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County balances budget — for now

By: Raheem Hosseini Telegraph Correspondent
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Through a tricky combination of reduced department budgets and one-time funds, El Dorado County has tentatively eked out a balanced budget, though questions remain about how to deal with projected shortfalls over the next five years. Supervisors approved a $410 million budget for fiscal year 2010-11 as a consent item on June 22. That figure amounts to 11 percent less than last year’s budget. Like other municipalities, El Dorado County has been challenged by a murky recession. Median home prices haven’t rebounded from their 2006 high of $515,000, currently hovering below the $300,000 mark. County unemployment reached 13.6 percent in March. To balance this year’s budget, the county relied on some funding sources that won’t be around next year, including money initially targeted for local capital improvements and $6.3 million in property taxes the state borrowed last year. The county is also making use of tobacco settlement money and casino revenues, which senior policy analyst Mike Applegarth described as one-time pots of money trickling in over a number of years. That didn’t spare the county from eliminating jobs. Seven full-time positions were lost, four vacant positions in the Probation Department and two filled ones in the Office of Child Support Services. The Probation Department has also temporarily reduced the maximum number of juvenile offenders who can be detained at the Juvenile Treatment Center in South Lake Tahoe from 40 to 30, said Gary Hudgeons, who until recently served as the department’s interim chief probation officer.  Hudgeons called the reduction “consistent with the current needs of the area.” Sheriff Fred Kollar and District Attorney Vern Pierson are expected to outline their budget plans next month. The state’s questionable finances mean nothing has been finalized. By law, California counties need to put forth balanced budgets by June 30, a deadline the state doesn’t have to meet. Facing a $19.1 billion shortfall this year and multibillion dollar deficits in the future, indications are that counties will absorb significant cuts. “It’s impossible at this time to speculate how that pain will be felt,” Applegarth said. Public hearings to finalize this year’s budget have been set for mid-September, when the state budget and other loose ends will be discussed. The recommended budget adopted by supervisors is “based on the world as we know it today,” Applegarth noted. “In September we’ll have the final budget hearings where we’ll factor all that information in and adjust the recommended budget accordingly.” The state’s unresolved finances, automatic salary increases and collective bargaining issues are among the “many issues at play,” said Chief Administrative Officer Gail Erbe-Hamlin. “All indications are that the fiscal situation will continue to worsen over the next year or more.”