Guest column: El Dorado County facing budgetary conundrum | TahoeDailyTribune.com
Don Ashton
Guest Column

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Guest column: El Dorado County facing budgetary conundrum

Counties throughout California are at various stages of preparing their fiscal year 2017-18 budget. While each county has unique challenges based on economic and social demographics, many are similar.

As subdivisions of the state, counties are required by law to perform certain state functions, many of which are underfunded. State legislators have given counties responsibility for providing state services, such as mental health, social services, public health and prisons, to the counties — a process referred to as "realignment" — without also providing a sufficient level of funding to provide those services. And therein lies an obvious conundrum: How do we pay for the services we are required to provide, the services we want provide, and the services local residents need us to provide, without the money to do so?

Over the last several months, the El Dorado County Administrator's Office has been working in collaboration with the county's departments and agencies to be able to recommend a balanced and forward-thinking budget that aligns with the Board of Supervisors' policy priorities and goals outlined in the county's recently-approved strategic plan.

There are competing and complementary interests that have been and will continue to be considered as we move toward presenting a recommended budget to the Board of Supervisors at the end of this month. Let's take a look at a couple examples that will help paint the picture of what's ahead.

Our county's roads and their condition are always among the top issues residents care about. Historically, the state has provided counties funding to maintain roads. However, these funds have been declining for the past five years and as a result, legislators recently chose to increase the gas tax rather than re-prioritize their own spending. The additional taxes are expected to provide approximately $2 – $3 million next year, with an average of $6.9 million per year flowing to El Dorado County over the next 10 years.

Even with this influx of new money, our county is still about $3 million per year short of what is needed to fix our roads. Another challenge facing many local jurisdictions is the increasing unfunded liabilities from CalPERS; that is, how much the county must have in the bank to cover its public employee pensions versus the amount of money we actually have to do so. The price tag on this alone is expected to cost El Dorado County millions of extra dollars over the decade.

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Using the above examples, and adding limited revenues to the mix, it's clear to see that county Boards of Supervisors are faced with seemingly impossible decisions. Supervisors are forced to make choices between and among services that are most important … from mental health services in our community and in our jail, to maintaining existing county-owned infrastructure, providing public safety services, maintaining our parks and trails, covering the shortfall for roads and pensions, and continuing to provide non-mandated, but nevertheless essential, programs to our seniors, our veterans and our libraries.

Over the next several months the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors will examine the county's budget with an eye toward fiscal responsibility in the coming year, addressing the needs of its 185,000 residents today and planning for the level of services needed in years to come.

It's a tall order and difficult decisions will have to be made. Yet they will be made in the best interest of the residents of El Dorado County and with the benefit of public input.

You can learn more by visiting the county's budget-specific website pages at http://bit.ly/2pGHUE5 and watching this page for updates. Additionally, if you'd like to send a comment or suggestion, please email us at budget.comms@edcgov.us

Don Ashton is the chief administrative officer of El Dorado County.