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Empty Talk?

Board’s plans aren’t matched by money

By Howard Schmidt
April 2021

Heading into 2021, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors promised to provide residents with more opportunities to help shape the county’s budget. Several public workshops were scheduled for April. But it seems the supervisors already have their own ideas about budget priorities.

The board has declared its focus on two areas—systemic racism and climate change—as county staff prepares the budget for fiscal year 2021-22.

Despite anticipated funding shortages, budget cuts and possible layoffs to county staff, Supervisors Phil Serna, Patrick Kennedy and Don Nottoli—the board majority—have identified racism as a public health crisis. They are committed to promoting racial equity while shaping policies and allocating resources.

Serna and Kennedy are up for re-election in 2022. Nottoli will retire when his sixth term ends next year, setting up a scramble for his south county seat. All three voted to “implement solutions to eliminate institutional, structural and systemic racial inequity in all community services provided by the county.”

Supervisor Sue Frost voted against the declaration. She questioned how the county can “divert funding resources from other county programs” while budget cuts were under consideration. Serna acknowledged the equity prioritization would have “budget consequences.” The votes came before Supervisor Rich Desmond was sworn in, but his vote couldn’t have changed the outcome either way.

Serna, Kennedy and Nottoli said they would create a “Sacramento County Racial Equity Policy Cabinet” to issue public reports and promote equity through coordination across county departments. Along with its lofty goals, the new policy cabinet seems likely to impress social justice activists and discourage potential ballot challengers to Serna and Kennedy.

It’s unclear whether the affirmative equity effort will run counter to the California Constitution, which makes it unlawful for state and local governments to discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to people based on race, ethnicity, national origin or sex. An attempt to repeal that provision was defeated by voters last year.

Serna, Kennedy and Nottoli also declared a climate emergency. Once again, Frost made a fiscal argument against the proposal, noting the county has “more obligations than revenues” and is “balancing its budget on the razor’s edge.” But the majority voices prevailed.

Sacramento County’s version of a Green New Deal will seek “urgent action to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.” The action includes development and implementation of a climate emergency response plan.

Achieving a countywide carbon-neutral footprint by that date is meritorious. But real solutions always depend on funding. The majority put a marker down by declaring, “Where existing funding or resources do not support the level of action required, the board wants staff to identify gaps and provide recommendations.”

No significant public opposition was expressed. There was little discussion about how shifting funds into climate reduction will impact the budgets of other county programs and departments.

However, plenty of residents phoned the supervisors to talk about how much the climate effort meant to them, their children and grandchildren. The issue became reminiscent of COVID-19 discussions, when the supervisors said the climate action plan “shall be guided by science, data, best practices and equity concerns.”

There are plenty of critics who don’t believe the county response to the pandemic has met those standards—especially for underserved communities.

As the 2021-22 budget comes together, county residents will hopefully get answers to how the Board of Supervisors plans to finance its battles against systemic racism and climate change.

Howard Schmidt has worked on the federal, state and local levels of government, including 16 years for Sacramento County. He can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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