Orange County Finance Chief Details Cuts

Times Staff Writer

Orange County's top financial officer on Wednesday presented a grim array of budget cuts he said may be necessary in the coming months. The effects could include delayed investigations of child-abuse reports and less monitoring of sea pollution.

Chief Financial Officer Gary Burton unveiled the list of potential cutbacks in the midst of a state budget crisis that officials said could result in tens of millions of dollars less in funding to Orange County. But Burton emphasized that the county's financial woes go beyond the state budget. They include a shortage of property tax revenue and the massive debts county government incurred during the 1994 bankruptcy.

Burton's suggested budget-cutting targets include mental health services for the poor, funding for senior citizens and veterans and efforts to lure filmmakers to Orange County.

But it remains unclear how much of his proposal would actually be implemented. That will depend at least in part on the final outcome of state budget negotiations. While Gov. Gray Davis' original budget would hit county governments hard, Democrats in the Legislature have proposed tax increases that would lessen the blow. On Wednesday, Davis said his plans to reduce funding to the counties may be dead.

"No matter how you twist it, programs will be reduced," Burton said. "We have little room to move because we are a donor county" -- getting back much less in property tax revenue than the county sends the state -- "and we're paying for the bankruptcy." The Board of Supervisors, after listening to nearly six hours of detail on potential cuts and their effects, decided to hold at least one more workshop in the next two weeks before adopting the plan. Once the five-year financial plan is adopted, it will be the template for the county's budget for the next fiscal year.

The county's annual budget is roughly $4 billion, and the proposed spending cuts total $97.9 million for 2003-04. That number includes major items that won't directly affect the public, such as financing the construction of the long-awaited South County Courthouse rather than paying for it in one lump sum.

But other parts of the plan would bring major reductions in service. Among the proposals:

* Cutting $5.9 million from the Health Care Agency, affecting clinics, disease control, labs and other services.

* Eliminating $1.7 million for law enforcement agencies sending drug abusers to treatment rather than jail.

* Cutting $1 million in the Social Services Agency, which officials warned could mean such things as slowing response time for investigating child-abuse cases.

* Cutting by $1 million from watershed and coastal water quality monitoring.

Burton said the plan represents an effort by the county to focus primarily on the services it is legally required to provide. Even some services that are necessary may have to go, he said.

"Bare bones isn't a bad term to use," Burton said. "We're getting back down to the very basics. We don't have any money to spend on anything discretionary."

Laguna Woods Councilwoman Brenda B. Ross, former chairwoman of the county's Senior Citizens Advisory Council, argued that some of the programs being targeted provide a crucial lifeline.

"I beg you to look at your priorities," she said. "We can't cut services to the people who can't take care of themselves, and I'm talking about children as well as seniors."

Over the next four years, the Veterans Services Office and the Office on Aging would see their budgets slashed in half. Community nonprofit groups would lose the $375,000 a year they receive in small grants from supervisors. And $1.3 million a year would be cut from the nonprofit business and tourism councils, Film Commission and Arts Orange County.

The cuts would balance county income and spending for the next five years.

Under Davis' budget, the county would lose at least $30 million in vehicle license fees, from which the county derives 46% of its general fund revenue.

The county heavily depends on the vehicle fees because, under a formula set in the 1970s, it receives only a sliver of the property taxes the county's property owners send to Sacramento.

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