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County’s Budget Deficit Estimated at $20 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A report released Wednesday estimates Ventura County’s budget deficit at slightly more than $20 million--a figure that one county official said was too low.

Board Chairman Frank Schillo maintains that the deficit is closer to $24.5 million. He said the county is relying on $4.4 million in onetime money that it may not receive in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“We need to be honest about the figures and not be surprised later on,” Schillo said. “I’d rather have all the bad news now, instead of worrying about it biting me later on.”

Budget Director Bert Bigler said that the report is only a working document and that it is up to the Board of Supervisors to decide exactly how the deficit should be calculated. He noted that Schillo’s concern over the use of onetime money is addressed in the 38-page document.

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“It can be either number,” Bigler said. “It’s all projection. By the time we get into the budget study sessions, we may get an additional piece of information about revenues that will change the number to something else.”

Faced with a $38-million deficit last year, the board decided to close only a $19-million portion of the county’s spending gap and delay further cuts until this year.

The remaining deficit has now been adjusted to just over $20 million, which includes pay raises and $5 million in inflationary costs for public safety agencies, Bigler said. The adjusted figure takes into account the use of $4.4 million in onetime money that the county is expected to receive from the state and federal government for a variety of programs and services, he said.

Bigler said the board must decide whether it wants to use the onetime money or some of its $17 million in reserves to help cover the shortfall. To do so without trimming expenditures, he said, would mean that the county would have a deficit again next year.

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This is what the board has traditionally done in the past. Last year, supervisors cut expenditures by only $6 million, while using $8 million in onetime money and another $5 million in higher-than-expected property tax and other revenues to cover the $19-million deficit.

But Schillo said he will push for the board to wipe out the entire budget shortfall this year, even if it means severe cuts in some departments. He said to postpone the action would only add to the county’s financial problems.

“It’s [essential] that the board stay the course in terms of having a commitment to this budget,” he said. “It’s easy to slip off.”

A significant portion of the budget deficit--about $5 million--is to cover inflationary costs for public safety agencies.

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Last year, the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance guaranteeing that all money generated by Proposition 172 would go to the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, probation and fire services. The half-cent sales tax generates about $30 million annually for these departments.

The ordinance also called for the county to increase these same public safety budgets in future years for inflation.

Unlike the Proposition 172 money--all of which comes from sales tax revenue--the county must pay for the inflationary provision out of its general fund. That means that non-public safety departments and programs would have to absorb additional cuts.

To help balance the county’s budget, supervisors have ordered all departments other than those in public safety to prepare ways to cut their budgets by as much as 25%.

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Barry Hammitt, president of the county employees union, said he worries that the impact of the public safety ordinance on other departments is only beginning to be felt.

“It’s like a cancer eating away at the budget,” he said. “Eventually, we’re going to get to the point--unless someone stands up and says this is really stupid---where all we’re going to end up with is these five [public safety] agencies.”

Schillo, who supported the public safety ordinance, defended its merit. He said that keeping the county’s reputation as one of the safest in the nation is essential to maintaining the area’s quality of life as well as to attracting and retaining businesses.

“I’ll take the heat on that,” Schillo said. “People here want to feel safe. That’s the pervasive attitude of the entire county. So if we’re going to go in the hole, then I’m going to go in the hole on behalf of public safety.”

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