In a chaotic session marked by competing spending plans, freewheeling horse-trading and impromptu sessions of finger counting, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Thursday ordered departments to trim expenses but fell far short of filling a gaping multimillion-dollar deficit in this year's budget.
The board directed most departments to trim budgets by 3% and parceled out lesser cuts in public safety areas--the Sheriff's and Probation departments; the district attorney's and public defender's offices, and the Municipal Courts.
The actions amounted to about $29 million in savings, far short of the $53 million in cuts the board had been aiming for. As a result, the board was left with a still sizable gap that it will attempt to close with a cap on salary expenditures. A decision on that action was put off until next week's board meeting.
After Thursday's session, supervisors conceded that their actions fell short of what is needed to pull the county out of a huge hole it has dug with shaky spending plans relying on dwindling reserves and creative accounting.
"Obviously, it doesn't go far enough, but we're faced with a difficult problem," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said.
That problem centers on the heavy cuts in law enforcement programs necessary to achieve savings in the county's $14.5-billion budget. Clearly, the board was unwilling to take the politically risky action of forcing deep cuts in those programs.
The result, though, was that the supervisors edged to the brink of making tough cuts all concede are needed, only to step back.
"It's hardly a beginning, but (it's) better than nothing," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who became somewhat of an expert on budget issues during his tenure on the Los Angeles City Council. "The board is understandably reluctant to make decisions that affect human lives. . . . But there is no hiding from the problems the county faces, and it is just a question of when the majority of the board wants to move on them."
Yaroslavsky had offered a motion that calls for cuts of up to 8% in most departments. In the end, he joined his colleagues in approving the 3% cut.
Chief Administrative Officer Sally Reed also had recommended an 8% across-the-board cut that would have resulted in more than 2,000 layoffs and a savings of about $118 million.
With those proposed cuts, Reed had sought to position the county to deal with a deficit that could reach $1 billion next fiscal year. She expressed concern that the board's actions Thursday failed to send a tough signal of its intent.
"Disappointed is not the word, but I am concerned about the process and building a consensus (to do something) before it is too late," she said. "They showed clearly that they are prepared to make exception for public safety, but I can't say I feel I have a clear understanding of where they want to go."
Thursday's daylong meeting may go down as one of the board's most lively. Supervisors broke for several recesses to total up the budget implications of a host of motions. Reed and her aides, the supervisors and their aides, and department heads and their aides huddled in twos and threes doing arithmetic--by hand--that involved millions of dollars.
Burke roamed the room soliciting opinions from department heads about what kind of cuts they could endure. At one point, four of the supervisors found themselves huddled in a corner, trading a million here, a million there for this and that department.
When someone mentioned that they might be violating the open meetings act, they broke up.
The county has been casting about for weeks in an effort to close a $641-million budget hole that stems from a dispute with the federal government over Medi-Cal reimbursement claims. About $590 million of that lies within the health services department.
The gap is expected to be filled by program changes in the Department of Health Services, although officials have not figured out what actions might be necessary.
Last week, the health department was ordered to provide the board with a detailed summary of departmental spending and to bring a plan for laying off about 1,200 hospital staff back for consideration next month.
Additionally, the department will proceed with a plan to reduce by 15% the number of interns and residents hired at teaching hospitals, including County USC and the Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center.
Cuts approved Thursday: Sheriff's Department, $7.3 million; Probation Department, $1.5 million; district attorney's office, $1 million; Department of Public Social Services, $4.5 million; supervisors, $1.05 million; Mental Health Department, $1.3 million; Department of Children's and Family Services, $343,000; coroner's office, $357,000, and Municipal Courts, $270,000.