Supervisors Barely Pass Plan for Cuts : Budget: Angry opponents of proposal say they weren't included in its formulation. Steiner, board's newest member, is forced to cast swing vote.


In a rare display of political division, the Orange County Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a plan Tuesday that would seek a 10% reduction in the county's top management staff.

The issue, punctuated by terse exchanges among supervisors, forced the board's newest member, William G. Steiner, to cast the swing vote in favor of a plan that promises to save the county $5 million to $7 million annually.

In other actions designed to cope with the county's bleak financial situation, the supervisors also ordered a study of how to attract film and television productions to the county; approved job cuts in the Environmental Management Agency and accepted an auditor's recommendations that could lead to savings of more than $1.6 million in landfill costs.

Angry board opponents of the budget proposal written by Supervisors Gaddi H. Vasquez and Roger R. Stanton complained that they had not been included in the plan's formulation and that it contained few new solutions.

"It's nothing more than grandstanding," Chairman Harriett M. Wieder said after the debate. "This is micro-management at its worst. We pay the county administrator good money to make these kinds of decisions."

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, the other dissenter, said that while he believed the recommendations had some merit, his vote against the policy was cast in "protest" because he was not briefed on the plan before it was released to reporters March 5.

"Before I went down (to the board meeting), I was going to vote for it, but after listening to the discussion I began to be angered," Riley said. "I felt like with something this important, we all should have been involved."

The Stanton-Vasquez proposal called for a range of budget actions in addition to the 10% staff cuts. Among the other recommendations endorsed for study Tuesday were:

* A 35% reduction in monthly travel allowances for county department heads, from $715 per month to $465.

* Reassignment of county managers to fill critical vacant positions while they continue to perform their own jobs.

* Expanded early-retirement offerings for all executive-level employees.

* A prohibition on management salary increases and a hiring freeze on executive-level positions for 1993-94.

As proposed, the plan drew initial opposition Tuesday from county Auditor-Controller Steven E. Lewis, who claimed that "across-the-board" management cuts would "unnecessarily harm the county" as it worked to reduce a staggering $93-million budget shortfall.

Although it is not explained in the plan, both Vasquez and Stanton said the staff cuts were never meant to be enacted across the board, prompting sharp retorts from their colleagues.

"That's what it says!" Wieder said, breaking into Stanton's explanation. Wieder also said that some of the recommendations proposed Tuesday--specifically the hiring and salary freezes--were already being enacted.

After a lengthy debate, Steiner, attending his first meeting since being sworn in Monday to replace former Supervisor Don R. Roth who resigned amid allegations of influence peddling, broke a 2-2 deadlock when he described the budget plan as a "good first step."

"If we thought we had a big problem in the city of Orange with a $9-million shortfall," the former Orange councilman said, "we have a huge path to get down" in reducing the county's shortfall.

Steiner said late Tuesday that he also would recommend an immediate 10% cut, or about $70,000, from his own office staff budget, which now totals $668,000 annually.

"I wasn't really prepared for (emotional debate), but I wanted to make sure my vote counted," Steiner said.

County staffers are expected to bring back a plan for enacting the proposed changes by next month, in time for the county budget hearings.

In an interview after the board debate, Vasquez said it was "regrettable and disappointing" to hear his colleagues' opposition to a plan that he hoped would "set the right kind of tone" for a difficult budget year.

"We're talking about savings of between $5 million and $6 million in staff and other administrative reductions," Vasquez said.

It remained unclear exactly which positions would be targeted in the cuts, but both Vasquez and Stanton had pledged that neither the supervisors' office staffs, totaling $3.1 million per year, nor the $6.6 million annual budget for the county administrative office, would be spared.

"Anyone who would look at this based on the merits would count this as a positive step," Vasquez said.

Talk of the county's massive shortfall and proposed budget actions dominated Tuesday's board meeting.

In addition to the Stanton-Vasquez plan, the supervisors also agreed unanimously to delete 46 vacant positions from the Environmental Management Agency in order to save an estimated $2.8 million a year.

The move came on the heels of much larger staff and program cutbacks at the agency that were approved by the board last July. EMA has broad authority for county planning and land-use decisions, from beaches and parks to wildlife protection, flood control and new construction.

The two rounds of budget cuts will shrink the agency's staff by a total of about 20%, from more than 1,600 employees last year.

The supervisors also agreed Tuesday to accept the findings of an independent audit recommending that the county cut back hours of operation at its four landfills, limit public access and reduce the number of workers who handle trash there.

The proposals, among a package of several dozen changes aimed at saving $1.65 million a year in trash costs, will now be reviewed by the county's Waste Management Commission.

Several local residents complained to the supervisors that the public would be denied access to its landfills under the changes.

Commercial trash hauler Dolores Otting questioned why the county would pay $239,000 for the audit to an accounting firm, Ernst & Young. She said the project should have been bid competitively.

But not all the talk Tuesday focused on cutting services. Under a plan by Vasquez, the board also agreed to develop a "strategic plan" for luring more TV and movie makers to Orange County.

While government leaders could once afford to wait for industries to come to Orange County, Vasquez said, "those days are gone." He pointed to San Diego County's success in seeking out filmmakers for local shoots, which has generated millions for the local economy.

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