There’s a widespread assumption that San Diego County’s got vast reserves that could be deployed to address a long list of community needs. It’s true.

It’s got about $2 billion in the bank – a total that’s grown by nearly two-thirds since 2010. That’s more than nearly all major counties in the nation.

Yet it’s also true that most of the nearly $2 billion in the county’s savings account is spoken for in some way. Deploying any significant share of the money under the Board of Supervisors’ control would require votes and policy changes.

But those are decisions the county could make, if it wanted to. It comes down to priorities.

The county has already set aside hundreds of millions of dollars of its savings for new buildings, pension bills and other needs, and imposed strings to ensure their nest egg isn’t quickly wiped out. The county is now facing increased calls to cut those strings and redirect some of the money.

County supervisors and staffers credit the disciplined approach to shielding the county from risk and allowing it to pay cash for construction projects. But progressive advocates and political candidates believe the county should spend more of its ample cash on workers and programs. The disagreement will play out publicly this week as the county kicks off hearings about its proposed budget for next year.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

This debate over what the county should do – and how much should remain in savings – is likely to intensify as candidates vie to replace four long-sitting county supervisors who will term out by 2020. It’s already been ratcheted up this year by a coalition that includes the county’s largest labor union.

County supervisors and staff, on the other hand, have doubled down on a message of their own: They can’t just start writing checks.

“We are believed by some to have a pot of money sitting and available to be spent on new programs,” Chief Operating Officer Don Steuer said as he helped unveil a new proposed budget last month. “That is simply not the case.”

Steuer detailed why that is: It’s because of self-imposed rules and commitments that restrict county spending, not a lack of cash.

That distinction is crucial. The county’s got lots of money. For now, there are just rules and pledges restricting how and how much can be spent. Those rules could be nixed if supervisors wanted.

Most notable among them: County policy bars using onetime influxes of cash to expand services or increase pay for workers, the very investments unions and progressives have long wanted.

The Government Finance Officers Association, an industry group, recommends governments hold at least two months of operating cash in reserves to safeguard them from major budget hits. San Diego County’s amassed far more than the $601 million it’d need to meet that standard.

So how much of that could be invested in causes like homelessness or bolstered county services? That’s up for debate.

Here’s a breakdown of the county’s savings account through last June, the period covered by the county’s latest detailed financial report.

A portion of the county’s $2 billion bank account is entirely off limits in most annual budgeting. Both the county’s annual budget and savings account are subject to a laundry list of federal and state restrictions that give it less discretion over how it spends its money.

But that’s not the case for more than three-quarters of the county’s $2 billion reserve. This is the money the supervisors hold sway over.

Current supervisors, though, are proud of their frugality, and what the county’s accomplished with their strategy. They often speak glowingly about the fruits of this fiscal discipline, including the county’s high credit ratings.

Supervisors and county staff say they’re taking the long-term view with their reserve account. They’ve made policy choices to earmark dollars to address massive pension and infrastructure bills they’ll face over the long haul, and to ensure reserve money goes to onetime causes rather than ongoing ones they say could drain their savings.

As of last June, the county had $337 million in savings for new buildings and upgrades. Over the past decade, this fluctuating savings account has helped the county pay cash for new facilities, including an upgraded county operations center and two new sheriff substations.

More recently, the county’s diverted $136 million to pay down pension bond debt. Budget officials have proposed investing another $63 million for the same purpose this year, which they say is helping the county proactively address one of its biggest budget threats.

Tens of millions more have been stashed away for a major catastrophe.

The past couple years, the county’s also penciled in and spent about $200 million annually for onetime county needs such as technology upgrades, a solar financing program and Alzheimer’s disease projects.

The county does have more flexibility with about a third of its bank account. Its $747 million unassigned pot is just that, unassigned.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts said that is the account he floated raiding last year to offer a $150 million bridge loan to help pay for a new Chargers stadium. Roberts said he thought fellow supervisors might consider that loan since he was counting on getting much of it paid back in a short clip.

Yet current supervisors are reluctant to spend much of this cash.

Though the county’s built up other funds to address infrastructure needs, pension obligations and onetime costs, the $747 million account is the one county officials consider their safety net account.

