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State May Still Raid Counties’ Revenue : Supervisor Is Right About Delay in Filling Positions

In recent years, August has been the cruelest month for Orange County supervisors. For August has meant budget hearings in which advocates of social programs, the sheriff, proponents of libraries and a host of others have pleaded for money the county did not have.

This time it was different, but the less contentious budget hearings may have been deceptive, as one supervisor rightly noted. Much of the county’s $3.5-billion spending blueprint for the next fiscal year is dependent on how much money state government takes from the county and how much it gives back. And in drawing up the state budget Sacramento made several assumptions that appeared foolish.

For one thing, the state budget relies on $3.6 billion in federal funds that have not been appropriated. For another, a federal court last month invalidated the state’s 1992 welfare cuts, so the state may have to look for more money for welfare.

Last year state legislators balanced their budget on the back of the counties. The danger is that a similar raid of county revenue could happen again.

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That is why Supervisor William G. Steiner was right to recommend that Orange County delay filling about 200 of the 930 new employee positions proposed in this year’s budget until it is clear that the state’s budget woes have been straightened out. If all the positions were filled, some people might have to be laid off soon after they were hired, which would make no sense and would cause understandable bitterness among those laid off and more skepticism among taxpayers over government’s ability to manage.

The county has done a good job in the past several years in not pushing workers out the door. Of nearly 2,000 positions trimmed from county departments, most were vacant, and only about 100 job cuts resulted in actual layoffs. County officials said all the new positions would be paid for from state or federal funds or money from cities that contract with the county to provide services such as fire protection or sheriff’s department patrols. Thus no county money would be spent on the new hires.

Part of the credit for the county’s coping with tough budgets goes to County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider, who saw problems down the road and made sure county staffers took steps to ease the pain. Part of the credit goes to Robert L. Citron, the county treasurer-tax collector who has managed to pry higher rates of return on the county’s funds than have his colleagues in other counties.

But the county still faces expensive problems, including two dealing with public safety. As many people warned, the “three strikes” law has started clogging the courts. A defendant convicted of two serious or violent felonies and facing trial on a third felony, with a mandatory 25 years to life sentence upon conviction, has little incentive to plead guilty.

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So more trials are being requested, meaning more public defenders and support staff must be hired to defend those unable to afford their own lawyer. Supervisors have been asked for $576,000 for four more lawyers and six supporting employees for the next year to help the public defender cope with the “three strikes” law. Sheriff Brad Gates asked for 55 new employees to work at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange, if it survives a court challenge and is expanded by 358 beds, as proposed. The new employees will cost well over $1 million a year.

Those are all reasons why county officials must keep a close eye on the purse strings. The days of booming growth, increased revenues and greatly expanding budgets are over. It remains time for extra fiscal prudence.


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