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Governor’s Blue Pencil Gives L.A. County the Jitters

Times Staff Writer

About $40 million that Los Angeles County officials say they need to provide health care for the poor and deal with the problems of abused children and mentally ill street people hangs in the balance as Gov. George Deukmejian prepares to take his blue pencil to the 1985-86 state budget approved by the Legislature.

In the next several days, Deukmejian is expected to use his line-by-line veto authority to pare down the Legislature’s spending plan, which is about $800 million more than he has proposed.

While the governor’s office is remaining tight-lipped about which items may be eliminated or reduced, Geoff Long, a consultant to the Democratic-controlled Assembly Ways and Means Committee, said the items of greatest concern to Los Angeles County officials are “some of the major augmentations made by the Legislature. They are particularly susceptible to veto.”

Members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, struggling to balance the county’s $6.2-billion budget in the face of swelling demands for jail space, shelter for indigents and care for abused children, fear that vetoes could force them into a new round of cutbacks during their final budget deliberations next month.

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They have little leeway. This year’s proposed county budget is about 3% larger than last year’s, and includes virtually no reserve funds for unforeseen expenses. Last year, the county budgeted $33 million for reserves.

The lone bright spot for county budget makers is that they no longer expect to lose federal revenue-sharing funds next year. The Reagan Administration’s proposal to eliminate the revenue-sharing program beginning next October could have cost the county $60 million, mostly earmarked for health care for the poor. But county Chief Administrative Officer James C. Hankla said those proposed cuts, which have run into opposition in Congress, probably won’t affect the county until at least the 1986-87 fiscal year.

Much of the county’s budget represents state-mandated costs--such as money for welfare programs for families with children--over which the supervisors have no control. Local tax money available for programs over which supervisors do have control, such as courts and jails, have not kept up with rising costs, they say.

“Our budget is precariously balanced,” said Hankla. “What’s at stake here are some rather substantial service cuts.”

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One of the areas of greatest concern is health care for the needy. County officials contend that the state shifted responsibility for indigent health care to county governments three years ago, but has not provided enough state money to support the program. State funds for the program have remained nearly constant, while patient loads and costs of treatment have increased, county officials said.

In response to such criticism, the Legislature approved a $50-million increase in expenditures for the medically indigent statewide. But if the governor vetoes the appropriation, Los Angeles county officials say they will have to trim their budget for clinics and hospitals providing service to low-income patients who have no health insurance.

If that happens, county officials say, waiting time for appointments in public clinics, already averaging about six weeks, will be lengthened; fees charged the needy for clinic visits will be increased by $5, going typically from $20 to $25, and some dental, vision and prescription services will be curtailed.

Tens of thousands of patients would be affected, but the health department will have no other option, said Irv Cohen, the Department of Health Services assistant director for finance and administration. “We can’t reduce inpatient (hospital) care,” Cohen said.

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Marie Bockwinkel, general counsel for the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, which represents many poor clients who use county hospitals, said the threatened cuts “would be just devastating. We already see the situation as bleak. If the governor vetoes the $50 million, it would become incomprehensible.”

If the Legislature’s full increase is approved by the governor, on the other hand, it would mean about a $19-million increase in funds for the county and waiting times could be reduced, Cohen said.

Deukmejian Administration officials have said they believe the Legislature’s appropriation is too high, leading to speculation that a veto is likely.

Services for abused and neglected children are another key issue. The county has been under fire for not tracking child-abuse victims closely after court intervention to ensure they are properly placed and not abused again. To begin addressing the problem, officials have been trying to reduce the number of children assigned to social workers--a difficult task because the abused and neglected children under court-ordered county supervision has increased nearly 70% in the last two years. Calls into the county’s state-mandated child-abuse hotline--many of which require follow-up investigations--have increased 900% in the last four years.

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The new Department of Children’s Services is being expanded this year. But if the governor vetoes the Legislature’s child welfare appropriation, which is $20 million more than he requested, the department’s anticipated income would be reduced by $3.3 million.

MacLaren Hall

That large a reduction would dash hopes of reducing caseloads next year, said Paula Carroll, the department’s acting deputy director. "(Caseloads are) the only area of any give in the department right now,” she said, noting that improving conditions at MacLaren Hall, the county’s much-criticized shelter for abused and neglected children, has top priority for money.

Funds for the homeless also are at stake. The Legislature added about $45 million to the governor’s budget for emergency shelter programs and long-term housing for the homeless. Much of that money would come to Los Angeles, which has the state’s largest concentration of homeless.

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Lawmakers in Sacramento also more than doubled the governor’s recommended $40-million increase in mental health funds, targeting the bulk of the increase for mentally ill street people.

The additional funds would give Los Angeles County about $15 million more for mental health programs.

Many of the homeless are believed to be suffering from mental problems, and the increased funds would permit the county to employ more mental health workers to screen them and place them in U.S.- and state-funded programs for the disabled, Hankla said. This could reduce the number of street people.

“We’re drowning in homeless,” said Hankla, noting that the number of homeless applying for locally funded general relief--now about 5,000 a month--has increased 150% since the beginning of last year.

