County will dip into reserves, COVID- 19 funding for proposed $6.4 billion budget

The San Diego County Administration Building
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors will consider a $6.4 billion budget on Aug. 25.
(John R. McCutchen)

San Diego County released a proposed $6.4 billion budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year which amounts to a 2.5 percent increase from the current $6.25 billion budget and includes increased spending for COVID-19 response efforts.

The increase of $159 million is largely driven by CARES Act funding, which can only be used for costs related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposed spending plan also calls for dipping into the county’s reserves over the next two years— about $71 million would come from the County’s General Fund Reserve and $105 from various funds.

The county’s total reserves were nearly $2 billion. San Diego County has long had one of the largest reserves among local governments. Critics have argued for several years that the county needs to dip into its reserves, although it has been reluctant to do so in the past, even during some emergencies.

San Diego County’s Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer released the spending proposal Monday, July 20. The public will have an opportunity to comment on it during virtual hearings Aug. 10-19, and County Supervisors will likely vote on it Aug. 25.

Under the proposed plan, Health and Human Services would see the greatest increase in spending of all departments by about 9.1 percent. It represents the largest expenditure in the budget, about $2.5 billion.

The increased funding would go toward COVID-19 relief. A $100 million increase would go toward the county’s virus testing, tracing and treatment strategy, as well as to food distribution, medical supplies, personal protective equipment and shelter.

Another $15 million is proposed for technology needs to support telehealth, electronic health record upgrades, outreach and engagement, workforce recruitment and retention, according to the county.

The plan calls for a $23.7 million increase to address homelessness in unincorporated areas of the county and $400,000 to develop a flexible housing subsidy pool to help house individuals.

Spending on mental health services would increase to more than $463 million, representing a nearly 13 percent increase over the prior year. Services for alcohol and drug treatment would see a decrease of about 7 percent from last year’s budget, to $173 million.

Public safety is another major chunk of the budget at $2.04 billion, which represents a 0.7 percent decrease from last year’s budget.

The public safety department includes the Sheriff, District Attorney, medical examiner, probation, Public Defender and more. The Sheriff’s Department’s budget includes nearly $369 million for detention services and about $316 million for law enforcement services, which includes patrol, investigations, crime lab and emergency serves.

The newly reconstituted Human Relations Commission — to be called the Leon L. Williams San Diego County Human Relations Commission — will oversee a $5 million budget for new initiatives including the mission of the new Office of Equity and Racial Justice. (Williams was San Diego’s first Black council member in 1969 and was the county’s only elected Black county supervisor in 1982.)

The Human Relations Commission was last funded by the county during the 1993-1994 budget years, said Tracy Defore, county spokesperson. It had an annual budget of $101,398 at the time.

It will collaborate with community organizations to address disparities and inequity.

The County’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board’s recommended budget is for more than $1 million, slightly more than last year’s $986,564 budget.

The county’s total recommended staffing for the 2020-2021 fiscal year will drop by 0.5 percent to 17,929 positions. The decline is mostly from the Public Safety department and the Finance and General Government group. The county plans to reduce vacant positions only, Defore said.

The county also will slow or stop certain non-essential services and projects, such as one-time capital projects, program expansion, facility needs and equipment replacement, she said.

The county had been scheduled to hold public hearings on the budget between June 8 and June 17, with supervisors expected to hold final deliberations on the budget June 23. But because of COVID-19 county supervisors voted in April to hold off on adopting a new budget until late-August.

— Andrea Lopez-Villafana is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune