Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Faced with declining Measure Z public safety tax revenue and the increasing costs of law enforcement staff salaries, Humboldt County supervisors have decided that the situation is not at a critical level but have asked for a plan to address it.
At the Dec. 10 meeting, most of the Board of Supervisors didn’t support directing salary spending caps. Capping the salaries of previously-approved Measure Z-funded law enforcement positions is on the table after the chair of an advisory committee recommended it.
A letter from the advisory committee has warned of “a developing financial trend where the inflationary increases to ongoing personnel costs are causing a significant decrease in the discretionary funding portion of the Measure Z revenue.”
County administrative staff reported that the cost of salaries and benefits for county staff has increased from 26 percent of total Measure Z funding in 2015 to 2016 to 68 percent of total funding in the current fiscal year. It’s an increase of $4.1 million.
Those numbers were described as being “kind of skewed” by Sheriff Billy Honsal, who said the 2016 to 2017 year should be used as a baseline because that’s when all vacancies in the Sheriff’s Office were filled.
Since then, the percentage increase has been from 52 percent to 68 percent, Honsal said.
Beyond numbers and percentages, Honsal emphasized that funding for deputies and other public safety staff should continue because that’s the focus of Measure Z.
“Measure Z has become all things to all programs within the county,” he said. “And although it’s great and there’s a lot of deserving programs, I think this board and the county should really focus on those county essential services and rural fire – and roads – that the ballot measure was referring to.”
He added that he doesn’t believe the county “should be restricting or even discussing” caps on salary allocations because it “sends a bad message to law enforcement, to public safety and really, the intent of the ballot language.”
District Attorney Maggie Fleming said it’s unfair to offer jobs if there’s no assurance that their full costs won’t be covered.
“I can’t in good faith recruit someone to come from the Sheriff’s Office or (the Eureka Police Department), give up their seniority, take a position and then have to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t fund that spot anymore,’” she told supervisors. “That’s the issue with salary caps – we can’t be in a position where we’re going to offer people jobs but then not be able to fund them down the road.”
County Chief Probation Officer Shaun Brenneman said Measure Z has “transformed our adult probation services” and to recruit officers, there needs to be “stability to be able to plan and make decisions.”
Most supervisors agreed with the department heads, saying law enforcement salary spending is what provides the public safety Measure Z is supposed to fund.
But Supervisor Steve Madrone said the imbalance between revenue and wage costs needs to be addressed because “left unchecked, we’re going to be in a difficult position in several years where we’re going to exceed the money anyway just simply because of increase in salaries.”
Saying “we do have to have a plan for that,” Madrone recommended “some sort of a cap” or leaving positions vacant. “Ultimately, we have to have a plan for this because at the rate of increase in salaries, we’re going to be up against this,” he said.
Supervisor Estelle Fennell said she appreciates the advisory committee’s fiscal caution but “I don’t think at this time it’s reached that level of emergency.”
She suggested that the board direct staff to “do a little bit more analysis” as the next fiscal year’s budget is developed.
Supervisors voted to have administrative staff work with the sheriff, DA and chief probation officer and come back with options on managing Measure Z costs.