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To persuade both the governor and the Legislature of the county’s financial troubles, Hankla, who took over the county’s top executive job four months ago, has been engineering a stepped-up lobbying effort in Sacramento.

The theme has been that as California’s largest, most urbanized county, Los Angeles helps drive the state’s economy but also bears a disproportionate burden of the costs stemming from crime and poverty.

“Essentially, we have the greatest aggregation of opportunity, progress and problems (and) the greatest aggregation of predators and prey,” Hankla said.

The lobbying drive has included the hiring of Michael Franchetti, Deukmejian’s former finance director.

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Hankla would not say specifically how Franchetti is being used and Franchetti could not be reached for comment. But the county’s $36,000-a-year contract with Franchetti is intended to give the county clout inside the Administration, particularly in Deukmejian’s Department of Finance, where many of the governor’s spending recommendations are developed.

Hankla, a former city official in Deukmejian’s hometown of Long Beach, knows the governor personally and, like Franchetti, has contacts in the Administration.

Coupled with the influence the Republican majority on the Board of Supervisors has with the governor, the board is hoping that it can persuade the governor of its needs.

In the Legislature, the county is trying to beat back an effort, spearheaded by 20 small cities in Los Angeles County, to siphon off a share of the county’s property taxes.

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Shift to Cities

A bill now in the state Senate would result in a shift of $20 million in taxes from Los Angeles County to the cities.

These cities, including Carson, Bellflower, La Canada-Flintridge and Rosemead, had little or no property taxes of their own before the 1978 passage of Proposition 13--which made it difficult to enact new property taxes.

Hankla, who has been shuttling back and forth to Sacramento in recent weeks, said the county’s top legislative priority this year is to kill that measure--or amend it to reduce the tax shift. He said the county also wants to persuade legislators to increase vehicle license fees--of which counties get a share. An increase in the fees could boost the county’s income by $30 to $50 million, Hankla said.

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Those new revenues--and more--are needed, county officials say. The current proposed budget includes no money for salary increases for county employees and, in the absence of new state funds, services will have to be reduced to give pay raises, Hankla said.

Hankla has suggested a $75-million pay raise if the money can be found.

Phil Giarrizzo, general manager of the largest county employee union, said that is not enough because employees intend to make up lost ground in the current talks. “We averaged 2.5% increases over the last two years, which is far below inflation,” he said.

Armed with a recent state Supreme Court decision giving pubic employees the right to strike, county unions will be in a stronger position at the bargaining table this year.

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Comparable Worth

Giarrizzo’s union, which last week held a rally outside the Board of Supervisors’ meeting room, also is pressing the board to negotiate on another potentially costly issue--comparable worth pay for women and minorities.

The City of Los Angeles recently made major concessions to its employee groups on the equal pay for equal work issue and Giarrizzo said his union, which has filed a federal discrimination complaint against the county, is planning to pursue the matter in court.

Both Hankla and Giarrizzo said the possibility of job actions this year by county employees exists. “There are two scenarios,” Giarrizzo said. “We are prepared for a peaceful settlement. But all the elements are there for a confrontation.”

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In preparing a final budget, supervisors next month also will have to wrestle with competing demands by major departments.

Sheriff Sherman Block has told board members the recent riot at the Men’s Central Jail was in part caused by overcrowding and that he needs to hire more deputies to handle inmates. The county jail system now houses about 17,000 inmates, about 60% more than its rated capacity.

Coupled with a growing workload due to increased child-abuse investigations, gang activity and narcotics sales, Block is seeking about $40 million more than Hankla has proposed to supervisors in his draft of the budget.

The Department of Public Social Services, which is responsible for the homeless, is seeking $42 million in additional funds to deal with a soaring indigent caseload and rising costs for shelter. About $9 million of that would be used to increase general relief payments for the homeless, who must seek jobs and work on community projects to receive the aid.

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Basic Grant

The basic $228-a-month general relief grant, which department Director Eddy Tanaka is recommending be increased to $251 because of rising costs for food and housing, has been unchanged since 1981.

Newly elected Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, a savvy and increasingly powerful local political figure, also represents a new element in the county budget equation. Reiner, a Democrat, is asking the conservative Republican majority on the board, who last year backed Reiner’s opponent, former D.A. Robert Philibosian, for a $7 million budget increase next year.

Two weeks ago, Reiner predicted “gridlock” in the criminal justice system and the release of dangerous felons because delays in bringing them to trial can undermine prosecution cases.

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Health services officials also are clamoring for more funds, noting that clinic visits have increased 10% in the last year. Officials say they are struggling with equipment, nursing and staffing shortages that will require another $12 million to correct.

There is also likely to be pressure to expand the health department’s inspections of food processing plants, and its product recall operations, in the wake of questions raised about the handling of the Jalisco cheese contamination case, which has resulted in 43 deaths.

Health officials also say more than $700,000 is needed for additional educational programs and medical services to deal with the AIDS epidemic. There have been about 900 identified AIDS cases in the county and the board was warned recently that the number could double in the next year. One critical need is for a special ward to deal with a growing number of AIDS victims at County-USC Medical Center, said Robert Gates, director of the health department.

“The needs are so great and the resources so few,” Supervisor Kenneth Hahn said after a series of department heads recently outlined the problems their departments face.

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