEIU local 521 voted to accept a 5 percent furlough that restored 50 positions slated for pink slips, while the other county bargaining units, like the Sheriff's Department and management, took a 7.5 percent furlough that saved their departments from any layoffs at all.

There is still some question as to who exactly will lose their jobs. SEIU has opened up its voluntary time off program, departments are waiting to hear back about federal stimulus money and grant applications, and the county can shuffle personnel around to different job titles. "We will work very hard to find another position in the county. We'll try to reduce the number of people that actually lose their jobs," says CAO spokeswoman Dinah Phillips. SEIU Budget Action Team chairwoman Alison Hayes says that uncertainty makes now an especially difficult time for workers. "County workers are really stoic. You'd think people are freaking out," she says. "But I would be lying if I didn't say this is a very emotional time." Layoff numbers--which are likely to be in the 50-60 range--should be final in August.

Local nonprofits are also taking a 20 percent reduction in funds, and while the news was grim, it was hardly unexpected. A few months back the supervisors capped reductions for local nonprofits like Santa Cruz AIDS Project and the Human Care Alliance at 20 percent, and in the end did not move from that mark. "We've been anticipating and trying to deal with this over the last several months," says Sam Storey, executive director of Community Bridges, an umbrella organization for several social service nonprofits. Though he estimates the county cuts are equivalent to about 12,000 Meals on Wheels meals, he says the agency has had time to cut other expenses and move around reserve money to absorb the impact. Other programs, like SCAP, may not survive.

Though the supervisors did manage to resuscitate some programs, public health and mental health services are getting slammed. But here's the really scary part: just like any conventional Hollywood horror flick, the knife-wielding maniac always manages to jump out at the audience one last time--so too with this budget as the legislators in Sacramento battle it out to close their own $24 billion deficit. It's still unclear how the state could come at local governments. If they choose to borrow, they can milk out up to $9.1 million in Santa Cruz County money. "I don't think there's a way they can do it without raining pain down on the county's heads," says Phillips. This of course puts more jobs and nonprofits on the line, and though borrowing from local government is extremely politically unpopular at this point, with the governor rejecting tax and fee increase proposals from Democrats and the state creeping ever closer to issuing IOUs to Cal Grants and CalWORKS recipients, District 27 Assemblyman Bill Monning says we're getting down to the wire. "It pushes us to the brink. The state without a balanced budget, we can't borrow. Our rating junks out," he says, adding, "These are not academic decisions, they are life and death decisions. You take people off dialysis, HIV/AIDS drugs, people will die. That's the gravity as we try to reconcile this budget."

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