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State Caveats Put Ventura County on Alert for Budget Shortfall

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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 caveats 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 begin their review of ways to balance their own tight budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

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Early county estimates are that the 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.

“We’ve already built into the forecast that we’re going to lose something,” Bigler said. “The question is how much. (Five million dollars) is a really conservative amount. We’ve really lost more than that.”

City officials see Wilson’s proposed budget differently, primarily because it spares 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.”

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Oxnard budget analyst Grace Hoffman said she was relieved that cities will not suffer 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 a two-year plan adopted last summer, makes a number of assumptions that county officials doubt will happen.

Specifically, federal commitments for immigration-related programs 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.

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Furthermore, Wilson ignores three lawsuits that could cost the state billions more. Trial court decisions have already gone against the state. And Wilson is counting on another $1.9 billion from increased federal funding and revisions in entitlement programs.

All of those factors worry 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 $37-million shortfall to deal with.

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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 board 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.”

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Some department heads are particularly worried about Wilson’s proposal to increase tenfold the county contribution to Aid to Families With Dependent Children, its principal welfare program.

Wilson proposes that those costs be offset by expanding the state 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.

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And he doubts that 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.”


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