Santa Cruz County Supervisors are expected to hold hearings on the county’s annual budget May 21-22. The hearings take place in the supervisors chambers on the fifth floor of the county building at 701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. An agenda and Zoom link for the scheduled meetings will be posted on the county’s website at least three days in advance. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local)

SANTA CRUZ >> Local governments across Santa Cruz County are crafting their budgets for the coming fiscal year, with some due at the end of June. Those budgets aren’t just abstract financial statements — the money shapes day-to-day government operations and expresses the values and priorities of each agency. 

Budget hearings are also a chance for residents to tell their elected officials what is important to them. Read on to learn more about the budget process and how to get involved.

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What are city and county budgets? 

In part, city and county budgets determine:

  • The money available for services like road repair, homelessness response and parks and recreation classes.
  • Spending on big-ticket items like new buildings and park projects.
  • New hires or layoffs of public employees.

Annual budgets also impact the city or county’s long-term financial health, including the risk of budget cuts down the road.

Services provided by cities and the county differ. In general, cities are responsible for things like street maintenance, parking, police, parks, and public buildings and facilities, including wharfs. 

The County of Santa Cruz is responsible for maintaining roads in unincorporated areas (outside of city limits); county parks; the Sheriff’s Office and jails; the District Attorney’s office and public defender; and administering state assistance programs like food stamps and Medi-Cal.

In May and June, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and city councils in Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Watsonville and Capitola are set to hammer out their spending plans in budget hearings.

The city councils in Santa Cruz, Capitola, Watsonville and Scotts Valley make city laws. The Santa Cruz County supervisors typically make laws for unincorporated areas of the county, which are outside the four cities. Examples of unincorporated areas include Live Oak, Pleasure Point, the San Lorenzo Valley, Soquel, La Selva Beach and Corralitos. (County of Santa Cruz) 

What happens in budget hearings?

A budget hearing is a meeting — or part of a meeting — of a city council or county board of supervisors dedicated to the budget for the coming fiscal year. The budgets now being considered are for the 2024-2025 fiscal year which starts July 1, 2024 and ends June 30, 2025.

During the hearing, city or county staff present the proposed budget and field questions from elected officials. The public can weigh in during public comment periods of the meetings.

Elected leaders can request additional information or changes to the budget. The city or county may hold multiple hearings before voting to adopt, or accept, the budget.

How do I navigate a budget document?

City and county budgets are often lengthy documents. Here’s some tips for exploring them:

  • The agenda for the budget hearing should have a staff report with main takeaways from the proposed budget. Agendas are posted on the city or county website at least three days before a meeting. Find meeting agendas here:
  • In the budget itself, start with the budget message from the city manager or county administrative officer, located near the beginning of the document. It will have an overview of the budget, what changed from the prior year, and the city or county’s long-term financial plan.
  • For more info, look at the financial summaries that follow the budget message. They’ll have a table that shows revenue and spending over the past three years, and proposed revenue and spending over the next year.
  • If you’re interested in a specific city or county department, like the police department or sheriff’s office, jump to that section of the budget. It will show proposed changes in staffing and other spending.

Here are some terms you might encounter:

  • Capital Investment Program (CIP): A plan of future large-scale expenses, like a new building or repairs. It can function as a kind of wish list, and not every item in the CIP is likely to receive funding.
  • Deficit: The amount that government spending exceeds revenue.
  • Debt service: Payments the city or county makes on bonds, loans, pensions and other debt.
  • Full-time equivalents (FTE): The number of total hours employees in a department work per week, divided by 40. For example, a full-time employee who works 40 hours a week is 1 FTE. Someone who works 20 hours a week is 0.5 FTE.
  • General Fund: The main pool of money for city spending. Unlike some other funds, the General Fund can be used for a wide range of purposes. 
  • Reserves: Money that functions like a savings account for the city or county. When spending outpaces revenue, money from reserves can be transferred to the General Fund or other funds. Cities and counties typically have multiple reserves for different purposes.

When are budget hearings, and where can I find the proposed budgets?

County of Santa Cruz
  • Hearings: The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors held its first budget hearing April 9. Additional hearings are scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday May 21, 9 a.m. Wednesday May 22, and 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 4. Hearings are held at 701 Ocean St.  Room 525   Santa Cruz and on Zoom. An agenda and Zoom link for the scheduled meetings will be posted on the county’s website at least three days in advance. A summary and interactive charts for the draft budget are online.
  • Proposed budget: The proposed $1.12 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2024-2025 is 6% smaller than the budget for the current fiscal year. An $85 million loan would help cover disaster-related costs as the county awaits federal aid. County staff have not yet named a potential lender. Read more in a prior Santa Cruz Local story
Capitola
  • Hearings: The first budget hearing was May 16. The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday, May 30 at 420 Capitola Ave., Capitola. Meetings are streamed and recorded on YouTube. An agenda and Zoom link for the meeting are expected to be posted on the county’s website by Monday, May 27. Additional meetings to discuss and adopt the budget are expected in June.
  • Proposed budget: General Fund revenue in the proposed budget is nearly $1 million more than expenses. Capitola city staff forecast a General Fund deficit in 2027 after the expiration of Measure F, a quarter-cent sales tax approved in 2016. The Capitola City Council in April discussed placing a measure on the Nov. 5  ballot to extend the quarter-cent sales tax or replace it with a half-cent sales tax.

A resident addresses the Santa Cruz City Council on May 14. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local)

City of Santa Cruz
  • Hearings: The first budget hearing is set for Tuesday, May 28 at 809 Center St. and on Zoom. A time for the meeting has not been set. An agenda and Zoom link for the scheduled meetings will be posted on the city’s website by Friday, May 24. Another hearing may be held Wednesday, May 29. The city council is set to adopt the finalized budget June 11 or June 25.
  • Proposed budget: General Fund spending in the proposed budget is $2.4 million more than expected revenue. The budget would be balanced with a transfer from reserves to the General Fund. Although the Measure K sales tax hike approved in March is expected to bring in $8 million annually, the city will need more ways to raise money to remain financially stable, City Manager Matt Huffaker wrote in his budget message.
Scotts Valley
  • Hearings: The first budget hearing is scheduled for July 12 at 1 Civic Center Drive, Scotts Valley. An agenda and Zoom link for the meeting are expected to be posted on the county’s website by Friday June 7. City staff have not yet released a proposed budget. 
  • Proposed budget: “We are forecasting a pretty significant deficit in future years,” said Vice Mayor Derek Timm. The Scotts Valley City Council may place a measure to increase the city’s utilities tax on the Nov. 5 ballot, he said.
Watsonville
  • Hearings: Budget hearings for the coming fiscal year are expected in June. Budget hearing dates are expected to be set May 28.
  • Proposed budget: City staff have not released a proposed budget as of May 16.

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Reporter / California Local News Fellow | + posts

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.