During San Bernardino County's budget hearings Wednesday, the usual instructions to cut costs, increase fees and implement layoffs to absorb another big cut in state funding were interrupted by a demand from county supervisors to increase the staff in one segment of government.
The supervisors ordered the agencies that oversee construction and development to add staff -- even if it means hiring private contractors.
The county's Surveying Department and the Building and Safety Department have been struggling to keep up with the demand to review and approve maps and building applications in one of the state's fastest growing counties.
"We have a major, major problem," Supervisor Bill Postmus told county planning chiefs.
The call to hire workers was a rarity in a budget hearing that focused mostly on belt-tightening.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt a $2.7-billion budget that will cut more than 40 full-time positions to absorb a $17.5-million cut in funding from the state.
San Bernardino County's population is expected to grow by nearly 60%, from 1.7 million in 2000 to 2.8 million in 2020, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
The signs of that growth already are evident in the Inland Empire's booming housing market. Last year, the Inland Empire was home to nearly half of the new homes built in Southern California.
The growth has put a strain on county planners and surveyors who must approve maps and blueprints for the new construction. The number of building permit applications is expected to increase from 23,000 this year to 26,000 next year, according to county estimates. The number of parcel maps requested is expected to jump from 87 this year to 110 in 2005.
Several supervisors complained that the county has a six-month backlog in building permit applications and mapping requests. They noted that if the land is developed, it will generate higher property taxes to alleviate the county's budget woes.
Under the budget proposed for next year, the county plans to add 12 positions to the Building and Safety Department and two to the Surveyor Division. But the supervisors urged the managers of the agencies to add more staff to ease the backlog.
Patrick Mead, interim director for the Surveyor Division, promised the board he would return to the supervisors in the next few weeks to approve short-term contracts to hire private surveyors.
"We would hope we could cut down the backlog in the next couple of months or so," he said after the meeting.
Last year, the state's budget crisis cost San Bernardino County $26 million in revenue, forcing the county to lay off 190 people. This year, the state's budget problems are expected to cut $17.5 million from the county.
To absorb the cut, the county plans to adopt $2.8 million in new fees and eliminate about 43 full-time positions, with the biggest number of cuts coming from the county agency that helps residents with mental health and substance abuse problems. However, most of the positions proposed for cutting in that agency are already vacant.
Other agencies, such as the sheriff's, the probation and the coroner's departments, were spared deep cuts. Still, the heads of those agencies complained during budget hearings this week that they need more staff to keep up with the workload.
Under next year's budget, the county coroner will lose 3.5 positions. Robert Shaw, the county's lead supervising deputy coroner, said his staff is already forced to investigate many more deaths with fewer people. In 1986, he said his department investigated 5,000 cases with 23 investigators. This year, he said the department's 14 investigators will complete nearly 10,000 cases.
"As population grows, we are faced with an increased caseload," Shaw said.
Under next year's budget, the Sheriff's Department will lose 18 positions, in addition to the 75 deputy positions it has kept vacant due to budget cuts over the last three years.
Sheriff's Captain Richard Beemer said the staffing cuts are forcing department managers to reassess how they can provide basic policing services. "It is becoming a critical shortage," he said.
The budget is expected to include several new fees, including higher charges to dump trash at county landfills, to perform private autopsies and to make photocopies at public libraries. The cost of getting a marriage license also will increase, from $69 to $73. The fee for performing a marriage ceremony will increase from $35 to $40.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt the final budget next month.