Faced with a worsening budget crunch, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a hiring freeze and ended funding for several youth shelters Tuesday, but the members ducked two politically volatile proposals intended to add more than $2.5 million to the county coffers.
Meeting before a packed audience--veterans, local mayors and uniformed police chiefs all spilled into the board room aisles--the supervisors took pains to emphasize that this year’s budget has bad news for just about everyone.
“You know that the buck is supposed to stop up here, and I don’t know how to stop this flow of reductions,” an exasperated Supervisor Don R. Roth said. “I’m not sleeping well.”
The budget woes, which could mean cutbacks in a variety of services, reflect a deepening crisis facing many counties across the state. A national economic slowdown has cut into traditional sources of revenue such as property taxes and building and license fees. And the state government’s massive deficit has meant that it is cutting back on support for counties.
Of Orange County’s budget of about $3.4 billion, most is locked into programs, leaving only about $50 million over which the county has real control.
“The unfortunate result of all this is that we are projecting a deficit of anywhere as high as $13 million,” County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider said in his report to the supervisors. “The county’s contingency fund is currently at $14 million, and, of course, we are not recommending utilization of any of the contingency funds. We just cannot afford to deplete the county’s emergency reserve.”
In their effort to prevent that, board members approved a hiring and construction freeze that will block virtually all new projects paid for out of the county’s general fund.
Programs that serve troubled youths lost their funding Tuesday, and a slew of more modest cutbacks also were approved, ranging from ambitious efforts to curtail overtime to miniscule items such as using less ammunition at the Sheriff’s Department target range. The latter proposal is expected to save $36,000.
But the board tentatively rejected plans to begin next month charging cities and school districts a controversial fee for booking their prisoners into jail, and it temporarily spared an agency reorganization that could have axed the popular Commission on the Status of Women.
The freeze was among the most widely discussed issues during the past week, and Ronald S. Rubino, the county’s chief budget officer, described it Tuesday as a “very drastic measure . . . not favored by a majority of county departments.”
Because of the magnitude of the budget problems, however, Rubino and other officials recommended the freeze, and the board agreed. It will last at least until March, and after that layoffs may be needed, officials said.
The most immediate effects will be felt by six community programs that altogether lost $304,000--half their annual budgets, with the other half already spent. These include five groups that offer shelter and counseling to troubled youngsters. Program officials say they will have to cut back in order to absorb the cuts, and dozens of teen-agers could be turned away after Jan. 7, when the cuts take effect.
“My heart goes out to the Board of Supervisors that had to make this unfortunate decision, but my heart also goes out to the kids who come to us at 2 and 3 in the morning,” Luciann Maulhardt, executive director of the Casa Youth Shelter in Los Alamitos, said after the meeting. “Where are they going to go now?”
Roth made the same point to his colleagues, and yet said the huge shortfalls in county funding make painful cuts necessary.
Roth, who has for months made tackling the budget a central tenet of his chairmanship, exhorted other board members to face up to the deficit and join him in making the tough decisions. Deferring cuts now will only make the bite harder next summer, when the county takes up its 1991-92 budget, Roth argued.
But, with dozens of opponents looking on, the board resisted a pair of recommendations that budget officials had predicted could boost the county’s finances by at least $2.5 million--and as much as about $4.5 million--this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Board members rejected a proposal to disband the Community Services Agency--which could include abolishing the Commission on the Status of Women and relocating veterans’ and seniors’ groups under a new agency.
Instead, the board sent that proposal, which only was expected to save a few hundred thousand dollars, back for more study.
Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, who once worked as a professor of management, said he found the study of the agency incomplete.
Disbanding the Community Services Agency “may very well be a necessity,” Stanton said, but he added that “I personally cannot do so on the basis of studies of this nature.”
Nina Hull, who chairs the Commission on the Status of Women, cautiously welcomed the board’s action, but noted that the matter will return to the board in a few months.
“We’re still in limbo,” she said. “We’ll just have three more months to work on getting our view across and hopefully more time to rally support from other women’s groups throughout the county.”
Formed 15 years ago, the commission studies and advises county officials on a wide range of issues, including domestic violence, employment discrimination and child day-care services. It also acts as a clearinghouse, advising women on where and how to get economic, legal and social services.
The board also ducked when it came to a proposal to charge cities and school district security forces $154 for every inmate they book into the County Jail.
If imposed in January, that fee could raise more than $8 million a year, but the money would come mostly from cities, which would see their budgets suffer.
The supervisors directed the staff to prepare a recommendation that would delay implemention of the fee until July 1, rather than Jan. 1, as had previously been recommended. A public hearing will be held Jan. 9 to debate that question again.
“I would have preferred to go ahead and make the decision on the jail booking fees today,” Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said after the session, which ran for nearly three hours. “My reading of what was happening is that Don Roth and I were pretty much agreed, but the others had some different things going on.”
Supervisors Harriett M. Wieder and Stanton, responding to complaints from cities, raised doubts about the jail booking fee. In its budget sessions last summer, the state approved levying of the jail-booking fee so that counties could recoup some of the money that they lost from state budget cuts.
Although Wieder and Stanton said they believe such a fee is needed, both questioned whether it should go into effect next month, as budget officers have recommended.
“I think we need to buy time,” Wieder said. “We got dumped on by the state. I don’t want to dump on the cities.”
Dozens of city officials, including many of the county’s police chiefs, attended Tuesday’s session, and several spoke in favor of delaying and reducing the proposed fee. Imposing it now, they said, could force cities into drastic action to cut their mid-year budgets.
Instead, the city leaders urged county officials to defer the fee and join them in protesting state budget cuts.
“We need to work together,” Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan told the board. “We recognize how quickly your budget problems can become our budget problems.”
Supervisors agreed to recommend that the fee not be imposed until July. But several warned the city officials that there would be no further compromise. “You’ve got six months to start planning your budgets,” Stanton said later. “Then that’s it.”
The board will take a final vote on the fee at the Jan. 9 public hearing.