More At Stake Than Budget Realignment

FEB. 17, 2011


Some county officials are balking at Gov. Jerry Browns proposal, in his January  budget, to ”realign” state services to counties to save money.

Brown’s proposal was prompted by a summer 2010 proposal by Senate President Darrel Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to avoid drastic cuts in some social services programs by transferring programs from the state to local governments. But apparently in anticipation of the November election, realignment talks stagnated.

However, Steinberg’s proposal prompted the California State Association of Counties to hold planning meetings. CSAC created technical groups within the membership, focusing on the feasibility and potential outcome of the realignment proposal. After working groups met for 10 weeks during the summer, Jean Hurst, the legislative representative for CSAC, said talks were rejuvenated by Brown’s proposal, and CSAC was already prepared to hit the ground running.

Assembly Budget Subcommittee No. 6, which covers Budget Process, Oversight, and Program Evaluation, held a hearing this week about the overall consequences of realigning state services to local governments.

Hurst said that CSAC has four technical working groups: Health and Human Services, Public Safety, Cal Fire and finance. The groups which have been meeting weekly about realignment, and have even met with county attorney associations in anticipation of preparations of the Governor’s constitutional amendment to compel the state to fund the programs shifted to the local governments. Hurst said they hope to present a proposal to legislators later this week, that represents a restructuring plan that counties can support.

The idea of realignment as a budget fix is not new. And Gov. Jerry Brown is not the first politician in the state to offer “realignment” as a solution to push some of the state’s budget problems down the road onto the cities and counties.

Brown’s January budget proposal wrote, “Since Proposition 13, there has been a steady back and forth of revenue allocations and program responsibilities between the state and counties, blurring responsibility and driving up program costs. The Governor’s transformation proposal begins to untangle this knot and reduce duplication by providing services at one level of government, to the extent possible. The long term goal is not to reduce services, but rather to provide services more efficiently and at less cost.”

Marianne O’Malley with the Legislative Analyst’s Office reported at the hearing that realignment has been used in California with the trial court system, juvenile justice and health and human service programs with success.

Under Brown’s current proposal, the state would shift nearly $6 million in current state costs in the areas of criminal justice, mental health and child welfare services. However, realignment is contingent on Brown’s proposal for extending the 2009 state tax increases another five years. The Legislature first must vote for a special election in June, then voters must approve the tax extensions.

O’Malley said there is much merit in the governor’s plan. However, overall detail is lacking. And because the entire plan is predicated on voter approval of the tax increases, there is much unknown at this point.

“Government services should be closest to the people receiving them,” said Diane Cummins with the Department of Finance. “The Governor is committed to more integrated, outcome-based programs at the local level.”

Cummins said that the state realignment in 1991 failed to clarify the role of the state, leaving a blurred line of responsibility between state and local government services. That allows the state to avoid responsility.

And, according to Cummins, realignment of services could change the costs of programs. “Entitlement programs may go up, and others down. But over five years, we expect to see $600 million growth in revenue.”

O’Malley said the LAO wanted to stress the importance of giving enough flexibility to counties so they can adjust programs as needed with use, and indicated that many state and federal mandates make it difficult for counties to have flexibility.

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, criticized a “lack of specificity” in the proposal, and said committee members “don’t know what we are considering and voting for. It was hastily put together, and we don’t know what it really looks like.”

Nielsen said the discussion should start with mandates and what specifically counties will be mandated to do. “With the responsibility shift needs to come an authority shift as well,” said Nielsen.

Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, who represents Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties, agreed. He said, “Programs are more expensive to rural counties.” Chesbro said rural counties almost always get the short end of the stick, and that the impact to rural counties is difficult. As an example, Chesbro said rural counties do not have the resources to manage the more expensive prison populations such as criminal juvenile offenders, (who can cost more than $200,000 individually each year to imprison). He cited several infrastructure problems, including a lack of county transportation, as well as problems with GPS monitoring, which doesn’t always work in remote, rural areas.

A great deal of the committee’s discussion revolved around health and human services issues, with several legislators focusing solely on various welfare services in their counties.

After the hearing, Nielsen said that realignment has a generational impact. “The consequences are so enduring and enormous, we need to be giving assurances to counties. But the needs start more with mandates than money – counties need to be able to move with their own property tax money,” said Nielsen.

“If the state mandates shift,” he said, areas to be addressed include, “Who is served, how they are served, where they are served, and for how long?” But Nielsen said that counties are surprisingly quiet about the subject of mandates.

And it was not CSAC that insisted on flexibility during the hearing, but the LAO. The counties are addressing the need for state funding, but not about getting rid of mandates.

Describing the mandate issue as a “terrible vortex of a process” because of the time consuming, litigious and bureaucratic process, Hurst said that because the scope of the governor’s proposal is so significant, counties are faced with making a leap of faith with the state when it comes to funding and state mandates. “We are looking for protection outside that horrible vortex,” he said.

And Hurst explained that because of federal regulations, mandates, outcome measuring and standards, health and human service issues are vastly different from public safety concerns.

Nielsen agreed and said that shifting some of the public safety functions to counties will cause citizens to become more victimized than they already are. “Vast numbers of inmates and parolees will become a burden to county governments, and local judicial systems just can’t handle it.”

“Even if realignment succeeds, the federal government doesn’t want to deal with 58 counties. The state may give the financing to the counties, but it is still the entity dealing with the federal government,” Hurst said. “The feds deliver the money and the mandates, but don’t deliver the services. It’s complicated.”

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  1. Roy Bleckert
    Roy Bleckert 18 February, 2011, 10:48

    What a tangled Web we Weave .. When Government Bureaucrats get involved … In anything !

    Reply this comment

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