Since then, agency officials have kept it alive by squeezing revenue from an array of other sources, public and private.

They also have cut costs, shedding clerical employees as well as a part-time doctor and two nurses who helped assess clients' medical needs.

Fierro, 60, who started at the agency in 1975 as an entry-level caseworker, talked about the erosion with a weary acceptance.

"I've always thought that any service is better than no service," he said.

He paused for a moment, then allowed as how, more recently, "I have questioned that."

Attorney Michael Harrison had much the same thought after a court appointed him to represent 83-year-old Tamara Arutunian.

She had been hospitalized after police found her, confused and disoriented, in a McDonald's restaurant in Santa Monica. After diagnosing her with dementia, hypertension and heart problems, the hospital transferred her to a locked nursing home.

The public guardian became her conservator in September 2003.

Arutunian had lived for decades in a rent-stabilized apartment across the street from St. Monica Church, where she had worked as a cook in the rectory.

Eager to go back home, she instructed Harrison to call her bank and make sure her rent was paid. After several conversations with her, Harrison came to believe she was well enough to live on her own. In mid-October, he asked the court to end the conservatorship.

By that time, however, a deputy public guardian had told Arutunian's apartment manager that she would not be returning.

The deputy abandoned all but a few of her belongings, deciding they were not worth the expense of storing. Her furniture, housewares and religious artwork were set out for other tenants to take, or to be hauled away.

Arutunian was crushed when she found out, said Evelyn Tummolo, who knew the elderly woman for years through the church. Arutunian had attended Mass there daily, always dressed neatly and wearing white gloves.

"When she heard that her apartment was gone, she kind of gave up," Tummolo said.

Harrison tried to get Arutunian out of the public guardian's care. Before a hearing on her case, Arutunian suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. She died in March 2004.

$18 for a $5.79 Bill

The public guardian's thirst for revenue has come to shape every aspect of what it does, from which cases it takes to how it manages clients' care and finances.

The agency collects some income directly from its wards — the comparatively few who have enough assets to pay fees.

The public guardian charges more than $70 an hour, a rate comparable to those of for-profit private conservators. In one case, the office billed a blind 86-year-old $18 to write a check for a $5.79 phone bill.

Wards are charged for the theoretical cost of taking out bonds to insure their assets, even though the agency does not actually buy such bonds — a charge allowed by law.