MODESTO -- The mood turned decidedly somber when the chairman of the board started speaking.
Not that anyone has been chipper while discussing Stanislaus County's finances the past three or four years. But Tuesday's budget hearing suggested that the county might be turning a corner at long last, with enough money to fill several jobs, buy new equipment and fix some old buildings.
Four of five county supervisors seemed to adopt an it's-bad-but-could-be-worse attitude, all thanking employees for sacrifice and hard work. Supervisor Vito Chiesa called the proposed spending plan "a semi-stable budget, after a few years of complete evisceration of services."
When Bill O'Brien's turn finally came the chairman often speaks last he wasn't in the mood for warm fuzzies.
"I need to say other things," O'Brien started. "I'm nervous on this one, guys. My stomach is in knots."
Yes, sales taxes are starting to recover. Yes, the county is getting more state money for assuming more responsibility for corrections, and departments' scrimping really seems to be paying off. Yes, all workers agreed to give up 6 percent of their wages, saving millions.
Corrections realignment alone will bring more than $13 million, boosting the number of deputies, probation officers, and related mental health and recovery jobs. Sheriff Adam Christianson will use savings to resurrect two six-person squads to fight gangs and drugs.
On the other hand, property taxes the county's largest source of revenue continue to slide for a fifth consecutive year. There is no way to predict whether California voters will approve the governor's November tax package, which could drastically affect county finances. And the county continues to face huge challenges with home care wages, the public guardian's office and an expected spike in retirement costs.
Balanced on savings
Also, the county can say its $984 million budget is balanced only by using $53 million of savings and other one-time money to bridge a gap between income and spending. That can't go on forever, officials have been saying for at least two years as reserves continue dwindling.
O'Brien said he's worried the county won't have enough money to pay for everything that everyone wants to do.
For example, he asked, why fix heating, ventilation and air conditioning in a building the county owns but is not using?
"I didn't get any traction on that," O'Brien said after the meeting.
So he skipped other worries weighing him down, such as why the county would hire a landfill worker a few months after hearing a report that the landfill is receiving less business and less money as the economy falters.
Nor did he bother noting that the price of a modular building at the county's relatively new corporation yard which O'Brien opposed establishing because the county had other usable space would be a moot point if Public Works had not moved in the first place.
Nor did O'Brien feel like grilling staff on hiring fleet mechanics to care for new cars, he said. Many recent job additions are jail deputies, who should have no need to drive new cars, O'Brien figured and what happened to cars previously driven by many of the 800 people no longer employed because of budget cuts?
So he cast the only "no" vote Tuesday. And the budget was passed with "yes" votes by Chiesa and Supervisors Jim DeMartini, Dick Monteith and Terry Withrow.
'I'm real nervous'
"I just think we're spending it the wrong way. I'm real nervous," O'Brien said after the meeting.
"But the vote's over, and once the vote's made, we move on," he continued. "Now I support staff and my colleagues, and we move on."
On the Net: www.stancounty.com/budget.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.