Budget Policies, Proactive Actions Keep County In Good Shape

It is no accident that Placer County is in better budget shape than many counties and cities across California.

Our county has remained in good shape despite the economic slowdown and state budget crisis for several reasons, including:

1. Long-standing policies adopted by the Board of Supervisors aimed at protecting the county’s fiscal stability,

2. Proactive steps taken by the board when budget challenges first appeared on the horizon, and

3. Cooperative efforts by board members, the county management team and rank-and-file employees to find innovative cost-cutting solutions.

In this column, I want to discuss the county’s approach to budgeting and what it means to the public. It has allowed us to preserve core services to the public while avoiding the large-scale layoffs experienced by many counties and cities in California.

Since 2007, Placer County has laid off 19 employees due to reduced workloads or insufficient state funding, including a small number for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Budget and debt-management policies adopted by the board in 2003 have provided a sound framework for helping Placer County weather its budget challenges while continuing to make progress on long-term capital projects. The policies emphasize the importance of doing long-range budget planning, saving money during good times, spending one-time revenue on one-time costs and keeping the county’s debt load low by using a pay-as-you-go approach on major projects whenever possible.

Proactive steps approved by the board include a hiring freeze established in December 2007. Today, the county has approximately 340 fewer filled positions than it had three years ago.

Placer County introduced mandatory furlough days beginning in 2008, but has now transitioned to alternatives that provide savings year after year. The county, for example, has asked employees to pay larger shares of their pension and health insurance costs.

Placer County also introduced a two-tier retirement system that will scale back benefits for new employees, but help ensure that benefit costs are sustainable in the future.

One of the innovative efforts is the creation of a county Cost Savings Task Force. Its mission was to review more than 300 cost-savings ideas proposed by management and confidential employees during informal budget briefings organized by County Executive Officer Thomas M. Miller. More than 80 employees volunteered to serve on the task force, frequently working lunch hours to contribute their expertise and ideas.

Task force recommendations approved so far are expected to save the county approximately $1.1 million per year. That total does not include savings achieved through furlough days and increased cost sharing for employee benefits, even though those changes were among the cost-saving ideas reviewed by the task force.

The county also is evaluating alternative service-delivery approaches that promise to reduce costs while ensuring the public continues to receive high-quality services.

The Administrative Services Department, for example, is working with other departments to expand the county’s online services while taking advantage of technologies such as cloud computing, a model that allows resources to be retrieved from the Internet through web-based tools and applications, rather than direct connections to servers. Its benefits include reduced hardware costs, better security and more flexibility.

Another example is efforts by the Facility Services Department to contract out some services in response to staff attrition and the addition of new facilities. The board recently approved contracts with Pride Industries for custodial services at county facilities throughout western Placer County. Facility Services also is looking to contract out maintenance of median and street-side landscaping along Douglas Boulevard in Granite Bay.

In some cases, departments are working together to reassign employees with reduced workloads to departments where their expertise is needed. For instance, several engineers and surveyors from the county Community Development Resource Agency have been assigned to work on projects for departments such as Facility Services and Public Works. The practice is cost-effective, and leverages years of relevant, often project-specific expertise.

The combination of long-established budget policies, quick responses to challenges as they appear and a willingness to consider new approaches has allowed Placer County to maintain core public services and preserve its fiscal stability. More challenges remain, but we have a solid plan in place that will allow us to deal with them effectively.