The Merced County Board of Supervisors adopted a balanced $489.2 million fiscal budget Tuesday, which included an overhaul in the management of the Animal Control Department.
Higher-than-anticipated local revenues and $3.8 million in one-time funding helped close a $2.3 million shortfall projected in June. Local revenues climbed about $1.8 million because of an increase in property taxes, fines and permits, according to county documents.
County administrators also worked with departments to reduce costs and purchasing to balance the budget, said Assistant County Executive Officer Scott De Moss.
Three Merced County employees will be laid off. Two of the positions are at Castle Commerce Center, as a result of the AT&T call center closure. The third position is from the Fire Department and was eliminated because of administrative restructuring.
About $3.8 million in one-time funding included $1 million from the now-dissolved redevelopment agency, about $600,000 from insurance proceeds, $900,000 from general plan fees charged on construction projects, and several other areas.
From the one-time funding, the county set aside $250,000 for dealing with groundwater issues, including drafting a new county ordinance to regulate water exports. About $1.5 million was reserved to match a state grant for funding to build a new jail facility.
The general fund makes up $384.8 million of the overall budget. Most of that is revenue dedicated to various departments, but $99.3 million is for what’s called “net county costs,” which pay for public safety, support services, health and human services, and other municipal-type services, such as maintenance of sidewalks and gutters.
The county’s fund balance, which is the cash it carries over from year to year, ended with $2.1 million more than expected, based on final revenues and expenditures.
The county’s reserves remain at $18.57 million, according to county documents.
County Executive Officer Jim Brown said he’s optimistic about the county’s financial outlook, though there are some uncertainties. The impact of the drought on agriculture, the county’s biggest economic driver, as well as state funding to implement Assembly Bill 109, the state’s prison realignment law, remain uncertain.
Also on Tuesday, the board unanimously approved restructuring the Animal Control Department to be managed by the Sheriff’s Department. It was previously run by the agricultural commissioner, one of only five counties in the state to operate that way.
The move isn’t a cost-saving measure, Brown said, but will improve efficiency of the department. The restructure will cost $102,211 this year, and about $140,000 each year after that. It would include getting rid of the animal services manager position and adding one lieutenant to manage Animal Control. A sergeant would also be assigned to provide oversight.
Sheriff Tom Cavallero said the plan will include reopening a substation in Delhi that closed in 2010 due to budget constraints. The lieutenant overseeing Animal Control would be stationed at that office, in addition to 11 deputies.
Animal control officers would benefit from law enforcement training and access to a successful volunteer program, the sheriff added. Animal control calls would be handled by the Sheriff’s Department dispatch, freeing one animal control officer to return to field work.
Cavallero estimated the dispatch staff will field an additional 15 calls a day related to animal control.
Four sergeants have already expressed interest in overseeing Animal Control, Cavallero said, and a recruitment will take place to hire a new lieutenant.
Vern Warnke, a candidate for sheriff, publicly suggested postponing any promotions until a new sheriff takes office, but Cavallero said the changes cannot wait until after the election.
“I don’t think that can wait. And I think the people in unincorporated Merced County shouldn’t wait,” Cavallero said. “If there is a way to enhance the services and provide a better protection product, then a political consideration, as important as it is, shouldn’t interfere with that.”
Merced County Agricultural Commissioner David Robinson applauded the plan to remove Animal Control from his supervision, allowing him to return his focus on other duties.
“Almost half the biologists on staff have less than a year experience and are not licensed in all areas,” Robinson said. “We really need to focus our time and our resources on staff training and rebuilding the department’s ability to serve the agricultural community and the general public.”
The changes to Animal Control are expected to take effect by the end of September.