Balancing Its Budget Could Cost Ventura

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reductions in law enforcement jobs and other areas may be necessary to keep Ventura County's budget balanced under a $1.1-billion fiscal plan unveiled Friday for the coming year.

Most county government programs will see healthy revenue growth, averaging 4.1%, according to preliminary figures for the 2001-02 budget released by County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston.

But department managers are being asked to absorb in their own budgets any salary and benefit increases negotiated by employee unions. With two-thirds of the county's 7,500-member work force pushing for new labor pacts, that cost remains a question mark.

About 200 employees represented by Service Employees International Union, one of four unions seeking new contracts, held an informational picket outside the Ventura County Medical Center at noon Friday. The union members will vote Wednesday whether to strike if their contract demands are not met by the end of the month.

County budget analysts estimate the price tag for meeting all of the unions' demands could be at least $6.6 million, meaning department managers will have to come up with new money, leave positions vacant or eliminate them for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Asking individual managers to find room in their budgets for salary increases is a departure from the county's historical practice of granting raises and then scrambling to find money to cover them, said Bert Bigler, chief deputy administrative officer.

But the shift is necessary, Bigler said, to tighten control over the county's finances and end a decade-long practice of spending more money than the county is taking in.

"If they can't come up with revenue to cover the increases, they will have to identify where they can make up those costs," Bigler said. "This is an approach that [former county administrator] Harry Hufford brought to the board in February and one that we think should continue."

That approach was already drawing fire Friday. Negotiated increases for sheriff's deputies, for instance, could cost Sheriff Bob Brooks an estimated $4 million in the coming fiscal year, an increase he is being asked to pay out of his proposed $157-million budget.

"We took about a $3-million hit last year, and a $4-million hit this year would be very significant," Brooks said. "But you have to start somewhere and that's what [Johnston] has tried to do."

Brooks' financial deputy, Geoff Dean, suggested the county use about $3 million sitting unused in a public safety trust fund to cover the cost of raises. But Bigler said that money has already been allocated and is unavailable for salaries.

Final funding decisions will be up to the Board of Supervisors. Numbers released Friday may change as new revenue is identified, Bigler said, and final budget hearings are set to begin June 25.

Johnston was unavailable for comment. But in a letter attached to the recommended budget, he said his goal is to restore financial stability to a budget battered in recent years by poor planning and costly state and federal audits.

Of immediate concern is reinstating an A1 bond credit rating on the more than $100 million the county borrows each year.

Wall Street financial firms dropped the county's credit rating last year in response to financial problems. Johnston and other county officials were meeting with the analysts in New York on Friday in an effort to get the rating back up.

Plan Erases Projected $7.3-Million Shortfall

The county's 2001-02 budget plan erases a $7.3-million shortfall projected earlier this year, largely by asking department managers to find ways to absorb increased salary costs.

Supervisor Frank Schillo said the new budget shows the county has put its finances back on track after three years of instability triggered by an ill-advised merger of the county's mental health and social services departments.

"This is a significant turning point," Schillo said. "We have a balanced budget and our fund balance for next year will be about $25 million. We haven't had that much money being carried over from one year to the next for a while. This says we are no longer in turmoil."

But close attention must be paid to several upcoming issues if the budget is to remain in the black, Johnston warned. In addition to spiraling labor costs, the county faces a 30% increase in energy costs, a $1.2-million increase to enact a "living wage" law for employees, and a state mental health audit that could drain another $9 million from the treasury.

Budget Includes Settlement Funds

The budget includes $25 million from the proceeds of a states' tobacco lawsuit settlement, but that money will not be distributed until a citizens' advisory committee makes recommendations to supervisors. Even then, the county very likely would retain only a portion of the funding for health care programs.

Although public safety departments received increased funding, Johnston turned down some requests. Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, for instance, asked for $263,499 to pay for an attorney and investigator to help prosecute major crimes, including the massive Hells Angels drug case working its way through the system.

Bradbury also asked for $524,900 to cover increasing costs of such items as expert witnesses and court interpreters. That also was turned down. Gregory Totten, chief deputy district attorney, said his boss recognizes the board "faces some tough issues" but said Bradbury will continue to press for those items.

"We certainly intend to seek funding in those areas that historically have not been funded adequately to help us prosecute significant cases," Totten said.

The biggest-ticket cost for some departments will be salary increases. Four unions are seeking new contracts, including sheriff's deputies and about 4,500 nonpublic safety employees.

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