County Faces a Year of Difficult Choices : Budget: 1992 is expected to provide the Board of Supervisors with a tumultuous 12 months. Members must decide how to deal with the recession while making tough decisions on cutting jobs and services.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If 1991 was a difficult period of belt-tightening for Ventura County government, officials say this year promises to be even more wrenching.

Downsized and streamlined are the likely buzzwords of 1992 as officials try to do more with less--and make tough choices about eliminating jobs and county services.

"The revenue just keeps fading away," said the county's chief administrator, Richard Wittenberg.

But balancing the county's budget as state funds shrivel promises to be just one of the challenges that should make 1992 a tumultuous year for the County Board of Supervisors.

Over the next 12 months, the supervisors are expected to:

* Decide whether to build a landfill at Weldon Canyon over objections by Ojai Valley residents who say it will foul their air.

* Give final approval to a new County Jail despite protests by Santa Paula residents who say it should not be built on farmlands near their city.

* End years of debate over giant housing projects first proposed for the Ahmanson and Jordan ranches but now combined at one location near Simi Valley.

All three projects are likely issues for the spring reelection campaigns of veteran supervisors John K. Flynn, Susan K. Lacey and Maggie Erickson Kildee--a majority of the five-member board.

But the overriding issue--and the key political consideration--of 1992 will apparently be how local government should deal with an economic recession that won't go away.

The soured economy already has helped reshape the political landscape. Just 18 months ago, underdog candidates with slow-growth platforms were emerging as a force in Ventura County.

But in November, three pro-business candidates swept the Ventura City Council races, and the coalition that backed them is now looking for business-oriented candidates to support in the supervisors' races.

In recent months, the Board of Supervisors has shown increasing concern about protecting the county's business base and stimulating new jobs.

The supervisors have created an advisory committee to point out the effects of proposed air-pollution laws on local businesses. Supervisors Flynn and Vicky Howard said they support new procedures that will expedite approval of construction projects.

And Erickson Kildee said she wants to reconsider a proposal that would allow senior citizens to buy houses here while retaining the low property taxes they had on their homes in other counties. Though costing the county tax revenue, the move could help revive a sagging real estate industry, she said.

The supervisors also recently created an Economic Vitality Committee that is organizing an April conference in Ojai to discuss how to boost local businesses.

"The pendulum swings," Howard said. "We had a very heavy environmental vote a couple of years ago, (but) now we think our economic life is threatened not only in Ventura County but throughout the nation."

Erickson Kildee agreed. "It really has been a switch, and the big change is because of the economy," she said. "People don't like to have their pocketbook hurting."

The most enduring issue on the supervisors' 1992 agenda is expected to be the precarious balance of the county budget. The supervisors imposed a hiring freeze two weeks ago but warned that more drastic cutbacks are sure to come in the months ahead.

The county--which runs state health, welfare and court programs--receives about half of its money from the state, which is projecting deficits of 8% to 13% over the next 1 1/2 years.

The supervisors imposed 5% cuts on most departments in August. But Howard, Erickson Kildee, Lacey and Supervisor Maria VanderKolk now say they favor eliminating entire areas of service rather than continuing to weaken all departments through cuts. They especially want to protect such basic services as police and fire protection, libraries and parks, they said.

"We really don't have a lot of flexibility in those areas," Lacey said. "We're mandated by ethics and society to provide those services."

The supervisors wouldn't discuss where they may cut, but Howard said the county might consider hiring private maintenance crews to clean county buildings and maintain its lawns and shrubs.

Flynn and Lacey, who are up for reelection, said they did not want to discuss possible layoffs. The county eliminated 54 jobs last summer but laid off only two employees because many positions were vacant.

"I think we need to take a good long time to look at what we're doing before we start talking about endangering somebody's job," Lacey said.

Flynn said the county has overestimated its budget problems before and he wants to focus on how the county spends the money it does receive.

"We've got a whole bunch of money that we do spend," he said. "And we have to wonder if we're spending it in the right way."

Flynn said he wants to create jobs by expediting public construction projects. One would be a $500,000 gymnasium for his district's El Rio area, he said, and another would be an apartment project for the mentally ill in Camarillo.

The county also should support a new roadway that would allow expansion of shipping at Port Hueneme and contribute seed money for a four-year Cal State University campus near Camarillo, Flynn said.

Budget problems also could enter the debate about the new County Jail and the Ahmanson Ranch development.

The proposed $54-million jail was approved by supervisors in 1990, pending a full environmental study of the site at Todd Road and the Santa Paula Freeway near Santa Paula.

A public hearing on the study is set for Wednesday, and most supervisors said the report reveals no major hazards in the way of the project.

However, Howard and Flynn said it would cost $10 million a year to operate the jail and nobody has identified a source for the money. As a result, county officials have said a spring groundbreaking could be delayed for many months.

"The jail site is a good one," Howard said, "but I would not move forward with construction until we have funds to operate it."

A tight state budget also has affected the supervisors' thinking on the Ahmanson Ranch project.

The board agreed last month to a speedy review of the proposal, which includes the sale of about 7,400 acres of parkland by comedian Bob Hope for a below-market $29.5 million and a gift of 3,000 more mountain acres to the public. The fast-track consideration was necessary, supervisors said, so that state and federal funds for the parkland would not dry up as budgets are squeezed.

