Saturday, January 30, 2016

County Simultaneously Releases Budget App, Grim Budget Forecast

Posted By on Sat, Jan 30, 2016 at 3:58 PM

The county of Humboldt launched an interactive online budget application Friday aimed at helping residents better understand their government, just as county staff released a fairly gloomy five-year budget forecast.

“Open Budget,” the new interactive tool that can be found here, is designed to let folks explore different facets of county spending and revenue collection, ideally giving them a better understanding of where revenues come from and what they’re spent on. For example, some quick clicking can tell those curious that the county is spending about $34.2 million on its Sheriff’s Office this year, $13.3 million of which goes to the Humboldt County jail. Another click will show you that $34.2 million is $7.5 million more than the Sheriff’s Office received five years ago. A bit more clicking will show that the county spends more on animal control services ($912,000) than on the coroner’s office ($768,000). (Measure Z includes its own spate of graphs and figures.)

On the revenue side of the picture, one can find that the county receives the vast majority of its funding — $209 million — from other governments, namely the state and feds, while permits and licenses account for just $1.89 million of county revenue. 

All of this seems poised to become increasingly useful in coming years, as county staff is warning that the financial picture looks a bit bleaker than it did a year ago, with property tax growth slower than forecasted and increased salary and benefit costs. (It warrants noting that recent months have seen the board of supervisors approve raises for large swaths of county employees, and that the county has been deficit spending, dipping into its reserve funds, in recent years.)

In its report (available through the Feb. 2 meeting agenda at this link), county staff includes three versions of its five-year forecast: moderate, pessimistic and optimistic. Under the pessimistic version, the county will finish this year $5.4 million in the hole, will deplete its reserves early in 2017-2018 and face a structural deficit of almost $10 million by 2020-2021. The optimistic version — which depends on increasing property and sales tax revenues, as well as a hefty marijuana excise tax and at least a dozen other favorable assumptions — has the county maintaining a manageable structural deficit that will decrease to $1.5 million by 2020-2021, leaving the county with a forecasted reserve of about $1.2 million.

The moderate forecast has the county deficit shrinking to $3.8 million next year which will all but deplete its reserves, leaving some very difficult choices heading into 2017-2018 with a forecasted deficit of $3.4 million. Under the moderate forecast, the county’s structural deficit would decrease to $1.5 million by 2020-2021.

“The value of a long-range financial forecast is that it provides an advance look at the county’s financial condition and can help evaluate potential impacts of changes in revenues or costs,” the staff report states. “The board will have an opportunity t o address the General Fund’s financial challenges and consider options as part of the mid-year budget review process and the fiscal year 2016-2017 budget development.”

It appears some difficult decisions sit on the board’s horizon. At least “Open Budget” will make it easier for the rest of us to follow along at home.

The full "Open Budget" press release from the county:

The County of Humboldt continuously looks for ways to promote transparency and help residents better understand their government. The county today launched a new application, “Open Budget,” a tool that is designed to let you easily explore the county’s budget with the hope that you will gain a clearer picture of how the county is spending money, and where those funds come from.

You can access Open Budget at and on the county’s website at

Open Budget is a powerful program that presents financial information through an interactive, on-line platform. It displays revenue sources and expenditures for the yearly operating budget down to line item details. In addition, the county is committed to ensuring that you know how funds are spent from Measure Z, the half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2014, and we have dedicated a portion of this application to that effort.

Open Budget gives users the ability to easily convert data from graphs to tables and to download raw data for further analysis. You can choose the level of details you’re looking for, from finding out how much an individual department or division spends on an item, to the entire county. The application also allows you see how that spending has changed over time.

This new tool is only one of many ways citizens can interact with Humboldt County and the budget process. You can also attend or watch the yearly Interactive, Multi-Site Community Budget Meeting, which takes place on March 3. In addition, you can submit comments at the county’s Open Humboldt discussion forum, where we are currently looking for your feedback regarding Open Budget.

The Open Budget application is the product of a partnership with Socrata, Inc., which provides cloud solutions for open data and data-driven governments.

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