Advertisement

O.C. Children’s Services in Peril : Budget: Because of recession, officials advise withholding funds for operating expansions at three facilities for abused or troubled youngsters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County officials, scrambling to keep their budget balanced in the face of an unexpectedly long and deep recession, are recommending that expansions of three major facilities that serve children be axed from this year’s spending.

All the costs of operating a new Juvenile Hall, the Probation Department’s new Intake and Release Center and an expansion of the Orangewood Children’s Home would be cut from this fiscal year’s budget under a plan completed late Wednesday and sent to the Board of Supervisors for consideration. All three projects are meant to serve troubled children--some who have broken the law, others who have been abused.

Other programs--including services that provide medical care for the county’s poorest residents and in-home support for the elderly and disabled--also are threatened with cuts, officials said.

“These are tough times,” Supervisor Don R. Roth said. “I’m forecasting not just doom and gloom for now, but radical changes in the structure of local government. The reality is here.”

Advertisement

Those concerns, which Roth has been expressing for months, were highlighted by a startling midyear county budget report prepared by the county administrative office. That report gives the first solid indication that the county’s budget problems have reached the point where the government may not even be able to staff facilities once they are built.

That issue is likely to dog the county all next year because it is building for more than 600 new jail beds at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange. And while there is enough money this year to open 200 of those beds in January, officials still have not come up with a way to pay for staffing the rest of the jail expansion.

According to the report, declining tax revenues have left the county with a midyear shortfall of between $15.5 million and $21.1 million. Unless the supervisors take action to close that gap now, they could face a shortfall of $66.5 million in next year’s budget, the report warns.

The Board of Supervisors will discuss the report and its budget-balancing recommendations next Tuesday.

Advertisement

At the same meeting, the supervisors are expected to make technical adjustments to the budget to reflect a 4% pay increase recently given to top county managers, including staffers for some of the board members. Those raises did not include the supervisors themselves, as they voted to give back their own pay raise.

Specific program cuts will not be addressed by the supervisors until early next year, but the board is expected to vote next week on a proposal to delay staffing the expansions of the three children’s facilities.

Each of the expansions is nearly complete, but the county does not have the money to staff them or pay the utility and maintenance bills, officials said. The budget-balancing plan recommends that those and other expansions be shelved “until such time that the economy improves.”

“We have a serious problem,” said Ronald S. Rubino, the county budget director. “It needs to be dealt with decisively.”

Advertisement

At Orangewood, three new bungalows with room to house 24 youngsters each are being built, mostly with private money. One of those bungalows was scheduled to be ready early next year, but it will now almost surely sit empty until at least July or August, officials said.

“As a public administrator, I accept that that’s the reality, and we have to find ways to live within our resources,” said Bob Griffith, chief deputy director of the county Social Services Agency. But, he added, “the demand for that (expansion) is going to continue. . . . Whether the economy is up or down doesn’t affect whether people abuse their kids.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez agreed that delaying the expansion of the three facilities was a painful step but said the recession has forced the county to explore every conceivable budget-cutting option.

“It is difficult to defer these projects, but the limitations and constraints on county government are such that we can leave no stone unturned,” Vasquez said. “The trend continues. Counties, not just this county, but counties across the state, are in crisis.”

Advertisement

Deferring the scheduled opening of those three facilities until July will save the county about $1 million, according to the midyear report. And while that money will help close the budget gap, it will not come close to solving the entire shortfall.

As a result, supervisors are expected to return to the issue in early January. At that point, they will consider an even more difficult, program-by-program review of county services, looking for areas in which to make cuts.

Officials in the county health and social service fields are particularly concerned about those cuts because their operations are largely funded by state sales taxes, which are showing steep declines so far this year.

“Everything we’re hearing out of the state is very dismal,” said Ronald R. DiLuigi, assistant director of the county Health Care Agency. “This has the potential to affect everything we do.”

Advertisement

The health agency receives the bulk of the county’s so-called state realignment funds, and unless sales tax revenue picks up in early 1992, health-care programs could be faced with cuts of more than $8 million, DiLuigi said. Those programs provide mental health services and medical care to the county’s poorest residents.

Social service programs would also be hit, though to a lesser degree, officials said. If present trends continue, social services could lose between $900,000 and $1.8 million, according to the budget report.

Among the social services that could be faced with cuts are programs that protect children from abusive parents, deliver services to elderly and disabled people in their homes and provide counsel to welfare recipients on finding work.

All of those would be difficult reductions to make, officials said, but with the recession continuing to dog virtually all of the county’s revenue sources, few programs are likely to escape unscathed.

Advertisement

“We took some preventive measures last year, and it’s obviously going to be important that we do that this year, too,” Vasquez said. “The early warning system has gone off.”

Why O.C. Government Is Hurting

Recession has cut into all of the following taxes and fees, and the county government relies upon them to pay for the services it provides. Revenue Source: Amount Short Property taxes: $4 million Motor vehicle fees: $1 million Sales taxes: $3 million Documentary transfer taxes: $1 million Jail booking fees: $1 million Recently transferred state programs (health care and social services): $5.5 million to $11.1 million Total: $15.5 million to $21.1 million Source: County administrative office midyear budget report


Advertisement
Advertisement