Marin faces grim budget outlook

07/01/2020

A budget is commonly referred to as a moral document, because it reflects a government’s values and priorities. Marin County, losing $10 million in revenue this fiscal year and anticipating growing budget shortfalls for the next five years, will face some difficult moral decisions moving forward.

The Board of Supervisors approved a $619 million balanced budget last week, but the vote marked only the beginning of a conversation about where Marin’s money is spent, county administrator Matthew Hymel said. He will return to the board to adjust the budget in the fall, when the economy’s pace of recovery and the extent of federal aid will be more apparent.

To balance the budget, supervisors approved spending $2 million in reserves and adopting an attrition management plan, so that vacant positions will strategically remain unfilled, saving the county over $6 million. The rest of the shortfall was made up by reducing discretionary spending on travel, training, contracts and supplies in each department by 5 percent. No services are being cut.

Each month, the county is spending more than $2 million on its response to Covid-19. Budget manager Bret Uppendahl anticipates costs will reach $30 million by the time the emergency response is over. The federal government will fully reimburse the county for expenses through the end of the year, but, beyond that, funding for pandemic response is a big unknown.

Hovering over the entire budget conversation are demands to defund the sheriff’s office. For the past month, supervisors have been taken to task by passionate speakers who have flooded meetings with calls to shift funds away from law enforcement. Two areas that could better use funding rose to the top: social services and racial equity work. The board ended up approving half of the sheriff’s proposed $3 million increase, and the money that they didn’t approve was set aside for equity initiatives, which are ramping up in county departments.

After adopting a racial equity action plan in 2017, the county hired Anyania Muse as its first equity officer last year. She will oversee a $2.7 million fund with the goal that every budget and program decision is assessed through a lens of anti-racism. 

The racial equity initiatives are not meant to be programs of their own, but will be woven into everything the county does. To start, every county employee will complete cultural intelligence training in order to establish a common language and understanding. Several committees are forming to work with department heads on racial equity, and the county is hosting various speaker series and learning labs. 

Public information officers will undergo training to communicate with inclusive language; for example, they will disaggregate racial categories so that people are referred not as Asian, but more specifically as Chinese or Vietnamese. 

“Tone is also important,” Ms. Muse said. “You can say African-American instead of Black, but you have to also say it in the right tone… We must talk to the community how they want to be talked to.”

Members of the public said equity efforts should be more focused on the community. In response, Ms. Muse said it would be irresponsible to not address the county’s internal issues first. “I’m aware of the larger work that needs to be done,” she said. “There is an external component, but there is some housekeeping that needs to be done first before engaging the community. I want to be sure we are not doing further harm when we go into communities.”

Another area of consideration for more funding is the department of Health and Human Services. Sheriff Robert Doyle said his deputies do not need to respond to all calls about mental health or homelessness, and department heads in H.H.S. are eager to take on more responsibility related to those issues, as long as the work is funded. 

H.H.S. was asked to reduce its discretionary spending by just 2.5 percent, half of the cuts that other departments face. With over 650 employees, 40 programs and 12 locations, H.H.S. is the largest county department, and it has grown the most in recent years. Although people aren’t physically visiting the offices during the pandemic, more people have been accessing mental health and social services by phone or online.

The county’s mobile crisis response team is seen as one potential alternative to law enforcement. The small team is staffed by a licensed mental health clinician and a peer provider, and its purpose is to respond to mental health, substance abuse and psychiatric emergencies throughout Marin. The team received an average of 35 calls and responded 18 times each week in May, up from an average of 20 calls and nine visits last year. 

“There is an emerging behavioral health need because of Covid,” said Dr. Jei Africa, Marin’s director of behavioral health and recovery services. “People are in stress. The anxiety is high, the depression is high.” 

The team operates from 1 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and will soon expand to mornings, thanks to a $347,000 state grant. The grant will fund two clinicians and a new vehicle for one year, so the team can begin working at 8 a.m. once the clinicians are hired. This will allow for better responsiveness to incidents at schools and will minimize law enforcement’s response to psychiatric and mental health crisis events on campuses.

H.H.S. also partners with the sheriff’s office to improve the latter’s response to mental health issues. Therapists train deputies in crisis intervention, helping them relate with empathy and deal with trauma or depression. But when a uniformed officer responds, people in crisis often become afraid, and officers come from a completely different culture than therapists, Dr. Africa said.

“If we can respond without law enforcement and we can get the person to services, that’s always our goal,” he said. “We want to provide voluntary services, because people get better quicker when their independence isn’t taken away.” 

During Covid-19, H.H.S. has expanded its safety net. Ken Shapiro, the director of the Whole Person Care pilot program, said the county is sheltering every homeless family in motels, and employees are working on a permanent solution for the 145 individuals who have been housed. The county has 27 Section 8 housing vouchers from the federal government and is hoping to obtain more. Mr. Shapiro is also looking at buying a motel through Project Roomkey, a state-funded initiative that helps local governments purchase housing for homeless people affected by Covid-19. 

The state could fund a purchase as long if it is completed by the end of the year and if the county pays for a retrofit, Mr. Shapiro said. Funding for ongoing support of those who were chronically homeless would also be needed, as the $2.5 million annually for the Whole Person Care pilot is set to expire at the end of the year. 

This year’s budget is a challenge, but the long-term budget outlook is even more grim. The economic slowdown caused by Covid-19 has caused lost revenue from local and state sales taxes, the gas tax, the transient occupancy tax and building permits. Increased pension costs will begin to impact the budget in 2022, and slowed increases in property tax revenue are also anticipated. Budget managers are projecting two different economic recovery scenarios: limited impact and prolonged recession. 

Under the more optimistic limited-impact scenario, budget managers assume that the economy achieves a sense of normalcy by early 2021, that the investment market recovers, and that annual growth in property tax revenues remains near long-term averages. 

Under the prolonged-recession scenario, they assume that revenues take longer to rebound, that the investment market is unable to fully recover and that annual property tax revenue growth falls below 4 percent. Budget shortfalls would grow to $42 million by 2024, about 7 percent of the budget.