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County Deficit Estimate Grows to $16 Million : Budget: Officials consider a 10% cut in spending. The chief administrator says the effects could be ‘very, very harsh.’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing a prolonged recession and a growing demand for county services, Ventura County officials boosted their estimate Tuesday of next year’s budget deficit from $13 million to $16 million.

“The recession has been much more stubborn and much deeper than anyone had foreseen,” Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday during a discussion of next year’s budget.

He said the projected shortfall can be blamed partly on the effects of the nationwide economic downturn and partly on increasing demands for such county services as welfare programs and law enforcement.

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Despite the gloomy predictions outlined in a report authored by Wittenberg, the general fund budget--which provides for salaries, maintenance and overhead costs--would increase next year by about 5%, to $411.6 million.

Budget Manager Bert Bigler said the budget will continue to grow because of the increasing need of the county’s growing population for services mandated by state law. During the past decade, the population of Ventura County grew by an average of about 14,000 each year.

Wittenberg has asked county department heads to be ready to cut as much as 10% from their proposed budgets for next year, in addition to a 3% cut he ordered in January.

Although a 10% across-the-board reduction should save the county about $16 million, Wittenberg said the effect of the cuts may be “very, very harsh,” and that the supervisors may decide later to consider other ways to balance the budget.

For example, a 10% cut in the criminal division of the district attorney’s office would amount to $953,000. According to an internal memo drafted by the office of Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, the criminal division would have to lay off its entire misdemeanor prosecution staff of 18 lawyers to meet the 10% cut.

In 1990, the misdemeanor lawyers prosecuted 24,383 cases, including 6,926 drunk-driving cases, according to the memo.

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If the lawyers were let go, Bradbury could replace them with seven lawyers from a unit that prosecutes child-support cases, the memo said. Another option is to pay the state attorney general or court-appointed special prosecutors to replace the lawyers, the memo said.

In March, Bradbury was harshly criticized by the Board of Supervisors for projected budget overruns of $344,600 at a time when other county departments had to implement a 3% budget cut.

However, he argued then and continues to argue that his department is underfunded and cannot absorb further cuts without laying off prosecuting attorneys.

“The citizens of this county strongly support law enforcement, and enjoy safety as a result,” he said in the memo. “If asked, they would undoubtedly choose to cut criminal investigation and prosecution services as a last resort.”

In contrast, the county Health Care Agency, which employs more than 1,500 people, would be less affected because the department receives a significant sum from state and federal governments for running public health programs. The agency also generates income by billing patients at the Ventura County Medical Center.

Health Care Director Phillipp Wessels said a 10% cut in funding from the county government would amount to $619,000. Although he has not decided how many layoffs would be required to make the cut, he said his department has many vacancies and can absorb some of the reductions by eliminating its vacant positions.

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“The Health Care Agency is not going to have a large impact,” he said.

However, he said at the least that he may be forced to lay off an investigator in the medical examiner’s department.

Supervisor John K. Flynn, who is a member of the board’s budget subcommittee, said the shortfall is as serious a problem as the state’s five-year drought. “We have two types of drought: a money drought and a water drought,” he said.

County budget analysts predicted in January that the deficit would reach $13 million. But the estimates were reevaluated after department heads submitted budget proposals that showed higher costs and decreasing revenues next year, Wittenberg said.

“The news is getting worse rather than better,” Wittenberg said.

The economic downturn has struck particularly hard on county revenue generated by sales taxes, building-permit fees, interest from investments and vehicle registration fees.

For example, sales taxes are expected to be $705,000 lower than this year, while building-permit fees are projected to be lower by $400,000, according to a county report.

Although revenues from property taxes are projected to bring in 7% more money than this year, or about $7.1 million, Bigler said revenues from property taxes usually increase annually by 10% to 12%.

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Wittenberg has proposed setting aside $7 million for emergencies and unforeseen salary increases, $2.2 million for building improvements and $4.3 million for major maintenance projects.

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