H-SANTA BARBARA COUNTY

Jan 7, 2011 9:28 PM by Ariel Wesler

SB County budget deficit could reach $90 million

Santa Barbara County leaders are bracing for massive cuts to handle this year's budget shortfall.

County leaders say in the worst case, this year's budget deficit could be as much as $90 million. That's more than double last year's shortfall of about $40 million. The county employs close to 3500 people. Supervisors say changes must be made to employee pensions and benefits.

With Santa Barbara County's bottom line floating between 60 and $90 million in the red, we sat down with newly-elected Supervisor Steve Lavagnino to try and get to the bottom of it. He started with some good news.

"The preliminary numbers for sales tax and property tax show an increase," Lavagnino said.

Then, he turned to the bad.

"We cannot continue to have the retirement, the benefits, and the salary structure that we have right now," he said.

He proposes a two or three tier system that maintains the status quo for current employees and reduce benefits for new employees.

"Somebody that's getting ready to retire right now in the county I don't think needs to feel worried that everything they've planned on for the last 25-30 years is going to go away," Lavagnino said.

But the county wouldn't likely see the savings for at least 15 years. As for health and social services,

"I'd like to see an electronic verification that when someone comes in and applies for those resources, that we make darn sure that that person is qualified and should be receiving those benefits," Lavagnino said.

There is also talk of cutting back on meetings. That would save as much as $20,000.

"When you're facing a $90 million budget deficit, I don't think it's the best of times to shorten up or eliminate some of your meetings," Lavagnino said.

Rest assured, there will be many more of those meetings before the county is financially secure.

In what may sound like a familiar refrain, both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties won't know the full extent of how their budget is impacted until the state gets closer to finalizing its budget.

Governor Brown will introduce his first budget projections for California Monday morning in Sacramento.

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