It’s the account where the county keeps two months of operating cash and is also one budget staffers say they might lean into if the Affordable Care Act or state reforms hammer the county’s budget.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who chairs the board, has brought up a potential $100 million budget hit thanks to pension bills and possible changes to the state’s health care marketplace. She argues the county must hold onto its substantial savings to shield it from worst-case scenarios. So far, her worst fears have not been realized.

“We don’t spend money just because we have it,” Jacob told VOSD. “We spend at a prudent level so that we have the reserves so we can take care of these long-term liabilities and risks that we’re gonna be facing. Some we know about, some we don’t.”

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    This article relates to: Government, Must Reads, San Diego County Government

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about nonprofits and local progress in addressing causes like homelessness and Balboa Park’s needs. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    15 comments
    George in BayHo
    George in BayHo subscriber

    Recent studies have shown that San Diego already spends (from combined sources) in excess of $30,000 per homeless person in disparate relief efforts.  This is obviously more than enough funding ... and shows that the real problem is management incompetence, a failure in leadership and planning.  


    I agree with Mr. Brewer ... if we have adequate reserves and are still blessed with a surplus, then return it to the taxpayers.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Looks like more  Constitution reading is needed. I seem to remember "Taxation Without Representation" had something to do with the Revolution. Or do schools now just teach those "Indians" at the Boston Tea Party were felons for property destruction?

    And more currently, isn't that 2/3 vote of the public  need for expenditures not from an approved project?budge


    Governments are to help the public plan facilities and services that are agreed  beneficial to all. And approved and built according to laws for same. Hopefully that's how the assets under discussion accumulated.

    So isn't it obvious over-payment should return to the sources?

    If the Board of Supervisors agrees to a different  application, let the planning process with the public begin.

    Sharon Parks
    Sharon Parks

    what kind of Real Estate do these Supervisors live in? They have all the perks,......... ex-police chief as an enforcer, and Supervisor and DA's that just can't help breaking the law, and using it for their own gain, They will be putting DA Dumanis on that board, and she has been in Federal Court twice this year for theft, So as they leave they will attempt to keep their power structure. BUT I'm beginning to see, that we have some bright and aware young people who are lawyers, and politically inclined and see the corruption in this city, and how it has made it so sick and toxic with its power plays and greed. They can and will get rid of these fat cats once and for all. The city[its people] desperately wants to thrive, but we have greedy people here that exploit the homeless. throw wealth around like it was candy especially around people that are suffering. This should be the city's priority, not 100 billion excess monies, that they play with.,They have done everything to get rid of their "little problem", but as far as IU see, we have a city being run by alcoholics and drug addicts that cannot make decisions unless they copy it from somewhere else. Their all self-centered and arrogant and yes constantly gloat about imaginary successes

    Stephen Hon
    Stephen Hon subscribermember

    As a 34 year County employee (1972-2006) I hope the County continues to maintain a healthy reserve. For ongoing funding the County is largely dependent upon State funding and pass through Federal dollars. The California State budget has structural problems leaving revenue streams subject to major shifts from year to year because far too much of the State budget is dependent upon revenue from Capital Gains. Federal funding should be considered precarious since both the President and the Republican Congress would love to push forward with budget policies that push major costs down to the State and Local level. 


    I can recall the approximate 17 years from the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 to about 1995 when the County was struggling to stay solvent: pay raises were seldom; maintenance was deferred; buildings were used with no upgrades long past their useful life; and programs were cut more than added. I call that the "Pinto" period. When I would check out a car from the County Car Pool for a trip out of the County, I invariably was assigned a pre-1978 Ford Pinto which I am sure still had one the gas tanks that was prone to explosion if rear ended.


    The new County Operations Center, the new Sheriff substations, the rebuilt Edgemoor hospital and the Waterfront Park are examples of what the County has achieved in the past few years that are of great benefit to the public. 

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    @Stephen Hon These are good points.  I just think it's possible to fiscally prudent and realize that within that prudence is the prioritizing of people - children, for example - that we could elevate as a region. These things can't be done irresponsibly, but this is a good time to carefully, with attention to detail, evaluate what options are available for cost savings and for expenditures in other ways.

    Bit-watcher
    Bit-watcher subscriber

    @Omar Passons @Stephen Hon We've seen how not to do it: the way the city has spent itself mindlessly into trouble, delaying infrastructure repairs and improvements.  That's not good.  

