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Where Does the Money Go?

Columnist: Mike Martini
December, 2014 Issue
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Mike Martini
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I thought it would be interesting to look at the county budget from the 1970s and compare it to the recent budget.

 
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Supervisor David Rabbitt was making a pitch for better Sonoma County roads and was looking at a potential sales tax increase. In the discussion that followed, the already high level of taxation in Sonoma County was noted. The question asked was: Why don’t we have the money now that we had years ago to build and maintain roads?
 
A budget review reveals a lot about the priorities of an organization. For families, for business and for government, the budget reflects what’s important and helps us make decisions.
 
I thought it would be interesting to look at a county budget from the 1970s and compare it to the recent budget. If you haven’t had the opportunity to look at a government budget, I’d suggest you’re better off if you don’t. It’s comparable to the U.S. Tax Code in its complexity and a root canal in its comfort. How hard could it be to review the county’s budget? Harder than you think.
 
Getting the current one was easy, as the 442-page document is online. The 1972 budget was pre-digital and much more difficult. Thanks to Supervisor Efren Carrillo and the administrator’s office, I was provided with a copy, all 394 pages. While it has no statistical bearing, the document only grew 12 percent in length in 40+ years and has added color.
 
Putting the two documents side-by-side is all but impossible. Departments have changed, merged and some dissolved. Requirements from Sacramento and Washington created mandatory spending and new funds to be managed. The total budget in 1972 was $188 million and has grown to $1.4 billion for 2014—almost eight times larger. That seems like a big jump, but I know you need to adjust for inflation. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. The Bureau of Labor Statistics website has a calculator for CPI inflation. Turns out, $188 million in 1972 had the same buying power as $1 billion today. Today’s budget is 40 percent larger than 1972, when adjusted for inflation.
 
Perhaps the better comparison is just to look at the general funds for the two years. In 1972 to 1973, it was $62.8 million, growing to more than $389 million today. Making the same adjustment for inflation, the increase is a mere 16 percent. Either way, the county has more revenues today than it did in 1972.
 
So where does the money go? Pie charts were as popular in 1972 as they are in 2014. The biggest part of the pie in 1972 (49 percent) went to public assistance, with an additional 7 percent going to health and sanitation. In 2014, only 10 percent of the general fund went to the renamed health and human services. We know public assistance hasn’t disappeared. Need is as great today as before. It appears that it was shifted to other funds.
 
The biggest part of the pie in 2014 (52 percent) went to justice services (sheriff, probation, district attorney and public defender). It was only 12 percent in 1972 and included judicial, police protection, detention and fire protection. The other big piece was the cost of government itself. In 2014, it consumes 24 percent of the budget (compared to only 16 percent in 1972).
 
The question at hand, though, is roads. In 1972, 12 percent of the general fund went to roads (including engineering, construction and maintenance). In 2014, all capital projects combined were a mere 1 percent of the general fund. There’s no allocation for road construction or maintenance in the 2014 general fund.
 
The priorities have changed in the last 40 years. If we still spent 12 percent of the 2014 general fund, we’d have a little less than $47 million to invest in our roads. It wouldn’t solve the problem, but this has been in place for a number of years and it shouldn’t surprise us as to how badly our roads have deteriorated.
 
How does this shift happen? I don’t remember a public discussion to consider a significant increase in public safety at the expense of our roads. It happened gradually as we accepted more deferred maintenance to fund other priorities. Now, we need to take care of the roads. The answer from the supervisors is to add a sales tax. I suggest a much broader public discussion of the role of government, setting our priorities and then funding them appropriately from existing revenues.


 

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