(TNS) — San Diego County, Calif., Supervisors unanimously adopted their largest budget ever, in part to help stem the tide of job and income loss, business closures and other community demands for social services arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday evening all five supervisors approved a more than $6.55 billion budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year which increases spending by more than $250 million and represents about a 4.8 percent increase over the current year's $6.25 billion budget.

That spending plan pays for more funding directed toward COVID response efforts by dipping into county reserves and tapping into funding the county received under the federal CARES Act, which can only be used for costs related to the pandemic.

County reserves — which is a mix of restricted and unrestricted funds in the general fund — have hovered around $2 billion for many years. Critics for years have argued the county should tap reserves more aggressively to combat the region's biggest issues such homelessness, mental health and affordable housing.

With this budget the amount of unassigned reserves drops below the threshold goal of the equivalent of two months of the county's operating budget. County staff and supervisors indicated that will need to be addressed in coming years if the region wants to adequately respond to the next major emergency.

County staffing for the 2020-2021 fiscal year will dip by 0.4 percent to 17,953 positions under the adopted budget. The decline comes from not filling vacant positions mostly in the Public Safety department and the Finance and General Government group.

County Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer said Tuesday she is confident in the budget, but she warned supervisors to be mindful going forward of the many risks facing the county — including wildfires, limited CARES Act funds, ongoing COVID expenses and increased financial exposure from the county and state significantly depleting their reserves.

"Even with all of this, all that has happened this year and these risks, we believe the spending plan is sound and reasonable for this time," Robbins-Meyer said. "We will adjust as necessary, and collectively we will combat COVID-19, navigate the economic downturn and begin to address the social injustice and racial equity issues facing our region."

Under the adopted plan, the county's Health and Human Services Agency will represent the largest expenditure in the budget, about $2.5 billion, driven by the largest increase in spending of any county department — 9.1 percent.

The increase will meet an expected increase in demand for social services amid a 12.3 percent unemployment rate in July, county officials said.

The increase to Health and Human Services also is intended to help combat the spread of the virus and offer additional forms of COVID-19 relief.

A $100 million increase would go toward the county's virus testing, tracing and treatment strategy, as well as to food distribution, medical supplies, personal protective equipment and shelter.

Additionally $15 million will be directed to technology needs to support telehealth, electronic health record upgrades, outreach and engagement, workforce recruitment and retention.

Health and Human Services will also continue to invest more than $1 billion into providing behavioral health services.

Supervisors also elected to adopt two amendments to the budget to financially aid those impacted by the pandemic.

Amendments introduced by Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher will add $1 million more to landlord-tenant counseling services to prevent convictions where possible and $24 million to build up an existing county program that provides $1,500 grants for over two months of rental assistance. The program now can expand to serve people in the unincorporated areas and in all cities in the county.

"We're in an unprecedented crisis that really has spared no one," Cox said. "This pandemic has created pain and misery for people all over this region and we need to help them."

Supervisors also signed off on several other amendments to the budget including:

  • a $2 million proposal from Fletcher to close the "digital divide" and provide internet access to low-income families through the San Diego County Office of Education
  • a proposal from Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Jim Desmond to use $7.1 million to install traffic signals at six intersections and guard rails where needed in unincorporated areas
  • a proposal from Desmond to begin developing several traffic-related projects, including $3 million to begin three traffic roundabouts projects in Rancho Santa Fe, $200,000 for a traffic light in Valley Center and $500,000 to start road improvement projects in Vista.

Desmond's proposal to allocate $4 million to improve a Valley Center park also was approved by the board.

The North County supervisor said he hates dipping into reserves and noted that the traffic projects may not appear as urgent to some people as the issues the community is facing from the pandemic, but for unincorporated areas these projects will address safety hazards that could not be dealt with otherwise.

"For the unincorporated areas we are the entire government," Desmond said, "not just Health and Human Services."

The budget also includes:

  • a $23.7 million increase in spending to address homelessness in the unincorporated parts of the county
  • $400,000 to develop a flexible housing subsidy pool to help house individuals
  • a nearly 13 percent increase in spending on mental health services to more than $463 million.

Under the adopted budget, the county's second biggest department in terms of spending will again be public safety, receiving about $2.04 billion in the next fiscal year, despite some public calls to redirect funding from the county Sheriff's Department to social services.

The public safety department includes the Sheriff, District Attorney, medical examiner, probation, Public Defender and more.

Meanwhile the county's Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board, the independent group tasked with overseeing the Sheriff's Department, saw a modest increase in its budget, from $986,564 last year to $1.1 million this year.

The budget also includes $16.9 million for the design and construction of the Lakeside Equestrian Facility on 13.88 acres on the northeast corner of Willow Road and Moreno Avenue in Lakeside — a project that drew criticism from some community protesters this week.

"It makes no sense ... why money needs to be allocated to 10 people who have horses instead of millions of people who need housing," said Julie Norton, a Pacific Beach resident who spoke during the meeting.

The project, one of more than 20 capital projects the county previously committed to, has been in the works since 2012. Jacob has championed it as an economic boon to the unincorporated community and the county at-large.

The Board of Supervisors will next meet Tuesday Sept. 15 at 9 a.m.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.