There is necessarily a tug of war between a government's obligation to provide service and its duty to remain fiscally responsible, a fact duly noted in the letter transmitting the proposed 2015-16 Los Angeles County budget to the Board of Supervisors. In this year of continuing economic recovery, budget officials recommend funding for more than 1,000 new positions. That's a lot of new employees — even in a county of 10 million people. One in every 100 county residents already is a county worker.
The county has managed its pension obligations better than many local governments but has yet to develop a plan to fully fund retiree healthcare costs. That's a fiscal imperative that should be addressed before expanding the county payroll.
That said, new program and payroll costs must be measured against the cost of failing to act. Mismanagement and other problems in the Department of Children and Family Services, for example, may have contributed to the deaths of children that, with better attention, might have been prevented. Not every solution requires more funding, but it's a fact that county social workers' caseloads were too heavy. Reducing them would mean hiring more workers.
The proposed budget also sets aside $75 million in anticipation of continuing large verdicts and settlements in lawsuits brought by victims of abuse by sheriff's deputies in the jails. Let's hope that the election of a new sheriff will translate into fewer jail beatings and therefore fewer payouts. But deputy misconduct was in part a result of the county locking up so many mentally ill inmates, so a solution must include continuing diversion and treatment of the mentally ill. Reducing payouts in the future requires investment today.
The county will also enjoy some savings, much of which could too easily be lost in the budget's fine print. Consider, for example, the decline in the caseload of the district attorney's office, which has handed off to city prosecutors the task of handling crimes that had been felonies until the passage last November of Proposition 47.
The supervisors must ensure that such savings are acknowledged and quantified. Should that money be kept with the district attorney for more prosecution? Or would it make more sense to spend it on better diversion and reentry programs, to make inmates more likely to returning to society without reverting to crime? Those are the kinds of questions the supervisors must address publicly as they begin their two-month budget process.