ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Some Praise County Budget Ideas, Others Hope to Bury Them : Reaction: Wide-ranging proposals prompt angry responses from labor leaders and health lobbyists.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Proposals for plugging the county's gaping financial hole--praised Thursday as bitter but needed medicine by some--are prompting anger and skepticism from labor leaders and health lobbyists who worry that county workers and services for the poor will bear the brunt of cost cutting.

The sweeping proposals include slashing all salaries by 5%, tapping into retirement reserves and allowing Orange County to skip out on paying for health, welfare and other programs mandated by the state.

While some of the legislative proposals were unveiled Wednesday by Supervisor Marian Bergeson, a more complete "plan for recovery" released Thursday by County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider evoked even greater ire from labor.

"We're totally opposed to across-the-board pay cuts," said Bill Fogarty, executive secretary-treasurer of the Orange County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. "The county just seems to at-will do whatever they want with this process. I think they're going to be in for a big surprise, because what they're doing is illegal and unnecessary."

Fogarty said the four AFL-CIO affiliated unions would vehemently oppose any county efforts to stop paying into the retirement reserve fund or tap what's already in it for other purposes, as proposed Thursday.

"Any attempt to touch anything in that retirement trust fund is going to create war to the nth degree with the employees of this county," he said.

The Orange County Employees Assn.--which represents 70% of the 18,000 county workers--could not be reached for comment. The AFL-CIO unions represent many of the other workers.

Schneider's proposal outlines $201 million in gains to the county--including $42 million in cuts already made--but it also acknowledges $65 million of the proposed savings may not be achieved in the near future, if at all.

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To balance its budget, the county must trim $172 million in what it had planned to spend during the final six months of the fiscal year. The bulk of that must come from $462 million in discretionary spending in its $3.7-billion general fund budget.

The plan drew mixed reviews from the Board of Supervisors. Supervisors Roger R. Stanton and Jim Silva said they wished for more detail and are eager to see the final draft, due next week. Supervisors Gaddi H. Vasquez, William G. Steiner and Bergeson, however, said they found some of the ideas in the plan intriguing.

"I think it has very bold recommendations," said Steiner. "It's a significant improvement on the $172-million shortfall and goes far beyond the $42 million in cuts already announced. There are some creative solutions in it to generate revenue. I think it's a very good start."

Vasquez, the board's chairman, said there is "some good material" in the plan, but he expected more "substance" next week.

Meanwhile Thursday, Bergeson's hefty proposal of possible legislative changes that could help Orange County regain solvency drew mixed reactions. While some chided the county for using the bankruptcy to solve problems shared by counties statewide, others said the proposals would give local officials the flexibility to spend more wisely. The proposals call for relief from a number of state-mandated programs, as well as other temporary waivers of state law.

The American Civil Liberties Union warned that one proposal--to temporarily waive the right to jury trials in misdemeanor cases and replace them with judge-settled trials--is unconstitutional.

"It just seems wrong to throw out constitutional rights of criminal defendants because the county needs to find extra room in the budget," said Mark Silverstein, an ACLU staff attorney. "Orange County simply doesn't have the authority to deny jury trials."

Bergeson aide Dave Kiff said that further research will reveal any constitutional problems in the proposals. Bergeson planned to approach various members of Orange County's legislative delegation late Thursday to work out details of who would carry the various bills, he said.

The proposals are "a laundry list of things that need to be looked at," Kiff said, adding that while some of the bills may be long shots, "the onus is on us to prove that these are special circumstances, which demand some special legislation."

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The list also calls for a bill to let the county privatize any service it chooses, another that would allow the county to pay less than prevailing wages for public works projects, and a third that would let the county sell or lease property without bidding.

Other Bergeson ideas include passing a wealth of responsibilities--from property tax administration fees to matching fund requirements for Medi-Cal and drug abuse services--back to the state. Under another idea, the county would not have to pay its share of Aid to Families With Dependent Children--for a $6-million savings--and a host of programs the state mandates, but doesn't pay for, would be passed back to the state.

All the bills, if passed, would expire after five years. But labor representatives said they have opposed privatization bills in the past and will continue to do so.

