As they grapple with the worst fiscal crisis in their history, members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are running offices with annual payrolls of up to $1.9 million, including salaries of two aides earning more than $100,000 a year.
Operating without firm spending controls, the five supervisors vary greatly in how much they spend to staff their offices, an examination of payroll expenditures shows.
Supervisor Gloria Molina operates the leanest shop in terms of personnel and total payroll. She employs 22 staffers at an annual cost of $989,045.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Supervisor Mike Antonovich. He employs 37 staffers at a cost of $1.9 million.
And his chief deputy, Tom Silver, is the highest-paid board employee of all, making $107,219. That's 75% more than the $62,000 annual salary of Alma Martinez, Molina's chief deputy.
Such discrepancies reflect a quirk of Los Angeles County government: Unlike virtually every other legislative body in California, the supervisors have no set budget for operating their offices and personal staff.
"In the past, they just expressed their needs, and we put it in the budget," said Larry J. Monteilh, executive officer of the board.
That may be about to change as supervisors consider cutting their collective spending by 23%, and for the first time establishing firm and uniform budgets for staff, furnishings, mailings and public relations.
Those proposals follow the supervisors' decision two weeks ago to pare their own salaries by up to 8.25% as part of a work-force-wide belt-tightening.
The proposed austerity measures are part of a record bloodletting at the county, which must eliminate $600 million in expenditures. Deliberations begin Tuesday on a proposed $13.1-billion budget under which dozens of health clinics would close, libraries would be shuttered, museums would cut back hours and the poorest of the poor--general relief recipients--would suffer a 27% cut in welfare benefits.
Last year, the supervisors spent $37.3 million on their staff, operations and various support functions, including scroll makers and chauffeurs. About half of the total supervisors' budget paid for operation of the executive office, which maintains the board's file, handles communications, prepares agendas and motions, and does other clerical and accounting functions.
"The board offices can no longer just express what they want," Monteilh said. "Now their needs exceed the budget."
The office budgets of Supervisors Deane Dana, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Ed Edelman fall in between the high and low set by Antonovich and Molina, and all show distinct differences in total employees, range of salaries and payroll.
Edelman--who has 25 employees at a cost of $1.5 million--and Antonovich each have 16 employees making more than $50,000. Molina has six.
Deane Dana has 12 such highly paid employees, including his chief deputy, Don Knabe, who with an annual salary of $103,455, makes more than his boss. Supervisors are paid $99,297 annually, in addition to perks such as bulletproof cars.
The newest board member, Burke, employs 29 staffers--11 earning more than $50,000--at a total cost of $1.4 million.
Under the budget proposal before the board, all supervisors except Molina would likely have to make severe cuts in their spending to meet their budgets.
The proposed budget would allot each supervisor $1.2 million for his or her annual office payroll. Each would also be budgeted $325,000 for special events, $250,000 in discretionary funds for various community activities, $60,000 for printing and mailing, and $33,400 for new office furnishings, plaques, picture framing and travel.
More important than the dollars at stake is the acknowledgment that supervisors need to live within their means, said Molina, who has long been a critic of the board's lax fiscal controls.
"There's a budget. That's the change," said Molina. "We can't separate ourselves as different from other departments. We too have a duty to stay within a budgeted amount."
Molina questioned the spending practices of some colleagues--particularly the high salaries they pay some aides.
Other supervisors pointed out that they have been on the board 10 to 14 years longer than Molina and their staff members have earned steady pay increases along the way. Even Burke, who joined the board in December, said that she kept on many of the deputies and all of the secretaries who worked for her predecessor, former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who had been on the board 40 years.
Dana, who had the second-smallest staff and payroll total at 25 positions and a cost of $1.3 million annually, said he supports the proposed budget cuts and the need to set a firm budget.
"We've got to take a cut like everybody else," Dana said.
Dana said that all supervisors should be able to live within a uniform budget. "Why should there be a difference?" he said.
Antonovich did not return calls seeking comment, but his spokesman, Dawson Oppenheimer, said that it is the sheer size of the 5th Supervisorial District that necessitates the large and expensive staff.
Antonovich's district, at 2,854 square miles, is roughly twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. Because of that, Oppenheimer said, Antonovich must operate five field offices, each with a senior deputy.
Still, Dana operates the same number of field offices at a much lower total cost and with fewer highly paid employees. Edelman operates four field offices, Molina two and Burke has three fully staffed field offices and four others with part-time or volunteer help.
Burke said the size of the district is only one measure of the workload in a district, all of which have the same number of constituents. She said her district has the highest number of people using county services such as foster care and children's services. She also represents the second-largest number of welfare recipients.
All of the supervisors voiced support for the proposed changes and cuts.
"If we're asking others to cut back, we should too," said Burke.
"We're going to live within the budget being allocated," said Antonovich's spokesman. "And there will probably be some reduction in staffing."
But even with the proposed cuts, the supervisors will retain some nice perks.
In addition to the $1.9-million individual office budgets, they will share $4 million in leftover "discretionary funds" from prior years. Those funds can be used for special events and community activities in their districts.
The proposed budget also reserves $100,000 in a special revolving fund--essentially a checking account the board offices share to pay for refreshments, flowers and other petty office expenditures.
Edelman, the board chairman, said he cannot explain why the board has operated for so long without any fixed budgets for supervisors.
"There was no good reason for it," said Edelman. "It's just the way it always was."
But now, Edelman said, "the time has come to change all that."
The board has come under fire in recent years for spending on high-security cars, gourmet luncheons and a 20% boost to pensions of high-ranking officials, including themselves.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown called the county a "bloated bureaucracy" and cited its lavish spending as cause for cutting tax revenues that led in part to the current budget crisis.
As the county's fiscal plight has worsened, Edelman said, "we had to recognize that we had to shape up."
"We've got real problems," Edelman added. "So now we're tightening our belts. We're taking a hit. It will help, there's no question about it."
Los Angeles County supervisors for years have been able to staff their offices without firm spending guidelines. That has resulted in wide variations, which may be about to change as the county prepares to adopt a budget with unprecedented cuts. Here are current staffing details for the five supervisors. Gloria Molina
* Staff members: 22
* Highest-paid employee: Carol Salva, a staff deputy, $65,000
* Annual office payroll: $989,045
Burke District 2
* Staff members: 29
* Highest-paid employee: Herb Wesson, chief deputy, $81,000
* Annual office payroll: $1,446,779
* Staff members: 25
* Highest-paid employee: Robert Geoghegan, chief deputy, $97,596
* Annual office payroll: $1,467,057
* Staff members: 25
* Highest-paid employee: Don Knabe, chief deputy, $103,455 *
* Annual office payroll: $1,345,581
* Staff members: 37
* Highest-paid employee: Tom Silver, chief deputy $107,219 *
* Annual office payroll: $1,852,777
Note: The total number of staff members includes full-time budgeted intern positions.
* Salary exceeds supervisor's salary of $99,297.
Source: Executive Office of the Board of Supervisors
Compiled by Times researcher CECILIA RASMUSSEN