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OK on State Budget Is a Relief for Supervisors

Times Staff Writer

One Ventura County supervisor likened the just-passed state budget to a Ponzi scheme. Another doubted that legislators would follow through on a promise to repay money siphoned away from local government.

For all their ire, however, officials Wednesday were relieved that budget managers can finally get down to the task of deciding how Ventura County government can best weather another round of potential job losses and program cuts.

Initial estimates are that the county will lose $12 million in vehicle license revenue for the coming fiscal year. That equals about 20% of the general fund dollars that supervisors have discretion to spend as they see fit.

Faced with such a big funding hit, the county board would have little choice but to consider employee layoffs, work furloughs and deferred salary increases to make up the difference, several supervisors said.

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Officials will also consider dipping into the county’s reserves. But those accounts are not healthy enough to absorb the entire $12-million reduction, Supervisor Steve Bennett said.

Ventura County already has the lowest reserves of any county in the state, Bennett said. If supervisors were to dip into those accounts for the entire amount, the county would have just $11 million left for emergencies, a situation Bennett called “very dangerous.”

“I certainly don’t see how we could take the whole $12 million out of our reserves,” he said. “In my mind, that is not a practical solution.”

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston said he would be meeting with union leaders over the next month to see if areas of agreement could be reached. One cost-saving idea is to impose mandatory furloughs on the county’s 8,000-employee work force.

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For each day that employees take off without pay, the county would save about $1 million, Johnston said. Another proposal being floated is deferring merit increases, or in the worst case laying off employees.

But Johnston said he would recommend dipping into reserves before ordering layoffs. The state has promised to pay the $12 million back to the county in 2006, so short-term fixes may solve the problem without job losses, the county executive said.

“People are skeptical about it because the state has said that before and then reneged,” Johnston said. “But I’m going to take them at their word and I’m going to do everything to hold them to that.”

The leader of the county’s largest labor union said he hopes that Johnston and others will look for “creative” solutions to the problem.

Ventura County’s economy is dependent on people who have well-paying jobs, said Mark Pachowicz, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 998. Cutting programs, meanwhile, would only hurt those who are least able to fend for themselves, Pachowicz said.

“Laying off a bunch of people and cutting salaries through furloughs doesn’t solve the economic problem,” he said. “It’s kind of an economic balloon -- if you push one side the other side bulges.”

The county board very likely will choose a combination of spending cuts and dipping into reserves to address the problem, Supervisor Kathy Long said.

She can find no one who is happy with the plan passed by the Legislature on Tuesday after a marathon 29 1/2-hour session, Long said. The Camarillo-based supervisor called the spending plan “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

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“The good is that they passed the budget,” Long said. “The bad is that once again they steal from local government to do so. And the ugly is they rolled it over in a financial Ponzi scheme which just puts a huge problem in front of us for the next three years.”


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