Let’s stop kicking the can down the road

Jeff vonKaenel

This year’s Sacramento County budget is $4 billion —$11 million a day. County Supervisor Sue Frost points out that we have only $88 million in reserve. This would keep the county afloat for just eight days.

In a recent newsletter headlined “Kicking the Can Down the Road,” Frost argued that the county budget should have a larger reserve. She said a county our size should have $407 million in reserve. So, over time, we would need to add another $319 million to our reserve fund.

I have mixed feelings about this. I certainly agree that we should have a larger reserve fund. And now, when the economy is doing well, is the natural time to be adding to such a fund. However, I fear that elected officials are not concerned about reserve funds when I see them giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, then trotting out this concern as an excuse to cut social programs.

It’s easy to say, “Let’s be fiscally responsible.” But it’s harder to take the political heat for actually being fiscally responsible. For example, Democrats and Republicans agree that California’s roads are in bad shape. But many of these same politicians come out against a higher gas tax. Do they offer an alternative source of revenue for fixing the roads? No.

So I wanted to find out where Supervisor Frost felt the money should come from to eliminate the county deficit. What programs should we cut? What fees should be increased? Or did she embrace new sources of revenue to help solve the problem? I emailed her my questions.

Her reply said, in part, “I wouldn’t cut current services, but I would save a significantly higher percentage of our yearly available fund balance than we currently do. Right now we save 10 percent. … If we went up to 40 percent, we could bridge the gap in about 20 years.” Regarding fees, she said that, “Our fees across the board are uncomfortably high. So I don’t suggest we up them, as we need to attract business to our county as part of the solution.”

Hmm. I wrote her back, asking how we could set aside more money if we were not cutting services or increasing fees.

She responded, in another email, that in next year’s budget there might be completed projects that would no longer need to be funded, such as “computers for our Vote Centers or the Sheriff’s intelligence led policing.”

Well, of course there will be some old programs that will no longer need funds, but there will also be important new endeavors that will need new funding. And right now, we’re dealing with this year’s budget. If we’re going to increase the reserve, we’re going to need solutions now.

I’d like to offer two ideas for the county’s consideration. The first is a no-brainer. Like the city of Sacramento, the county could allow cannabis cultivation and/or sales, and start collecting millions of dollars in fees. Or, like many other counties, they could save an estimated $50 million in incarceration costs by adopting a pretrial risk assessment program that allows low-risk nonviolent offenders who cannot make bail to be released on their own recognizance.

I’d like to challenge our county supervisors to think a bit more creatively.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.