O.C. Board Cuts Budget $106 Million

Times Staff Writer

More than $100 million in spending cuts for the coming fiscal year were adopted Tuesday by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, reducing funds for low-income housing, the elderly, sea pollution monitoring, the arts and other programs.

The board voted largely to stop paying for discretionary programs and said it would no longer compensate for the loss of funds from the state or other entities for programs in health care, social services and law enforcement.

The cutbacks, approved in dozens of votes during a four-hour meeting, are intended to keep the county out of the red for five years.

"It's what I call a death blow to community services," said board Chairman Tom Wilson.

Supervisor Chris Norby added: "I don't relish making these cuts, but the money's not there."

The county's annual budget is about $4 billion, and the proposed cuts, to be formalized when supervisors adopt a final budget, total $106.4 million for the 2003-04 fiscal year. Even with all the reductions, the county may still have to tap its reserves in a few years, officials warned.

The proposal by the county's top financial officer was unveiled in the midst of a state budget crisis that local officials predict will cost Orange County tens of millions of dollars next year.

The county's situation is exacerbated by a shortage of property-tax revenue -- the county sends far more in property tax dollars to Sacramento than it gets back -- and by the massive debt the county incurred during its 1994 bankruptcy.

"That's a 'Perfect Storm' situation because we don't have any room to move," said Chief Financial Officer Gary Burton, who announced Tuesday that he will retire March 20. "Orange County is very fragile."

This is the first time cutbacks have been proposed in the county's five-year strategic financial plan, a long-range blueprint completed every year since the bankruptcy. The plan will shape the county's budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

In adopting the plan, supervisors said the county could no longer afford to subsidize programs whose other funding sources fall short. One is the public safety sales tax that largely funds the district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department. With consumer spending down, the two agencies are getting less than they anticipated.

The plan saves $14.8 million by eliminating or reducing funds that would have covered treatment for drug offenders rather than jail, psychiatric treatment beds for severely mentally ill adults, medical beds at Theo Lacy Branch Jail, speedy child-abuse assessments and other programs.

Some supervisors initially balked at those cuts. "Our core responsibility is public safety," said Supervisor Jim Silva.

But Burton told them that if they didn't stop replacing dwindling funds that had come from other sources, the county would be $110 million in the red within five years. The board agreed to adopt Burton's guideline but said it would consider agency requests case by case.

Supervisor Bill Campbell was particularly worried about the Health Care Agency, which will lose $8.4 million for clinics, the mentally ill, children's services and other programs. Burton said the agency can try to shift the cuts during the budget process.

The board voted to cut the Office on Aging in half, eliminate the Office of Protocol and stop giving money to Arts Orange County. The board eliminated all county funding -- $13 million -- for low-income housing. Spending to lure tourists, businesses and filmmakers to the county will be cut 75%. Grants to nonprofits were eliminated.

The board spared Veterans Services, which was braced to lose half its funding, and cut the Human Relations Commission's funding 75%, rather than eliminate it.

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