Department Heads Hopeful Cuts Can Be Avoided

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day after supervisors decided to cut back funding for public safety, other department heads were hopeful the extra dollars would reduce the possibility of trims in their own offices.

But administrators remained skeptical that the estimated $4-million general fund boost would translate into more money for county programs such as food inspection, mental health services and planning.

"Things are tight and we were facing cuts again," said Kathy Jenks, who oversees the county's animal shelter, referring to an estimated $7.3-million shortfall in the county's budget. "So I applaud their action. I just hope it works."

Supervisor John Flynn also doubted that other departments can count on large funding increases. But he emphasized that raises and larger contributions to departments with leaner budgets, such as animal control and code enforcement, will be a priority.

"Morale in the county is low, there's no denying that," Flynn said. "And so changing that has to be one of our first concerns. There's not that much money to be gained, but we are on the right track, and the trend will get better."

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to limit guaranteed annual raises for the probation, public defender, district attorney and sheriff's departments to about 3.75%, roughly equivalent to the national Consumer Price Index for inflation.

The new formula is expected to sharply reduce annual increases, which were based on raises in salary and benefits plus a rise in expenses for equipment and services.

Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford urged the cuts, telling supervisors the current formula left the county with soaring public safety costs. More than half of the county's discretionary funds, $116 million, are now earmarked for public safety expenses. Holding increases to the Consumer Price Index would save the county about $4.2 million next fiscal year, Hufford said.

On Tuesday, Supervisors Flynn, Kathy Long and Steve Bennett supported Hufford's plan. Judy Mikels opposed the move, and Frank Schillo missed the vote because he was home recovering from heart surgery.

From home, Schillo, who opposed the reduction, said he was disappointed that supervisors voted in his absence. Schillo wrote a letter to fellow board members Monday asking them to hold off until his return in about a month. That period could have given Hufford time to work out a compromise with Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, Schillo said.

Barry Hammitt, who represents about 3,600 of the county's non-law-enforcement employees, applauded the supervisors' decision.

"Hopefully it will have a positive effect," said Hammitt, who expects to begin negotiating a new contract for county employees later this month. "They've pointed out in the past that because of [public safety funding], money for discretionary funds was shrinking. Now that they've put a cap on that hemorrhage, it should increase wages and help fill vacant positions."

Department heads have been complaining for months that low salaries have kept them from retaining good employees and recruiting for vacant positions.

Robert Gallegher runs the county's environmental health department. Gallegher said he has vacancies in several departments, including vector control and the leaking underground fuel tank program. His biggest lack is in food inspection, where Gallegher said wages of about 15% below those in neighboring counties have kept him from filling four vacant positions. The 12 remaining inspectors scramble to meet the demand of checking up on the county's 4,000 restaurants and markets three times a year.

"When you are down 25%, you just are not able to meet that inspection frequency, so the food facilities are inspected less often," Gallegher said. "And the whole purpose is to ensure that food facilities maintain compliance to reduce the risk of food poisoning."

Officials in animal control, the Planning Department and assessor's and auditing offices all said they are facing similar crunches and feared the current budget forecast would have meant even more scaling back.

Until last year, Jenks said, she was running animal control without an officer for the unincorporated areas of the county. Three positions were finally restored last year, but she worried the fiscal forecast meant she would once again lose them.

Other vacancies remain unfilled because of low pay, said Jenks, who also runs RAIN, the county's homeless program.

"It got pretty bad when we wouldn't let our RAIN clients apply here [to her department] because we could get them better jobs elsewhere," Jenks said.

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