A Year of Tough Decisions Looms

Times Staff Writer

With California facing a record tide of red ink, and local finances not much better, 2003 is shaping up as a year of uncertainty for Ventura County government.

The Board of Supervisors will begin making hard decisions about how to keep its $1.2-billion budget in balance within weeks of welcoming new member Linda Parks on Jan. 14. The former Thousand Oaks city councilwoman is replacing Frank Schillo, who steps down after two terms.

Health and welfare programs for the poor, mental health clinics for indigent adults and subsidized child care for working mothers are expected to be among the many areas supervisors will consider for reductions.

The county already will have fewer police officers on the streets and prosecutors in the courtrooms as a result of $17 million in budget cuts approved earlier in the 2002-03 budget cycle. Belt-tightening is certain to continue as supervisors deal with reduced state funding caused by a record $35-billion budget deficit in Sacramento.

"None of the choices are good," said County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston. "But we are still going to have to make them."

Labor costs will also rise as a result of union contracts that guarantee pay raises even as revenue is shrinking. One area of special concern for Johnston is the rapidly rising cost of health insurance for the county's 8,000 employees.

Health insurance rates have risen more than 30% in one year. But negotiated caps on employees' share of the bill prohibit the county from passing on any of the increased cost, he said. The county's general fund, which pays for most basic resident services, cannot sustain those increases, and the issue must be addressed in the coming year, Johnston said.

The general fund will also be tapped for payments to county employees' pensions. The county was not required to make any contribution for several years because the bull market of the late '90s left pension trust funds overflowing.

That surplus has evaporated in the economic downturn, however, and the county is obligated to resume payments, Johnston said.

Even as all these costs are going up, he said, much of the revenue the county depends on is expected to fall.

Sales tax receipts, for instance, are coming in lower than projected. That is bad news for four county departments -- district attorney, sheriff, public defender and probation -- that share a $48-million pot of special sales tax dollars.

Total county revenue is about 3% lower than projected, putting the squeeze on public safety programs. Dist. Atty. Greg Totten has already lost 20 vacant positions -- 14 for prosecutors and six for investigators.

The reductions leave his office with more work to do and little wiggle room to juggle staffs, he said. He is willing to do his part to help the county save dollars, Totten said. But if the supervisors try to cut too deep, he will draw a line.

"They've cut my budget pretty significantly," Totten said. "If their decisions start to jeopardize public safety in this community, I will take my case to the public."

At the state level, Totten said legislators are talking about releasing prisoners early or scaling back the three-strikes law to save money.

"They may save money in the short term, but in the long run it will make it harder for us to fight crime," Totten said.

Despite the financial troubles, supervisors hope to make progress on a number of goals and long-term projects not directly tied to the looming budget crisis.

For instance, supervisors are expected to fine-tune and prepare for the ballot two initiatives that will query voters on their willingness to create a public land conservation district. One measure will ask about the district's creation and the second will ask voters whether they are willing to tax themselves to pay for it.

The district would buy property or development rights for farmland and open space across the county for permanent preservation. Proponents say those purchases will help Ventura County maintain its semi-rural charm for the long run.

But taxpayer advocates are expected to closely monitor the tax supervisors select for the ballot. And the building industry is expected to weigh in with its own concerns.

Supervisor John Flynn, who supports the district's creation, concedes the timing may not be right to ask for a new tax. But the county has to be ready to take the issue to the public, he said. Supervisors are shooting to place the measures before voters in early 2004.

Flynn said he will also push for creation of housing for farm workers. Flynn and Supervisor Judy Mikels already have the board's agreement to look into sources of funding for such housing, from grants to the federal government.

Farming is the No. 1 industry in Ventura County, Flynn said, and supervisors must take a lead role in assuring that sufficient housing is available for the people who do the labor.

"It's a matter of organizing and dedication," Flynn said. "The money has to be found, but it is there."

In September, the county will open its long-awaited, $65-million juvenile hall. The spacious new quarters in El Rio include classrooms and a treatment complex for incarcerated juveniles aimed to help get them permanently out of the system.

The complex will house up to 420 juvenile offenders, relieving overcrowding at the county's cramped, dilapidated juvenile hall, and centralize programs now scattered across the county.

Additionally, Supervisor Steve Bennett intends to revive a proposal to limit individual contributions in county campaigns to $500, and to set up a watchdog panel to monitor violations. He is expected to get support from Parks.

Bennett will also be shepherding a proposal to dismantle Matilija Dam near Ojai, which is located in his Ventura-based district. A study on the feasibility of the project is underway and must be completed by 2004, he said.

Proponents say the dam's removal will restore the Ventura River to a more pristine condition and allow the endangered steelhead trout to freely migrate upstream. A free-flowing river will also dump more sand on coastal beaches to help counter erosion. But the cost, which early estimates put as high as $82 million, may be prohibitive.

Meanwhile, the contentious debate over the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch project may finally get a rest in the county Government Center this year. With the supervisors' 4-1 approval of the project's environmental review last month, the battle to defeat the development near Calabasas moves to the courtroom.

Ahmanson officials say lawsuits challenging the board's vote, and the need for additional permits, will hold up groundbreaking until early 2004. Opponents say they will push hard for Ahmanson's owner, Washington Mutual Bank, to sell the woods and grasslands overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

But a Washington Mutual official said that is not likely.

"We plan to move ahead in a very determined way," said spokesman Tim McGarry. "We want to build this project and believe it ought to be built."

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