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Supervisors Give Budget Provisional Approval

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The county Board of Supervisors on Monday formally approved its $13.6-billion budget for the fiscal year 1998-99, even though it reserved the right to make wholesale changes later, based on what state lawmakers in Sacramento do.

Such an awkward process is an annual event, with the supervisors trying to work out their budget--as state law requires--before the fiscal year starts July 1, but also before the state budget is finished.

This year, what happens in Sacramento is especially important, because state lawmakers are considering various efforts by Gov. Pete Wilson and others to repeal the vehicle license fee.

In the event that the fee is abolished or substantially reduced, the county would be forced to come up with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars from somewhere else--money that it and other counties say they don’t have.

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“It would be catastrophic if we lost the [vehicle licensing] funding,” Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen said during an all-day special budget meeting.

The budget was finally passed after 5 p.m. by a unanimous series of votes.

Most Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly oppose eliminating the license fee, saying it would gut local government spending, especially at a time when the state has a whopping surplus. But many Republicans are supporting it, saying the fees were increased dramatically in recent years and that it is time to give taxpayers a break.

Janssen said an elimination of the license fee is unlikely, but that even a compromise measure could cost the county “tens or hundreds of millions” of dollars. The county, therefore, is mounting an aggressive campaign to prevent the Legislature from touching the money--or to ensure that if it does, that it make up for the lost funds with some other form of guaranteed funding.

Though the county budget is the first in years not based on precarious funding that may or may not materialize, Janssen said there is little if anything in it that can be easily cut to make up for loss of the licensing fees. In all, the county will rely on the vehicle license fees for $985 million of its budget in the coming year.

So while the expected political dogfight over the vehicle fee gets underway in Sacramento, the supervisors spent an arduous day picking at the annual spending plan in an effort to ferret out nonessential programs.

One by one, the board summoned the county’s department heads and made them defend their budget requests. Then, when they found programs that they thought weren’t absolutely necessary, the supervisors conditionally approved them but put the money--about $35 million--in a “provisional fund” that can be redirected to make up for any licensing fees that are eliminated.

The budget as passed Monday is the largest in the county’s history, and it contains $300 million more than the spending plan proposed by Janssen in April.

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All but $26 million of that money comes from the state and federal governments, to pay for Sacramento- and Washington-based programs.

In all, the $300 million will swell the ranks of the county work force by 2,237 positions, to 84,169 employees.

More than 1,360 of those positions will help the Department of Health Services implement its ongoing re-engineering effort and to staff a new trauma center at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

The Sheriff’s Department will add 207 positions, in part to improve treatment of the mentally ill in county jails, while the district attorney will add 202 employees, many of them to beef up specialized prosecution units, according to budget documents.

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The Department of Children and Family Services will add 202 positions to help reduce caseloads, and the Probation Department will get 134 additional staff members, most of them in the juvenile probation camps to watch over an additional 200 beds for delinquent teens.

The budget is also the first spending blueprint to include restoration of funding for some vital government services that have been neglected since the county teetered on the brink of fiscal insolvency in 1995.

At least $3 million will go toward replacing some of the county’s ramshackle--and some say unsafe--vehicles. Another $16 million will go toward deferred improvements to county buildings, computer systems and for expanded services to the 1 million people living in unincorporated areas of the nation’s largest county.

The board also terminated a countywide hiring freeze that has been in effect throughout the recent fiscal crisis. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said such a move will give department heads more control over their budgets, and will help reduce rampant overtime paid to employees.

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