Deep Cuts in Budget Weighed by O.C.

Times Staff Writer

Nearly $100 million in budget cuts -- ranging from delays in child-abuse investigations to reduced monitoring of sea pollution -- will be considered today by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Some proposals, such as reformulating how to finance a new South County courthouse, will be invisible to county residents. But included in the proposal, recommended by the county's top financial official, are an array of cuts that will reduce services to veterans, the elderly, hate-crime victims, the mentally ill and other vulnerable people.

"These cuts are going to be deep. They're going to affect people's lives," said Chief Financial Officer Gary Burton. "We would love to be able to avoid them, but we can't find a way to avoid them."

The county's annual budget is roughly $4 billion, and the proposed spending cuts total $97.9 million for the 2003-04 fiscal year. The proposal was unveiled in the midst of a state-budget crises that local officials predict will cost Orange County tens of millions of dollars next year.

But the county's financial woes go beyond the state budget. They include a shortage of property-tax revenue -- because the county sends far more property-tax dollars to Sacramento than it gets back -- and the massive debt the county incurred during the 1994 bankruptcy.

"We need to do all this because Orange County's finances are really very fragile," Burton said.

"We don't have a lot of room to move and help the state out or to accommodate rising costs and dropping revenue."

This is the first time cutbacks have been proposed in the county's five-year strategic financial plan, a long-range blueprint that has been completed every year since the bankruptcy.

The board, which has already heard several hours of heated testimony, is scheduled to consider the plan at a special meeting at 9:30 a.m. in Santa Ana. If the plan is adopted, it will shape the county's budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Burton said a recently introduced Assembly bill would increase the amount of property-tax revenue the county receives. The average California county now receives roughly $120 per person in property taxes; Orange County gets $42 per person, the lowest amount in the state.

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