As COVID cases rise, county spending falls

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – ​In what’s been described as a tentative Humboldt County budget, spending is downscaled due to the unpredictability of COVID-19 impacts.

​The county budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was reviewed by the Board of Supervisors in two June 15 hearings.

​Public comment was minimal during the videoconferenced hearings but supervisors considered coronavirus-related revenue losses and extensively discussed funding requests.

​The $465 million budget was described as a mere “placeholder” by Deputy County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes. It includes various fund transfers and the forwarding of a prior year balance to make up for gaps between revenue and spending.

​General Fund revenues are down by about four percent compared to the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year. Spending is cut by the same percentage, a reduction of $5.8 million.

​The budget includes a $547,000 reduction in road improvement funding and an $800,000 reduction in reserve funds. With moves made at end of the hearings, a reduction to the county’s emergency account was expanded to $620,000.

In describing the proposed budget as being “in many ways a placeholder,” Hayes said COVID-19 is “anticipated to have significant impacts on the 2020 to 2021 budget.”

She added that county staff will “continue to monitor these impacts” and will update supervisors this fall to better evaluate “unanticipated expenditures and losses in revenues.”

​Supervisors considered various additional funding requests and approved some of them, including a $76,000 contribution to the First 5 Humboldt family and children’s services agency.

​The funding will help with work to address child abuse and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). The nexus between family strife and sheltering in place was highlighted in the discussion.

​“With COVID-19, we’ve talked about mental health, we’ve talked about crisis and how this is affecting people,” said Supervisor Virginia Bass. “I don’t think less money is going to work for ACES.”

​“I think we can see the extra work that will happen with adverse childhood experiences – this has definitely been an adverse experience for a lot of our children,” said Board Chair Estelle Fennell. “And it probably will continue to be.”

​Supervisors also agreed to funding requests from managers of veterans halls, including the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building, to make up for rental revenue and other income lost due to COVID-19.

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​American Legion Post 274 Commander Jeffrey Sterling told supervisors that the Arcata Vets Hall’s lease obliges the county to cover water, sewer and other costs. But in his five years as commander, the facility’s utility costs have amounted to $13,000 a year and the county’s annual contribution has been $5,500, he said.

​“We’ve had to pull out of our savings to stay afloat and we’re no longer able to stay afloat since we are shut down and are unaware of when we’re going to be able to open back up,” said Sterling.

​Supervisors agreed to $10,000 in funding to the Vets Hall for the year.

​They also agreed to a $12,500 contribution to the Westhaven Volunteer Fire Department. The department had requested $25,000 due to the COVID-19-related cancellation of an annual fundraiser but supervisors Rex Bohn and Stave Madrone agreed to tap the community for donations to make up for the gap.

​A $50,000 contribution to the effort to form a Samoa Peninsula community services district was also approved.

​Those and other extra funding requests approved during the second hearing will be covered by $214,000 from the county’s emergency account. Now at $1.4 million, the account is less than half of what the county’s budgeting policy recommends.

​The budget includes a recommendation to fund $11 million in Measure Z public safety tax funding requests but coronavirus-impacted revenue is estimated at only $9.4 million.

​With the tightening, Supervisor Mike Wilson emphasized the importance of prioritizing funding in the context of recent events. He said budgeting policies have “a moral component to them.”

​Later, he said Measure Z “will be looked at a little differently in the next year, considering the sign of the times and what people are looking at.”

​Wilson expects more public commentary on Measure Z spending, “Especially around issues like (police) officers in the schools.”

​He added, “That’s becoming an issue lately and we’re probably going to be thinking about how those things move forward.”

​The budget’s adoption is set for this week’s board meeting, on June 23.

​But as Hayes had indicated, financial conditions will be more definitive during this fall’s first quarter review, when departmental reduction scenarios of 2.5 percent, seven percent and 15 percent will be considered.



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