El Dorado CAO: County must make choices, sacrifices
“It is not possible to be small and rural, with low taxes and high levels of service.”
That was the main message of El Dorado County Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton’s presentation to the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday afternoon. Ashton, who has been in the position since May 2016, outlined the revenue and expenditure structures of the county budget. In order to stay afloat and move forward, he said, county voters are going to have to decide where their priorities are.
The county’s total budget is $520 million, though $400 million of that comes from state and federal funding, often bringing along mandatory discretionary uses. Ashton’s presentation focused on the remaining $120 million of county money — otherwise known as the general fund — which comes from property tax, sales tax, transient occupancy taxes, fees and permits.
Taxes make up 71 percent of the general fund. Nearly a third of the county’s tax revenue comes from property tax, while another fifth of the tax revenue comes from property tax through vehicle license fees, according to the presentation.
Sales tax, another component of county revenue, is primarily driven by gasoline sales.
Comparing the two revenue sources, Ashton said the county gets about 23 cents for every dollar back in property taxes, while sales tax only returns one cent per dollar on average. Most of the sales tax goes to the state, he said.
In discussing where the county’s money is spent, Ashton said the general fund is made up of about $130 million. The extra $20 million left over from revenue goes toward contingency budgets and capital improvements.
Most of the general fund goes to law enforcement and the justice system, which Ashton said is typical for most counties. Within law and justice is the public defender’s office, which some people suggest is an unnecessary expense, he said.
“A lot of people always say, ‘Cut the public defender. We’re a conservative county and we like to throw people in jail.’ And that’s great but we have a Constitutional mandate to provide public defense,” he said. “If we don’t provide a (public defender) we will get sued by the ACLU and we will lose.”
In remaining general fund expenditures, four percent goes toward land use, 12 percent goes toward the Health and Human Services department and roughly a quarter goes toward general government. Ashton said he often hears suggestions to cut county staff as a way to save money.
“If you look at how it’s all spread out, there is not a lot to cut without impacting some level of service,” he said.
Though the information technology department is bigger than ever and the facilities department also eats up some of the budget, Ashton said that’s to make up for the county’s previous lack of investment in those areas. He added that last year the county eliminated 40 staff positions, most of which were empty but could have potentially been filled.
Challenges the county faces are expensive state-mandated programs they are required to take on and comply with. Roads and buildings are also ailing, and though the gas tax is on the November ballot for a repeal, Ashton said it brings an extra $5 million to the county each year.
But the biggest issue looming over counties across the state is the unfunded public employee pension system. Ashton said the county’s unfunded liability is about $300 million, and costs are expected to increase $4 to 5 million over the next several years. Due to state laws, counties have to pay employees’ retirement to the degree it were offered upon employment, he said.
Touching on the service levels in the county, residents use programs for emergency response, seniors and veterans. The county also pays for libraries, two animal shelters, two juvenile halls and two jails, which are typically situated within the geographical divide of eastern and western El Dorado County.
In looking at input, output and impending challenges, Ashton presented some options: raising taxes — whether through increased growth or sales tax — or reducing public services. Whichever areas county residents prioritize will involve sacrifices and consequences, he said.
“I say all this to say: what do we want to be as a community after all this?” he said. “It’s about choices. That’s really all it is.”