Most supervisors expressed support for the project last fall after developers agreed to build 750 houses and a golf course originally proposed for Jordan Ranch on nearby Ahmanson Ranch. The Ahmanson company would build another 1,850 houses, a second golf course and a town center with 400,000 square feet of offices and stores.

"Ahmanson-Jordan is my top priority for the year," said VanderKolk, who suggested the combined project to developers last summer. With budget problems, "nothing is set in stone. . . . That's why we're working so hard to make things happen in an expedited manner."

VanderKolk said she expects a final board vote at least by fall.

The year's most volatile controversy probably will swirl around a proposal by Waste Management of North America to build a landfill at Weldon Canyon in the rugged hills between Ojai and Ventura, supervisors said.

The dispute centers not only on whether the canyon is suited to replace Bailard landfill in Oxnard as the west county's primary dump, but on whether Waste Management should own and operate it.

A board hearing is expected in May, and Flynn said he anticipates approval on a 3-2 vote.

Flynn counts himself and Howard as affirmative votes, with VanderKolk or Erickson Kildee providing the decisive third vote. He considers Lacey, whose district includes Weldon Canyon, a negative vote.

Howard said she tends to favor the Weldon Canyon project. VanderKolk, whose district is centered in Thousand Oaks, also considered herself the potential swing vote.

"I don't know what side to put myself on," VanderKolk said. "A landfill is never a happy decision, but if I'm convinced this is the best of all possible evils, I'd have to vote for it."

Lacey said she sees big holes in the environmental study of Weldon Canyon. Erickson Kildee, who represents Ojai, said she is concerned "that we not do anything that will be harmful to the Ojai community."

Even if the landfill is approved, ownership of a Weldon Canyon dump would still have to be resolved, Flynn said. "That's a big issue," he said.

The countywide Regional Sanitation District is studying whether the district should condemn Weldon Canyon and buy it even though Waste Management holds a long-term lease on the property, officials said.

But legal problems may block the move. "If it was a straight landowner thing, it might happen very quickly, but there are a lot of complications here," said Bill Chiat, sanitation district planning director.

Flynn and VanderKolk said they are concerned that Waste Management could gain a near-monopoly on rubbish disposal in Ventura County. The company operates the landfill near Simi Valley and has proposed a recycling plant for the west county.

"If they were not part of the whole thing, a lot of people would be feeling a lot better about this," VanderKolk said. "They do have a history of problems."

A Sheriff's Department background check has found that 10 criminal cases were filed against Waste Management's Illinois-based parent company and its subsidiaries between 1980 and 1990. Two employees were convicted in criminal proceedings that stemmed from bribery charges in Illinois in the mid-1980s, and the company has faced complaints of bid rigging, price fixing and price gouging, the report said.

But the Sheriff's Department found no link between Waste Management Inc.'s officers and organized crime.

Howard, a former Simi Valley councilwoman, said she has monitored the local Waste Management subsidiary since it took over the Simi Valley dump in 1983.

"Frankly, they have done an outstanding job at the Simi Valley landfill," she said.

The Weldon Canyon controversy is expected to mark the spring campaigns of Lacey and Erickson Kildee, both of whom are seeking a fourth four-year term on the board.

In addition, Erickson Kildee's support of the new jail has prompted some Santa Paula officials and residents to seek a strong candidate to challenge her.

So far, however, no opponents have announced against either supervisor. Filing for the seats is from Feb. 10 through March 6. The election is June 2.

Erickson Kildee said she does not think the pro-business alliance that was so effective in the fall Ventura council races will field a candidate against her. Several business people who worked in that election have called to offer their support, she said.

Erickson Kildee said she is aware that some Santa Paula constituents don't like her position on the jail.

"There is some unhappiness," she said. "I don't think the jail will have the (visual) impact they think it will. . . . It probably will be much less obstructive than the K mart" recently completed in Santa Paula next to the freeway.

Erickson Kildee is working to head off opponents. She met recently with Santa Paula Councilwoman Margaret Ely, who has criticized the supervisor about the jail and county opposition to a city redevelopment zone.

Ely said she came away determined to work more closely with Erickson Kildee, not to seek her defeat.

Flynn, who is seeking a fifth term, faces a possible challenge by Oxnard Mayor Nao Takasugi and a past Takasugi backer, Arlene Fraser.

Fraser informally declared her candidacy Friday by requesting a petition that will allow her to avoid a $502 filing fee if she gathers the signatures of about 2,000 voters.

Takasugi said he and Fraser, treasurer of his 1990 mayoral campaign, are not running in tandem. Fraser, 45, who runs a desktop publishing consultant's business out of her home, said she needs to start her campaign now to increase visibility.

Flynn's reelection campaign, which he announced three months ago, has already been noteworthy for the people he has angered and the apologies he has issued.

First, Flynn refused to support a Latino voting rights coalition's proposal that would have made his Oxnard district more heavily Latino. He accused top county administrators of unduly influencing his colleagues on redistricting issues. Then he maintained that Howard and Erickson Kildee had conspired with Takasugi to undermine his reelection campaign.

Since late October, however, Flynn has been running hard, shaking more hands than usual and making peace with irritated county officials.

Of his run-ins, Flynn said last week: "All of that is good for people--that kind of challenge. It's like giving the whole system an enema. It really needs to be done from time to time.

"I really kind of enjoyed the apologizing," he added. "It's something like going to confession."

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