County approves $7.2 billion budget with big investments in mental health, public safety
Flush with COVID-19 aid, the county added hundreds of millions to its Health and Services Department, sheriff, fire
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, June 29, unanimously approved a $7.2 billion budget that boosts money for mental health services, pandemic recovery and other programs.
The spending plan adds $200 million to the originally proposed budget of just over $7 billion, with big spending increases for the county’s Health and Human Services Agency and its Public Safety Group.
The five supervisors said the plan focuses on increasing equity in communities that have historically received fewer resources, expanding behavioral health programs and improving environmental sustainability.
“I believe this county budget reflects the values of San Diego County and reflects the values of this board,” Board Chair Nathan Fletcher said. “It is community-focused; it has been community developed. We saw rigorous input and feedback, and I think puts us on a path to build back better as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With the election of three new supervisors last year and a new Democratic majority, the board has signaled its intent to expand county programs and services beyond their scope under previous leadership.
“San Diego County has never seen a budget like this before,” Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said. “It represents a footprint on our journey toward a more responsive and effective county and gives us a roadmap to tackle sustainability and the inequities in our region.”
County coffers have swelled with unprecedented state and federal aid aimed at combatting the pandemic and restoring the local economy in its wake. That windfall has created a rare opportunity to make new investments in San Diego County, they said.
“We’re in a moment of time that may not ever occur again,” Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer said. “Our state and federal partners have trusted us with unprecedented revenue, nearly $700 million more than last year, and we’re adding close to 1,000 positions to our personnel roster.”
She said the county has remained solvent through the pandemic, allowing the board to use state and federal funds for new expenditures, instead of backfilling the costs of coping with COVID-19.
“I’m heartened that we are in a strong enough financial position that you don’t have to direct these unanticipated revenues toward balancing our budget, but rather you’re prudently driving expenditures to expand services for the underserved and to businesses to spur our economic recovery,” Robbins-Meyer said. “Collectively we will not squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in our region and drive impactful results.”
Under the revised plan, the Health and Human Services Agency will spend more than $2.8 billion over the next fiscal year, and public safety agencies, including the Sheriff’s and Fire departments, Probation and others, will spend more than $2.2 billion.
Land use and environment is slated for more than $615 million, finance and general government will spend nearly $779 million, capital projects are budgeted for nearly $283 million and more than $466 will go to other expenses.
Under the spending increases in the revised budget, nearly half, or $98 million, will go to the Health and Human Services Agency. It will cover public lab facilities, affordable housing, medical treatment in jails, the newly created Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities and changes to the mobile crisis response teams, which handles mental and behavioral emergencies, said Chief Financial Officer Ebony Shelton.
The next biggest share, $53 million, is slated for public safety, including medical services in jails, legal assistance to detained immigrants and additional funding for remote fire stations, she said.
More than half of the additional $200 million added to the budget comes from federal funds and about a third from money left over from the prior year.
Shelton noted that spending such reserves could be risky if the economy recovers more slowly than expected, or if rising housing prices create a crisis, or retirement costs for county employees climb faster than anticipated.
“Using unassigned fund balances for start-up costs to programs at this magnitude on a long-term basis is not sustainable and could create structural budget deficits,” she warned.
The county will review its pension systems and enter labor negotiations next year, and the program investments included in the budget this year will add $23 million in ongoing county costs, Shelton said.
County officials expect a strong economic recovery but will monitor it carefully in light of those future expenses, she said.
“With our county newly ascended from the pandemic, we’re cautiously optimistic about the revenue we’ll receive, but we can’t be 100 percent certain that all jobs will come back or that San Diego’s economy will be on the same trajectory as it had been prior to the pandemic,” Shelton said.
Supervisor Jim Desmond, a Republican who has sometimes been at odds with the board majority, voted for the budget but noted his objection to some items it contains, including telework stipends for county employees who worked remotely during the pandemic and the creation of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
Supervisor Nora Vargas said the spending plan takes steps toward leveling the playing field for San Diegans in disadvantaged communities, adding that she will track that progress.
“While this budget will not solve all the longstanding disparities that exist, I am continuing to monitor the equity lens,” she said.
Supervisor Joel Anderson underscored the importance of county government to his constituents, many of whom live in unincorporated communities outside of city boundaries and count on the county for public services.
“For unincorporated residents, we are their only government,” he said. “I have the largest amount of unincorporated residents — more than all your districts put together — and we live and die by what all of you do. We’re the forefront, the tip of the spear when it comes to fires. We’re the tip of the spear when it comes to underserved areas. And I just want to thank you for the work you put into this budget to ensure the people in my budget are well represented.”
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