As Orange County supervisors open the first of three public hearings on their 1990-91 budget today, they do so under a cloud of uncertainty cast by the political stalemate in Sacramento.
The county handles about $37 million from the state government every month, and as long as the governor and Legislature are at odds, no one can really know how much money the county will have at its disposal for the coming year. The state today enters its 25th day without a fiscal 1991 budget.
Even if the state resolves its budget crisis soon, it would still be some time before county officials would have a clear idea of the funding they can expect for local programs.
"This is creating great uncertainty," said County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider, who drafted a letter to the supervisors Tuesday warning them of the problems being created by the state government standoff. "We don't even know what kind of revenue we have to deal with."
The standoff, along with the prospect of deep cuts in the state budget for this fiscal year, is making some county budget planners nervous. Officials have raised concerns about the government's long-term ability to keep services afloat: So far, the county has had to cover one month's worth of state services without reimbursement from Sacramento, and it may have to pick up another if the deadlock continues.
The county dipped into its cash reserves to pay $25 million for the services this month. Although the county expects to be reimbursed, it loses interest money when it has to tap into its own reserves, which stand at between $80 million and $117 million.
"If this goes on until the end of August, we'll get really worried," said Ronald S. Rubino, the associate county administrative officer who oversees the budget.
Moreover, the state budget impasse and the likelihood of cuts in this fiscal year's budget come at a time when the county is battling a huge shortfall--$36.2 million overall, even after department budget requests were slashed by about 5%. Further cuts are bound to bite deeply.
Already jammed courtrooms could become more crowded; environmental management functions such as processing development requests could become more overburdened; law enforcement services could be cut back; construction on new projects--including sorely needed jails--might have to be postponed.
"The only word that I can use to summarize this whole thing is devastating," said Supervisor Don R. Roth. "I've had a steady stream of people coming to me and saying they need more money in their budgets, but I just don't know where it's going to come from."
In past years, last-minute state allocations have allowed the county to patch over its budget problems, but the prospects of that happening this year seem remote. The state, with a shortfall of $3.6 billion, has its own red ink to erase.
If the state's budget trims the allocations for county programs, the local government could face even harder times: Health care and social services would probably take the hardest hits.
Health Care Agency figures are still speculative, since so much of that department's money comes from the state. Preliminary estimates, however, suggest that it could lose between $11 million and $18 million--money that probably would have gone to providing care for indigent people.
The Sheriff's Department, whose budget is not as closely linked to the state's, is already being asked to trim its $141.1-million budget request by $5.4 million. That is the largest suggested cut for any county department, Rubino said.
"If we were to take those cuts, it would hurt our services in all areas," Undersheriff Raul Ramos said. Ramos added that sheriff's officials are meeting with the county administrative officials to try to negotiate a smaller cut.
Among the unresolved questions for the county are whether cuts in county services will translate into a widespread layoff of workers--a prospect that surfaces every year during budget deliberations but that rarely materializes.
"The last three years in a row we've yelled layoffs, and some last-minute money has come through," Roth said. "It's too early to make that judgment, and I certainly don't want to cry wolf to our county family."
Likewise, Rubino, although warning that the cuts will need to come from somewhere, said he believes that they can be handled without laying off many workers. Some of the county's 15,000 employees could find themselves in new jobs, and many proposed positions would go would go unfilled, he said, "but I really believe and hope it can be managed while avoiding layoffs."