    Bit-watcher
    Bit-watcher subscriber

    So, spend money instead of exercising fiscal responsibility?  That sounds unfortunately too familiar.

    Carrie
    Carrie subscribermember

    @Bit-watcher BW, the money is the taxes that we pay to have services delivered to us. We can all think of services that are woefully needed in this County.  I certainly hope that the excess is invested so that inflation isn't ruining the value over time.

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    First of all, paying cash for buildings, as the county does, is a very poor financial plan. Counties can bond at ridiculously low rates (perhaps 3 - 3.5%). Since revenue growth exceeds that amount, and given the time value of money, why would anyone (or any public entity) pay out millions in cash, when it could leverage a smaller amount of cash via  a very low interest "mortgage'? Second, and more importantly, how can the County sit on hundreds of millions of flexible, unassigned funds while thousand of people are living, homeless in our streets? Socking away money while people are suffering, and the quality of live of the general population is suffering, is not responsible. 

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @bgetzel Let me get this straight.  You think that paying interest on loans is better than not paying interest on loans?  Are you a mortgage loan broker or a banker?  Regardless of interest rate, paying for things outright is nearly always better than paying interest.

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    @shawn fox @bgetzel There is a time value to money. $2 million that you pay today is worth far more than $2 million paid out over 30 years, assuming that the interest rate is low. This is basic economics.

    Sharon Parks
    Sharon Parks

    @shawn fox @bgetzel  I paid cash all my life, and if I bought on time plan, it 's QVC easy pay. You can buy to your heart's desire on that show and pay no interest......

    Bit-watcher
    Bit-watcher subscriber

    @bgetzel @shawn fox While true, having the debt is monster waiting to get the county.  We can do like the Poway school district did, and pay a billion dollars later.  

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    This article is a good first step in helping San Diegans across the region realize the true importance of the County of San Diego in improving quality of life in our region for children, for the 40% of senior citizens who can't meet their basic needs, for the caregivers who take care of the most needy among us, the homeless and those in need of things like mental health services.  I've rattled off a list of important areas and haven't even gotten to huge, essential functions like law enforcement (84% of the county and some of the smaller cities are under sheriffs dept), fire protection, environmental clean-up, and even our court system.  These are all also County responsibilities and they all have items within the $973 & $747 Million figures above.


    Here's the point. The graph and description above is a reasonable start, but it leaves open an interpretation that those of us who want the resources necessary to address major quality of life issues ought to take issue with. The graph really shouldn't include the $600 Million in operating reserves because that's not discretionary in any meaningful sense of the word. No business or non profit would ever willingly let the money they pay salaries and utilities with get to zero, and the County shouldn't do it, either. Also, the County gets sued - as a lawyer who once worked for Caltrans and was co-defendant alongside County employees, I know the money to resolve those suits must come from somewhere. That big "assigned by Board of Supervisors" category is where.  Anyone who lived through the tragedies of our wildfires, either keeping us safe fighting them or losing their family mementos and belongings as a result, knows that some reserve for catastrophe isn't just prudent, it's essential.  We might quibble with the exact amount, but a better depiction would have been to display this amount - along with others that aren't discretionary in the common way most people think about it - in a different color.


    Nevetheless, this is a good addition to an important conversation that we ought to be having about where we prioritize. I fundamentally believe an increased focus on children and youth will dramatically improve our region for the most people. This isn't merely an emotional claim. Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman has observed that there is an 8-to-1 return on investment for every public dollar invested in a young person at birth - the highest return possible in a person's life. That investment will lead to better prepared students, a stronger workforce, and an economy more resistant to recession long term.


    Last thing, one of the board policies we ought to know more about  is attached in the link below. If this policy is the equivalent of not using tooth fairy money to pay for three years of music lessons, great (a really generous tooth fairy). If it compromises revenue that we receive every year by disguising it as "one-time" well that's another matter.  Having citizens participate in the occasionally messy process of truly open governance is something we ought to do more of.


    twitdoc.com/8D54


    Thanks for elevating this discussion, Ms. Halverstadt.

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    Fix the potholes and pave the roads. You get 2 for 1 - improve the infrastructure and pay people to work.