County Budgets and the County Budget Process, Explained

The return of spring to California brings baseball, fields of golden poppies, and public hearings convened by local officials up and down the state to review and approve county budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

America’s pastime and the state wildflower are instantly recognizable. But it’s a good bet that a large share of Californians are unfamiliar with the budget that their county adopts each year and the process by which it is created — despite many counties’ best efforts to be transparent and involve their residents in the annual county budget process.

With this in mind, the Budget Center has developed a set of materials aimed at helping Californians to better understand county budgets, whether they live in sparsely populated Alpine County (pop. <1,200) or biggest-of-them-all Los Angeles County (pop. 10.3 million). These resources are particularly timely, as all 58 counties will be releasing proposed budgets for public review and holding budget hearings over the next several weeks.

New Fact Sheet Looks at Where County Revenues Come From — and How They Are Spent

As we show in our new Fact Sheet, California’s counties oversee and allocate tens of billions of public tax dollars each year. Counties collectively received more than $69 billion in tax revenue in the 2015-16 fiscal year (which ended on June 30, 2016), almost half of which came from the state and federal governments. County expenditures during this same period — the most recent fiscal year for which data are available — exceeded $66 billion, with more than half of this spending going to public protection, which includes sheriff’s departments and district attorneys, or public assistance, which includes cash aid for families enrolled in the CalWORKs welfare-to-work program.

Updated Guide Explains the County Budget Process

We’ve also updated our detailed county budget process guide, which — along with a companion infographic — aims to help Californians understand the steps that counties must follow as they craft their annual spending plans. Our guide includes five takeaways about the county budget process:

  • County budgets are about more than dollars and cents. Crafting the annual county spending plan provides an opportunity for local residents to express their values and priorities.
  • County budgets are inherently intertwined with the state budget because counties are legal subdivisions of California and perform functions as agents of the state. Yet, while county budgets reflect funding and policy choices made by state (and federal) policymakers, county budgets also leave room for local choices.
  • State rules constrain counties’ ability to raise revenues. These rules, which are found in state law as well as in the state Constitution, limit counties’ ability to boost funding for local services.
  • Counties are required to follow minimum guidelines established by the state in developing their budgets. However, counties can — and often do — exceed these guidelines in crafting their budgets and sharing them with the public.
  • The county budget process is cyclical. Decisions are made throughout the year, providing various opportunities for the public to provide input.

We hope that you find these Budget Center resources to be helpful and informative whether or not you decide to actively engage with your county’s annual budget process.

— Scott Graves