Budget Cuts a Sharp Blow to Hospitals and Schools : Government: Officials say the new state spending plan could also force the closing of the South Bay's last three community-based mental health clinics.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Public mental health clinics and hospital care in the South Bay will suffer crippling cutbacks under the $55.7-billion state budget that Gov. George Deukmejian signed into law Tuesday, officials say.

The spending plan, already spare before Deukmejian trimmed it further Tuesday, will also strain some local school districts and South Bay cities receiving special property tax transfers from the county.

But officials say the most painful cuts will be in the area of health care, affecting the region's county-operated mental health clinics and indigent health care services at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.

"Even now we're not offering the level of service I would want for the community," said Joel Foxman, district chief of South Bay clinics for the county Department of Mental Health. "To have these additional cuts, it's not even a Band-Aid. We might as well just wish people well."

Said Harbor-UCLA Administrator Edward Foley: "I've been here 10 years, and this budget is the worst I've ever seen. It's simply not going to be enough money. It's just horrendous."

The new budget could force the closing of the South Bay's last three community-based public mental health clinics, officials say--those in South Bay Mental Health Center in Hawthorne, Coastal Asian Pacific Mental Health Center in Gardena and San Pedro Mental Health Center in San Pedro.

Shortfalls last year prompted the county to shut down the area's largest public mental health clinic, Coastal Community Mental Health Center in Carson, and two others--Wilmington Mental Health Service in Wilmington and the South Bay Continuing Care Office in Torrance.

Countywide, the Hawthorne and San Pedro centers were among a dozen clinics recommended for closing this spring based on a projected $10-million shortfall in state funds in the county mental health department's 1990-91 budget.

However, Deukmejian's cuts Tuesday deepened that deficit to $43 million and will probably prompt closures that could include all three of the South Bay community clinics, officials say.

Collectively, the three community centers serve more than 2,000 people, according to Foxman. Without them, the only public mental health services remaining in the South Bay will be an emergency facility at Harbor-UCLA.

"Anybody with a severe disorder is going to have to end up in Harbor-UCLA emergency care, in the police station or on the street," Foxman said. "Basically, there will be no other services."

Cynthia Harada, a staff therapist with the San Pedro Mental Health Center, said many local residents using her clinic are incapable of traveling out of San Pedro for outpatient care. Closing the clinic, she said, would mean depriving them of the therapy they need to stave off acute mental illness.

"They're asking all the time" if the clinic will stay open, "and all we can tell them is we're open now, and we'll do the best we can," Harada said. "For many people, the mental health center is a focal point in their lives."

In the area of hospital care, Harbor-UCLA officials say a $63-million cut in state allocations for indigent programs threatens hospital care offered by Los Angeles County.

The reduction could amount to $80 million if state health officials follow a recommendation by Deukmejian to change the distribution of such cuts statewide, according to Irv Cohen, county Health Services Department director of administration and finance.

Cohen said the county Board of Supervisors will have to reduce outpatient and ambulatory care for indigents at Harbor-UCLA, and possibly in-patient care too, to balance its budget.

The supervisors may try to locate cash to ease the budget strain, but Cohen says sharp reductions are still inevitable for Harbor-UCLA and other county-run hospitals.

"This without a doubt will be the most traumatic impact that any of our facilities have ever felt," he said.

Some officials say cutbacks at Harbor-UCLA will swell the number of poor people seeking help at private South Bay hospitals such as Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne and Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.

"We predict we'll get more emergency room and trauma care closures as a result," said David Langness, spokesman for the Hospital Council of Southern California, an association of the region's public and private hospitals.

Foley said nearly a third of Harbor-UCLA's patients are uninsured poor who cannot pay their bills. Each day, he said, the hospital admits 90 people for in-patient care, and treats 375 in its emergency room and 875 in its outpatient clinic.

Though it is unclear how much of the hospital's indigent care services will have to be cut, Foley said any reductions will worsen existing problems.

"You go into our emergency room any hour of the day, and it's full," he said. "Frequently people are waiting in the emergency room" because hospital beds are full. "If we have to close beds, that would exacerbate the situation."

For local school districts, the big blow delivered by the new budget was a reduction in cost of living adjustments--funding increases that are intended to offset escalating costs for school goods and services.

The so-called COLA was 4.76% in the spending plan approved by the Legislature, but Deukmejian trimmed it to 3% before signing the budget. The change will hit some South Bay school districts harder than others.

The Centinela Valley Unified School District says that since its contract with classified staff and teachers is tied to the COLA set by the state, its savings on salaries will offset the smaller allowance for increased costs.

But other districts--including several that anticipated it--said the lower-than-expected COLA will hurt.

"The 3% COLA doesn't really cover our normal operating cost increases," said Torrance Unified School District Supt. Edward Richardson. "Even a 4.76% COLA is not sufficient to keep the schools operating at the high level we had been operating."

Torrance based its $80-million budget on the assumption that the COLA would only amount to 3%, but it had to find $1.6 million in savings to do so. That meant re-establishing an early retirement system and taking other austerity steps, he said.

"We were hoping for a COLA of at least 4.76% so that we could have a minimal amount of money to offer our employees in salaries," Richardson said. "We don't have that now."

Officials from the Palos Verdes Unified and Inglewood Unified school districts said the lower COLA means they will have less money as they enter contract negotiations with district teachers and staff.

"We were sure hoping for that money," said Kermet Dixson, the Inglewood district's assistant superintendent for business services. "I'm sure school districts around the state are having a fit."

Dixson said the higher cost-of-living adjustment would have meant $800,000 to $900,000 more in state funds for her district.

Wayne Butterbaugh, acting superintendent for Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified, said several other instances of blue-penciling by Deukmejian will cause problems in his school district.

The most important, he said, is the removal of an appropriation for districts which--like Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified--are losing state funds due to declining enrollment. That cost the district $360,000, he said.

Currently $31.8 million, the district's budget has already been shorn of more than $1.5 million due to sagging enrollment.

"In my judgment we will have to eliminate additional positions," Butterbaugh said, adding, however, that he will recommend against eliminating teaching posts.

Some South Bay cities face shortfalls due to state budget provisions intended to ease the financial strain on counties.

A key provision reduces the amount of property tax funds that counties are required to channel to cities that historically have received little or no revenues from property levies collected within their borders.

In the South Bay, that cut would have the biggest impact on Carson and Rolling Hills Estates and a lesser effect on El Segundo, Lawndale, Lomita, and Rolling Hills, according to legislative staff members.

The state has yet to release figures quantifying the cuts, but officials from Carson and Rolling Hills Estates calculated Thursday that their cities will lose $500,000 and $59,000, respectively.

Rolling Hills Estates Finance Director Judy Smith said the shortfall will not be difficult for her city to handle.

But Lorraine Oten, Carson's finance director, said the $500,000 loss for her city will add significantly to pressures on the $34-million Carson budget.

"Since we already have a deficit budget, this is going to make us cut even more," she said.

Though most of the reaction to the state budget this week centered on spending reductions, the fiscal blueprint also contained allocations for several local projects. Among them:

* $200,000 to help finance a project to clean up and promote recreation in Machado Lake in Harbor City's Harbor Regional Park.

* A $2-million low-interest loan to Redondo Beach for King Harbor storm repairs.

* An $850,000 low-interest loan to Avalon for harbor improvements.

* $6.3 million to double the size of the El Camino College library and $1.07 million to build a day-care facility at the school.

* $372,000 to re-equip the library at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

* $12.8 million for construction of a sports complex at Southwest Los Angeles College.

Staff writer George Stein contributed to this story.

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