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Board Trims $11 Million From County Budget Deficit

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Supervisors slashed county spending by more than $11 million Tuesday, in part by approving a 2% across-the-board cut to all county agencies, boosting revenue projections and instituting a four-day, no-pay employee furlough.

The Board of Supervisors will meet again Thursday at 9 a.m. to consider a remaining $1.7-million gap between spending and income in the county’s $531-million operating budget for the 1997-98 fiscal year.

And while the remaining budget hole may result in more reductions, some agency heads seemed relieved that the cuts didn’t go deeper as the board erased most of a projected $12.8-million deficit.

“I think 2% is better than 7% any day,” said Director Pierre Durand, whose Health Care Agency faced a $4.5-million cut when the day began and left with just $1.3 million in reduced spending by day’s end.

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Although the board may yet look to his agency for more trims, Durand took the board’s kinder, gentler budget action in stride.

“We’re taking reductions from not only the county but the industry in general, and these are in line with what’s taking place,” Durand said. “If it stays as it is, I’m very optimistic.”

What the board’s decisions will mean in terms of layoffs and reduced public services at the various county agencies will remain unclear until department heads can analyze their budgets, officials said. The board, which has been discussing the budget for two weeks, agreed to take a breather from deliberations today to give budget officials time to gauge the impacts.

Although the board ended its Tuesday deliberations with a flurry of decisions, the day began with several department heads spelling out what the proposed cuts for their agencies could mean.

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When Supervisor Susan K. Lacey asked Barbara Fitzgerald what a proposed 20% cut totaling $1.8 million would mean to the Public Social Services Agency, the interim director didn’t mince words.

“Certainly children’s deaths,” Fitzgerald said.

She said much of the funding that her agency receives from the county is used to leverage far greater amounts of funding from state and federal agencies. A $1.8-million cut, in turn, would translate to as much as a $15-million cut, she said.

“We could cut everything else in our budget and still have to cut Children’s Protective Services,” she said. “We’ll cut everything before we cut that.”

Supervisors managed to stave off many of the dire cuts that were predicted when the budget process began, opting instead for a combination of less onerous trims and increased revenue projections.

The board approved adjusting the tax revenue projections by $876,000 to reflect an improved economy, and later agreed to force county departments into reducing by $734,000 the internal service fees charged by one county agency to another to provide services that range from graphics to shipping to security guards.

Supervisors also decided to spend a pot of $1.3 million in business license fees that had been set aside amid a court battle over the ability of local government to raise fees without a public vote.

The issue remains unresolved, however, and the board may have to amend its budget if a court decision rules the fees illegal, officials said.

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Meanwhile, supervisors also benefited from $1.9 million in revenues transferred from the district attorney, sheriff’s and court departments, agencies that are mostly immune to budget cuts because of a special county ordinance.

A review of the ordinance by Auditor Thomas O. Mahon determined that the county’s operating budget is required to provide only a minimum level of support for public service agencies.

After some discussion with top law enforcement officials, Mahon said, the agencies agreed to commit revenues to the county’s General Fund equal to a 2% budget cut, Mahon said.

“They asked us all to take a 2% cut and we felt we had to do that,” said Sheila Gonzalez, executive officer of the Ventura County Municipal and Superior courts. “It was right. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, but you try to be a team player.”

In the end, what the board managed to avoid Tuesday was a dip into its reserve accounts, a practice that the county has used repeatedly in recent years to the detriment of its credit rating on Wall Street.

“We have to continue in the same fashion,” Supervisor Frank Schillo said when asked about how to find the remaining $1.7 million to cut.

“I know there’s probably a feeling out there that, well, we’re this close, why don’t we just throw in the money from [reserves]. That’s dangerous,” he said.


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