Budget-Makers Wisely Pick 20% Solution : * County's Possible $136-Million Deficit Cries Out for Some Worst-Case Planning

Even when times were flush, Orange County budget officials tended to cry wolf. They warned that if spending were cut, workers would be laid off, corridors would be left unswept and parks would be filled with litter. Each year those dire forecasts went unfulfilled. But in the past two years the wolf has indeed bounded closer, and may be howling at the door. So far the county is taking the right steps to face the problem, tough though it is.

Next month the Board of Supervisors will consider what cuts are needed to make up a projected $136-million budget deficit, a staggering amount by Orange County standards. The bulk of that, $93 million, is a shortfall in the general fund, which pays for things like law enforcement, health programs and social services. The rest goes to special districts such as flood control and fire protection. Later in June, the board is due to approve the final fiscal blueprint. At $3.5 billion, the county budget has more than doubled in seven years.

County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider commendably ordered all departments to come up with a "worst-case scenario" of 20% budget cuts. He and other officials do not expect the trims to be that deep, but his announcement certainly increased the rhetoric. Sheriff Brad Gates warned that with cuts like that, you might as well hand children over to molesters. Not to be outdone, the Superior Court presiding judge advised going outdoors only if you had a .357 magnum handgun, and staying indoors only if your windows are barred. That kind of language does indeed command attention. Unfortunately, it doesn't provide constructive solutions.

Whatever cuts are made will not be uniform, since the supervisors believe correctly that public safety is the top priority. Yet even here there is room for tough examinations of everything from the cost effectiveness of Sheriff's Department helicopters to staffing at county jails.

The final budget won't take shape until the county learns how much money it will receive from the state, but the five supervisors have already begun taking steps to freeze or cut spending. That's exactly what they should do. They pledged to seek a 10% reduction in the county's top management staff. They promised to see what they can cut from their own staffs, which now cost over $3 million a year.

Those words represent a good start, and ought to be followed by action, which would set a good example for others who unavoidably will have to share in the pain.

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