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Santa Cruz County Board Chairman Greg Caput discusses the revised county budget during a hearing Monday. (County of Santa Cruz)

SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz County supervisors are expected to close a $23 million budget gap by tapping into reserves, eliminating about 88 county positions, cutting services and continuing staff furloughs. 

After budget hearings this week, supervisors plan to adopt a roughly $874 million budget Tuesday. The county will dip into much of its $56 million in reserves to “deal with this emergency situation,” said Carlos Palacios, Santa Cruz County’s administrative officer. County reserves tripled since the 2009 recession, Palacios said, and reduced pension obligations also have helped reduce county costs. 

The general fund is about $571 million. It is funded mainly by local sources such as property and sales taxes. 

Millions in county revenue were lost because of COVID-related business shutdowns this spring. Because more parts of the economy opened in June rather than September as state leaders had initially signaled, the county’s budget picture improved. 

Sales tax and hotel tax revenue came in better than expected, Palacios said.

“It will be one of the few times in life where the $23 million deficit looks better than it did a few months ago,” Supervisor John Leopold said. 

Supervisor Bruce McPherson called it “certainly one of the most challenging times that we have ever experienced.” He added, “I know we can weather this storm together.”

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Four taxes make up nearly 90% of the county’s revenue for discretionary money in the general fund, county leaders said: 

  • Property tax 
  • Sales tax
  • Hotel tax
  • Cannabis business tax

Santa Cruz County is expected to receive about $27.6 million from the federal CARES Act. It is based on the county’s population, contingent on following the state’s health order, and it can only be used for COVID-related expenses.

Santa Cruz County government is one of the county’s largest employers and will remain so with about 2,388 funded positions in the revised budget. Of the 88 positions eliminated, more than 50 were already vacant, said County Budget Manager Christina Mowrey. 

County employee furloughs have reduced employees’ salaries by 5% to 10%, Mowrey said. Those furloughs help save the county more than $11 million.

Law enforcement

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said the Sheriff’s Office’s budget will drop about 6% and lose funding for 21 positions. 

  • About $455,000 in non-mandatory sheriff’s deputy training including “de-escalation” training is set to be cut. The Cannabis Compliance Unit also is set to be cut to save about $369,000. Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to try to restore funding for both programs before the expected budget adoption next week. 
  • The Sheriff’s Office Focused Intervention Team is set to disband at least until February. It tracked and assisted repeat low-level offenders and people who suffered from mental illness. At Supervisor Ryan Coonerty’s suggestion, the supervisors voted unanimously to restore the $759,000 team if “operationally feasible” after February.
  • Some deputies who focused on community policing will be removed from the Sheriff’s Office substation in Felton and from the substation on Green Valley Road near Watsonville. 
  • A Sexual Assault Forensic Examination team is expected to restart Aug. 24 at Dominican Hospital. The revised county budget eliminated an unfilled coordinator position for that team, but Hart said the team would start regardless. The program had assisted 60 to 70 victims of sexual assault annually in Santa Cruz County until 2018 when it was moved to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Nurses and victims’ advocates have pushed to return the program to the county. A nurse who spoke at Tuesday’s budget hearing helped bring the matter to the supervisors’ attention.
  • The county’s sobering center, run by Janus of Santa Cruz, closed June 30 near the Main Jail and is expected to remain closed. It took deputies 5 minutes to drop a person at the sobering center and now takes deputies one hour to book a person into county jail for the same offense, Hart said. The center served roughly 1,200 people annually and cost $675,000 to run, according to Janus. 
  • Sheriff Hart said no new deputy recruits will be sent to police academies until a COVID vaccine is available because of health risks. “We’re going to have a real vacancy problem,” Hart said. 
Budget hearings continue

Online and at 701 Ocean St., fifth floor, Santa Cruz. Meetings will be broadcast on the county’s Facebook page. No login is required. Budget documents are here. Interactive county budget charts are here.

  • 9 a.m. Wednesday: General government
  • 9 a.m. Thursday: Land use and community services
  • 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 18. Final changes, final budget adoption
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Stephen Baxter is a co-founder and editor of Santa Cruz Local. He covers Santa Cruz County government.