When Mere Survival Feels Like a Victory : Government: County department chiefs face nightmare assignments as staff workloads rise and funding falls.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Board of Supervisors has just voted to close 10 of her libraries and County Librarian Sandra Reuben is nearly beside herself with joy. She believes she has won a great victory. Several colleagues gathered in the board hearing room think so too. They say, "Congratulations."

Reuben beams back, "Thank you!"

The victory is this: The board has cut only $10 million from the library budget. Reuben got back $1 million she thought she would lose. This means the county's remaining libraries won't have to cut back their service hours to ridiculously low levels.

"We've been spared the worst," Reuben says.

Given the bleak panorama facing Los Angeles County government these days, Reuben and the other 30 department chiefs who run the 83,000-employee bureaucracy try to find solace in such small victories.

Deprived of resources, they preside over cash-poor and crisis-ridden departments. Managing the county's public service network has become one of the toughest jobs in local government, a nightmare assignment.

Public libraries are shut down, overcrowded welfare offices routinely descend into chaos, hospitals turn away the sick, mentally ill people fill the jails--all the result of a decade of fiscal austerity that has eroded the county's ability to meet vital needs.

Through it all, career bureaucrats like Reuben are doing their best to persuade everyone that county government can still work. The job isn't easy. The word layoffs hovers over the bureaucracy like persistently bad weather.

Downsizing is the new county buzzword. A plan to eliminate 4,200 county jobs was shelved earlier this fall, but several hundred jobs will still be eliminated by next year.

Morale among the troops is understandably low. Many of the department chiefs' top subordinates are taking advantage of an early retirement program. Countywide, 630 employees have left so far. "A lot of people are jumping ship," Reuben says, "but we're going to stay."

At the treasurer and tax collector's office, one-fourth of the department's top managers will be accepting early retirement. As in other departments, this means more work for those left behind.

"It's been a damper for a lot of people during the holiday season," said Sandra Davis, the county's treasurer and tax collector. "People are telling us, 'More is expected of you. We're not going to pay you more, but you have a job to do.' "

And if the fiscal crisis weren't enough to make the bureaucrats miserable, many have also lost some of their favorite perks, including hefty transportation allowances. Most department chiefs still earn about $125,000, but no longer receive the annual merit raises--usually about 7%--that used to be routine.

With the county's travel budget sharply reduced, taxpayer-funded trips to conferences in Hawaii and other sun-filled destinations are now a rapidly fading memory.

Lean times have brought a new sense of accountability to county government. As the Board of Supervisors searches for ways to save money, the department chiefs and their spending practices have come under intense scrutiny.

Long considered by some underlings to be the pampered children of the county family, some top managers now confess privately to feeling overworked and underappreciated.

"People are saying, 'There are too many bureaucrats around here, let's get rid of some,' " said one department chief who asked that his name not be published. "The Board of Supervisors has an attitude of not showing much respect to managers now. It makes it harder for us to deal with all of these problems."

Another department chief adds: "It's difficult to be motivated when there's all this county-bashing going on out there."

Consider the dilemma faced by Eddy S. Tanaka, head of the Department of Public Social Services. Every month, the number of welfare clients in the county sets a record--about 1.6 million at last count. And yet, each year, Tanaka has fewer workers to handle the growing caseload.

Tanaka is, in effect, the man responsible for putting food on the table of thousands of the county's poorest residents. His charges range from indigent families to men holding "will work for food" signs on freeway on-ramps.

The burden seems to have taken its toll.

"I'm tired," Tanaka says. "I think I'm just mentally exhausted. This year has been exceptionally bad. I'd like to put a fishing line in the lake just to relax. I guess I'm just an old veteran."

The welfare department is about 30% understaffed, Tanaka says. The result is predictable: frustration and tension among clients and marathon waits for welfare checks. Social workers handle enormous caseloads of 200 and up.

"I never cease to be amazed," Tanaka says of his visits to the county's 30 welfare offices. On any given day, he might find harried social workers staging a lunchtime walkout to protest working conditions, or the Fire Department clearing an office overflowing with irate clients.

All of this is a far cry from the days when Tanaka joined the welfare department as a social worker trainee in 1958. Back then, social workers still made visits to clients' homes and tried to counsel people out of poverty.

"In the old days, if the caseload went up, (political leaders) were able to raise the property tax to pay for the additional staff," Tanaka remembers.

What is Tanaka doing to keep up employee morale during these difficult times? Well, there was that charity-night excursion to "Wrestlemania" the other night. Two hundred DPSS employees attended the raucous wrestling extravaganza. And even though the employees paid their own way, the event seemed to lift people's spirits, Tanaka says.

"Working for government in a compression mode is a very difficult thing," Tanaka observes. "Especially when you can't control the workload. If General Motors were going to cut back staff, they would reduce the number of cars they produce."

Tanaka, however, can do nothing to stop the growing number of poor men, women and children passing through the metal detectors installed at each DPSS office.

In some departments, crisis has become the perennial mode of doing business.

Robert Gates, head of the Department of Health Services, has grown accustomed to harsh economic tidings as he oversees the county's public hospital system, health care of last resort for millions of the county's poor and uninsured residents.

The department is currently coping with a $180-million shortfall, with county officials banking on a bailout by the state. If the state doesn't come through, however, more than 1,000 jobs could be threatened, most in outpatient services.

Yet Gates seems to take a blase attitude about this latest fiscal calamity--years of similar cuts have left him numb.

"We've been facing shortfalls every year for the past 10 years," Gates says. "Now the bottom has fallen out even further."

Still, upon some reflection, Gates acknowledges that the county's ongoing budget crisis has changed the way he does his job.

"If we weren't dealing with questions of day-to-day economic survival, we could spend a lot more energy on devising new and better programs and making more productive use of the resources we have now," Gates says. "Instead of doing those things, we spend our time fighting the fiscal fires."

Gates, 51, joined county government in 1963 as an administrative trainee.

"There aren't the rewards there used to be," he continues. "You tend to measure success more in terms of how well you've been able to do with how little resources you have, rather than in building better programs that serve people better."

At the headquarters of the county public library system in Downey, Reuben faces similar challenges. Last month, besides closing 10 libraries, Reuben shortened hours at the county's 82 remaining libraries by 13% and cut new book purchases by 60%. The cuts came after the state budget sharply reduced payments to local governments.

These days, the library system's motto--"Imagine the Possibilities"--seems like a bad joke. With a wry smile, Reuben says library officials came up with the slogan last year--"never imagining the possibility" of this year's rollbacks.

Reuben, 51, began work for the county 27 years ago as a children's librarian.

"I've stayed with the county these many years because it's a place that allowed me to be the best," she says. "It's been like 'Bureaucracy University,' " a place to learn the finer points of public administration.

In the current fiscal climate, her best hope for saving the Los Angeles County library system can be summed up in one word: philanthropy. "If people really want and need service, they must be willing to find a way to fund it," she says.

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