After four years of overflowing coffers, Los Angeles County is being forced to cut services to cope with the state’s economic slowdown, which is hitting even as the federal government phases out a health waiver that has allowed the county to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually beyond what the rules normally allow.
Within moments of its release, the proposed fiscal year 2002-03 budget was being assailed by the Sheriff’s Department, which complained that the plan left it $50 million short of what it needs to fulfill law enforcement obligations.
Sheriff Lee Baca and the county Board of Supervisors have battled for months about his spending priorities, and sheriff’s officials said Monday that the new budget would force cutbacks.
“As proposed, this budget is a recipe for disaster that significantly impacts law enforcement,” Baca’s budget chief, Marvin J. Dixon, told reporters after the county’s budget presentation.
The sheriff would have to reduce services in unincorporated areas, shrink or eliminate jails, and end investigative programs involving hate crimes and identity theft, among others, he said.
Supervisor Gloria Molina said that according to the budget proposal drafted by the county administrative office, the department actually would receive $12.9 million more from the county next year. The shortfall would result from costs that are increasing even faster. Some of those, such as legal liability and increasing workers’ compensation expenses, are at least partly within Baca’s control, she said. Rising costs also include increased deputies’ benefits.
“He’s got the largest number of people on workmen’s comp than any other area. And look at the settlements that we’re paying out,” Molina said. “We’re barely holding the line in almost all of the departments. I think everybody is not happy with the budget as proposed.”
Indeed, the $205-million decrease in the county’s $16.2-billion budget would come from service reductions in a number of areas.
Among the proposals: closing a juvenile camp, increasing caseloads for officers supervising juvenile probationers, ending the work furlough program for jail inmates and the district attorney’s environmental crimes and sex crimes units, and cutting library hours or closing branches.
Those effects could be felt by many county residents, but some of the most affected would be the poor and mentally ill. Cutbacks could force a rough triage in treatment: Psychotics, for example, would be served; those suffering from depression might not under a plan under discussion at the department.
“We’re going to be facing some pretty difficult choices,” County Administrator David Janssen told the supervisors’ staff Monday morning. To stave off layoffs, the county will eliminate about 500 jobs through attrition and delete nearly 2,000 vacant slots from the books, he said.
All that assumes the budget outlook holds, however. Some officials fear that it may worsen between now and July, when the budget takes effect. The state, Janssen said, could further reduce county funds as it struggles with its own projected $17.5-billion shortfall.
The proposed reductions are in addition to the county health department’s looming $688-million funding shortfall--a result of the phasing out of a waiver to Medi-Cal rules allowing the county to bill a higher rate for outpatient services. The waiver ends in three years.
Even the Probation Department, which received a boost last year from new state crime-prevention grants, is losing ground. To cover next year’s $10-million shortfall, caseloads for officers supervising juvenile probationers will rise from 81 to more than 100.
San Dimas’ Camp Glenn Rockey, where 120 juvenile delinquents who committed low-level crimes participate in art programs and community college classes, would be closed.
Those young offenders would be sent to overcrowded juvenile halls with more serious offenders, said Chief Probation Officer Richard Shumsky.
“In years like this, you just have to do the best you can,” Shumsky said.
But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Shumsky and others are playing politics to try to squeeze more money out of the county.
“We tell them you have to cut and they say, ‘OK, we’re going to cut your favorite program,’” Yaroslavsky said. “I can assure you that the camp is not the only thing the department can put up on the chopping block.”
Still, the issues for the county are severe because of insufficient tax receipts, reduced state funding, limited spending flexibility and steadily growing costs.
Dixon, from the Sheriff’s Department, complained Monday that the agency does not have that much fat to cut. It closed a medium-security jail and emptied the wing of another jail this year to cut down on staff and reduce what was shaping up as a $40-million shortfall this year.
That still has left a $25-million overrun on his $1.4-billion budget this year, leading supervisors to require Baca to submit monthly expenditure reports.
Supervisors in turn complain about pet projects and some eyebrow-raising purchases, including an airplane.
Also adding to the pain is a $27-million civil rights lawsuit that Baca settled last year with jail inmates who claimed that they were detained too long and illegally strip-searched. It will be paid over three years.
A spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich lamented the proposal’s implications for Baca and his department.
“This budget represents the fleecing of the county’s law enforcement departments,” Tony Bell said. But he acknowledged that changing the proposal will take more than one vote and “it remains to be seen” whether he has enough support on the board.