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Board May Trim Services, Freeze Hiring and Building to Avert Financial Squeeze

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what promises to be a gloomy and controversial budget session today, members of the Board of Supervisors are expected to trim county services and freeze most new hiring and construction to stave off a $13-million mid-year financial squeeze.

The board is also expected to consider raising fees to cities and reorganizing the Community Services Agency, a move that could include abolishing the Commission on the Status of Women. Both of those proposals are likely to spark heated debate.

Still, budget officers say the county needs to deal with its growing fiscal woes, even if it means taking unpopular steps.

“We have a serious financial problem,” said Ronald S. Rubino, the associate county administrative officer for management and budget. “All we see are minuses.”

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Indeed, a series of detailed financial reports provided to county supervisors warns that a faltering local economy and cutbacks in state funding have left the government with a $13-million dilemma: The economic slump has caused revenues to dip about $9 million below predictions in the first half of the current fiscal year, while expenditures are running about $4 million over budget.

If the board were simply to absorb that deficit, it would effectively wipe out the entire $14-million contingency fund, an account only to be used in emergency. Auditor-Controller Steven E. Lewis has frequently warned the board against drawing down its contingency account, and officials will reiterate those warnings today.

“That’s there to deal with catastrophic emergencies,” Rubino said. “It’s a very shortsighted philosophy to wipe it out and wait until next year to fill it up again.”

Moreover, allowing the financial issues to go untreated now would likely set up a dismal shortfall in June, when the county addresses the budget for the coming fiscal year.

Officials have predicted that the shortfall then could top even last summer’s, which at one point reached $46 million.

Although the county has an annual budget of $3.4 billion, the vast majority of its money is locked up in various programs that are out of reach of county budget officials. Only about $50 million is actually administered completely at the county’s discretion.

Faced with the ever-tightening fiscal situation, supervisors have reluctantly indicated that they intend to back the recommendations for a hiring and construction freeze.

“That’s an appropriate blanket action to take,” Supervisor Roger R. Stanton said. “We definitely have a problem.”

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Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said he too is prepared to endorse a hiring and construction freeze and warned that sweeping measures are needed to brace the county for more difficult financial times. Vasquez, who serves on Gov.-elect Pete Wilson’s transition team, said no help for counties is forthcoming from Sacramento.

“Anyone who’s expecting the state to bail out counties is living in fantasyland,” he said.

Under the freeze, virtually all new county hiring--at least for positions paid for through the county general fund--would halt until March, when the board expects to receive another budget update. New construction would also be discontinued, though projects already under contract would be allowed to go ahead.

A host of other budget cutting measures are also on the table and most are likely to be approved by the board.

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Some are more controversial, however. Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder has vehemently opposed discontinuing the Commission on the Status of Women, as have other backers of that organization.

Stanton and Wieder also have both expressed concern about imposing the jail-booking fee.

That fee would charge cities and school district $154 for every inmate they place in County Jail. Some cities, most notably Santa Ana, have predicted that imposition of the fee could wreak havoc with their budgets and force layoffs of police officers.

The fee proposal has been lowered from $183 per inmate because of uncertainties about what the state will permit the county to charge for reimbursement of its booking costs. Still, city officials plan to voice their concerns at today’s meeting.

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As the supervisors consider their budget options, there appears little to be optimistic about. One issue, however, does promise to deliver a cash bonus to the county’s law enforcement budget.

On Dec. 18, the board will take up a proposal to sell Rancho del Rio, a 213-acre ranch seized in a 1985 drug raid. A county administrative office report completed Monday found that the cost of improving the ranch for residential development would run from $3.2 million to $4.5 million, and instead recommended that the county put the land on the market.

Appraisers have estimated that the property is worth approximately $1.4 million in its current condition. Though the county is still investigating the possibility of letting its department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks bid for the land, selling it to a private buyer could relieve at least a small portion of the budget crunch.

Sheriff Brad Gates favors turning the site into a narcotics training center, but the staff report advises against that.

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