"I think they're taking the opportunity of the bankruptcy to further this agenda that's always been there," said Cynthia Pickett, a field representative for SEIU Local 787, which represents county mechanics, custodians and others.

It's unclear whether the proposals would lead to a reduction in services or simply hand the burden of payment back to the state. But some Sacramento lobbyists said Orange County's less fortunate could suffer.

"It's either (creating) a state bailout or it's going to come out on poor people," said Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Assn. in Sacramento and a human service lobbyist. "It sounds like the poorest would bear the burden of the county's mismanagement."

However, Hugh Stallworth, the county's director of public health, said relief from mandates and state matching-fund requirements could give the county the flexibility to provide services more efficiently.

"It would free our hands to do more for the community with less restriction," he said.

Complaints about unfunded mandates and the burdens counties must increasingly face at the state's behest are not unique to Orange County.

"I think there may be a big problem in enacting special favors for Orange County, given its financial predicament," said Casey McKeever, directing attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Sacramento. "One has to expect that other counties are not going to feel that that's a fair way to solve this problem."

County efforts to raise sorely needed dollars would also include hikes in library fees. Within a week, the supervisors will consider increasing the daily fines for overdue library books from 20 cents to 25 cents, and begin charging up to 50 cents for reserving materials.

As a result of cuts in state revenues for the past two years, which forced some libraries to reduce operating hours from six to four days per week, officials had already proposed these fee hikes. A citizens task force hammered out the proposals late last year, officials said.

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"Now, I think bankruptcy has added some urgency to these proposals," said County Librarian John Adams.

Another proposal calls for the county to sell advertising space on county buildings and vehicles. The idea brought a novel response from one labor leader in the heat of battle with the county over contract issues.

"Our organization may be interested in taking out an ad on the side of the Hall of Administration to tell them what we think of their layoffs," said Robert MacLeod, general manager of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to his report.

Operation Bootstrap

Here's a selection of some of the steps proposed by Supervisor Marian Bergeson to close the county's huge financial shortfall:

* Increase county agricultural commissioner and sealer of weights fees to recover actual costs. Potential revenue: $800,000 annually.

* Establish fees for Local Agency Formation Commission services. Potential revenue: $248,000 annually.

* Allow county to temporarily discontinue any state-mandated program unless state agrees to fund program in advance. Potential revenue: not available.

* Suspend matching-funds requirements for various state programs. Potential savings: $4.34 million.

* Increase fees for goods and services provided to other governmental entities. Potential revenue: not available.

* Allow importation of solid waste into the county from outside and add a "host fee." Potential revenue: $76.75 million.

* Allow taxpayers to prepay property tax at a discount. Potential revenue: not available.

* Use special surcharges for general purposes. (Example: $23 charge for marriage license now goes for funding local domestic violence programs). Potential revenue: not available.

* Recover full cost of providing any service from any recipient, including county nuisance abatement programs, jail, agricultural commissioner inspections and processes by Sheriff's Department. Potential revenue: not available.

* Establish new fees for access to electronic information used for commercial purposes. Potential revenue: not available.

* Allow recovery of attorney's fees in cases where violations of county ordinances are being contested. Potential revenue: About $100,000.

* Allow public defender to collect retainer for services if client has ability to pay. Potential revenue: not available.

* Charge booking fees for juveniles brought to county detention facilities. Potential revenue: not available.

* Charge $3 for each medical visit initiated by a County Jail inmate who has money in a personal account. Potential revenue: not available.

* Use jail booking fees for operational costs rather than just capital improvements. Restricted revenue: $1.7 million

* Charge county management employees for parking. Potential revenue: $420,000.

* Raise fees for cable TV providers to allowable 5%. Potential revenue: $60,000.

* Provide more contract services to other governmental agencies. Potential revenue: not available.

* Encourage approval of video arraignments for all courts. Potential savings: $600,000.

* Reduce or eliminate library and regional park services. Potential savings: not available.

* Sell advertising space on county property. Potential revenue: $600,000.

Source: Supervisor Marian Bergeson

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday January 14, 1995 Orange County Edition Part A Page 20 Column 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction County fee proposals--An article and graphic Friday about fee increases being weighed to offset losses from the investment pool collapse inaccurately identified the author of the proposals. They were drafted by the county administrative office, not Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who does not necessarily support them.
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