County Sees More Cuts Ahead Under State Budget : Spending: Officials downplay Gov. Wilson’s rosy scenario and predict heavy reductions. The outlook is not so bleak for the cities.
Despite Gov. Pete Wilson’s optimistic state budget plan, Ventura County officials are girding for service cuts and funding shortfalls next fiscal year.
Wilson’s proposed $41.7-billion general fund budget includes a number of assumptions that county leaders fear will prompt yet another year of reductions and restrictions, county Budget Manager Bert Bigler said.
“We haven’t calculated the numbers yet, but general reaction from past experience . . . is that the counties tend to take it in the shorts,” Bigler said.
Supervisors will discuss Wilson’s proposal today and will begin their review of ways to balance their own tight budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
County officials have estimated that their 1995-96 budget is $43 million out of balance, including an expected $5-million cut from state allocations, Bigler said. This year’s budget is $880 million.
He said that the projected $5-million reduction in state aid “is a really conservative amount. We’ve really lost more than that.”
“We’ve already built into the forecast that we’re going to lose something,” Bigler said. “The question is how much.”
City officials see Wilson’s proposed budget differently from county administrators, primarily because it excludes cities from deep cuts.
“They’re not giving us any more, but they’re not taking any more,” said Mike Sedell, assistant city manager in Simi Valley. “In this day and age, that’s something we can be pleased with.”
And Oxnard budget analyst Grace Hoffman said she was relieved that cities were spared from any further cuts.
“It’s great news to us,” Hoffman said. “We’re thrilled that there aren’t any cuts to the cities.”
The governor’s proposed budget, based on the two-year plan adopted last summer, makes a number of assumptions that county officials doubt will be realized.
Specifically, federal immigration commitments are $3.3 billion short of what Wilson is projecting. But some state revenue increases could close that gap to $2 billion, according to Wilson’s proposal.
Further, Wilson has ignored three lawsuits that could cost the state billions more. Trial court decisions in those suits have already gone against the state. And Wilson is counting on another $1.9 billion from increased federal funds and revisions in entitlement programs.
Each of those factors worries Ventura County leaders, who for years have watched the state balance its budget by diverting money away from counties.
“If this was something that was built on solid ground in terms of all the money being there, I’d feel a lot better,” Supervisor Frank Schillo said. “But it’s relying on money coming in from the federal government, and we know what kind of shape they’re in.”
Apart from state cuts, county supervisors have a roughly $37-million shortfall to deal with.
Following a procedure established several years ago as budgets tightened, department heads are charting exactly what services they provide, what is required by state and federal governments, what could be contracted out to private companies and what penalties exist for not complying with costly state mandates.
“That will give the board an opportunity to pare down the entire budget . . . and put us in a good position to pick and choose what programs can be cut,” Schillo said.
Supervisor Maggie Kildee, who placed Wilson’s proposal on today’s agenda, called Wilson’s document “very preliminary.”
“My main goal is to make sure the other board members have seen the governor’s proposed budget,” she said. “Counties are still going to get hit. But the optimistic thing is that the economy is beginning to show some signs of moving in the right direction.”
Some department heads are particularly worried about Wilson’s proposal to require the county to increase tenfold its contribution to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, its principal welfare program.
Wilson proposes that those costs be offset by the state’s expanding its support of trial courts and allowing counties to retain most of the fines collected by the courts.
But James E. Isom, director of the county Public Social Services Agency, is skeptical.
“It’s passing the buck,” he said. “We still end up running the program with the short end of the stick.”
Poor local families received more than $4.5 million in AFDC funds in November, and the county’s contribution was just over $112,000, he said. The county simply cannot afford the $1 million a month or more Wilson proposes, Isom said.
And he doubts the extra trial court funds will fully materialize.
“It’s hard for me not to be cynical, because we never seem to come out on top,” Isom said. “We don’t even break even. We always seem to wind up short.”
Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon is equally suspicious.
“It seems like what they’re doing is giving us money through the trial court funding and taking it away on the AFDC side,” he said. “The state usually says it’s an even trade, but our past experience is that it doesn’t work out that way.”
H.D. Palmer of the state Department of Finance said Wilson’s restructuring plan is fair because trial court spending statewide is growing by 11% a year, while AFDC costs rise only about 4.5% annually.
“With the three-strikes law now being implemented, a lot of the counties are seeing that as a potential cost pressure that will be growing,” Palmer said.
Statewide, restructuring trial court funding will generate $916 million for California’s 58 counties. But, on the other hand, the AFDC realignment will cost counties $1.2 billion, Palmer said. That gap in Ventura County has not yet been calculated, he said.
The difference will be made up by paring some state programs imposed on counties, Palmer said. Wilson has invited counties to recommend the state-mandated programs that should be cut, he added.
“This is something we believe is consistent with what we’re seeking at the federal level,” Palmer said. “But we also want to give counties greater flexibility to tailor their expenditures to their needs.”
What’s more, Palmer said, Wilson’s proposal to reduce corporate and personal income taxes by 15% will feed the state’s economic growth.
“It is a blueprint for the choices that are necessary to ensure a growing economy,” he said. “We think it is a document that will continue to hold the line on state spending, help create new jobs and help continue the economic recovery under way.”
But Isom, like other county officials, is not so sure.
Wilson’s plan “reduces his deficit,” the social services director said. “But it doesn’t solve our problems.”