Proposed L.A. County budget shifts money to jails, foster care reform

Proposed L.A. County budget shifts money to jails, foster care reform
L.A. County children's social workers strike outside the El Monte field office of L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina in December. The proposed county budget addresses hiring more social workers and reducing caseloads. (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County officials proposed a budget Monday that would pump money into reforming major problem areas, including the jails and foster care system, while expanding county medical staffs to manage the transition to federal healthcare reform.

As part of a $26-billion spending plan that builds on post-recession economic improvements, Chief Executive William T Fujioka called for adding more than 1,300 positions to county government, including nurses, social workers and staff for the newly created Sheriff's Department inspector general.


The county has a workforce of more than 100,000, making it by far the largest employer in the region.

For a second consecutive year, officials project that revenue will keep pace with spending after years of deficits during the economic downturn, when the county was forced to dip into reserves. They also made deep cuts to department budgets and froze hiring and pay.

Fujioka said the new budget aims to stabilize programs and restore some of what officials cut during the recession.

"We're not just going to restore it based on what we've cut in the past," he said. "We're going to restore funding in an intelligent and very thoughtful process to ensure that we maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the funds."

Los Angeles County is the largest local government in the nation, serving 10 million residents, and is responsible for a vast network of social welfare, public safety and other government services.

The county has seen an upward trend in local revenue over the last few years, with a projected 4% increase in property and sales taxes next year. But the bulk of funding for county programs — about $20 billion — comes from the state and federal governments.

Gregg Fishman, a spokesman with the California State Assn. of Counties, said the recovery has been uneven across the state but that counties are beginning to backfill cuts made during the recession.

"Where the revenue is coming back to pre-recession levels — or something approaching it — counties are beginning to restore services and programs that had been cut during the recession," he said. "In many cases that does mean hiring people."

Fujioka said the most critical concern for this year is shoring up the county's medical system — second-largest in the nation, with four hospitals and 19 regional clinics — to retain newly insured patients who now can afford to choose where to seek care. The budget proposal includes more than 700 nursing-related positions, which would help the county meet state-mandated nurse staffing ratios.

Vivian Branchick, director of nursing affairs for the county's Department of Health Services, said the new hires would replace positions that have been filled by temporary workers in the past. The move to hire permanent employees is part of the department's plan to transform the county into a health provider of choice for patients, she said.

She said that having permanent employees makes "better business sense" than paying outside contractors and will improve patient care and boost staff morale.

"With healthcare reform, it's really important for us to be able to compete," she said.

Social worker staffing has been another concern for the county, with social workers arguing that high caseloads are endangering lives, requiring them to track from 30 to 60 abused or neglected children at a time. The county formed a blue-ribbon commission to study the child welfare system after 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was killed last year, allegedly by his mother and her boyfriend, despite being under county oversight.

Officials agreed to hire 450 new social workers after contentious negotiations with Service Employees International Union Local 721 culminated in a six-day strike by social workers in December. The proposed budget adds 100 new children's social worker positions to fulfill that agreement — the remainder will come from filling vacant positions, Fujioka said. The new positions will be paid for by the state.


Maria Garcia, an emergency response children's social worker and SEIU member, said the planned hiring is a good "first small step." But she said the county needs to do more to make a dent in caseloads.

"If the new state-allocated money that's coming in can be used to hire more social workers, train staff and retain social workers we already have, that would get us to the goal," she said.

The budget also includes $36.5 million to implement recommendations by a commission that studied violence in the county's overcrowded jails, including staffing the inspector general's office and placing more supervisors and cameras in the facilities to monitor the conduct of inmates and jailers. Another $18 million would go to restore cuts in overtime for patrol and jail staff.

In addition to the hiring, the county will also pay more to current employees next year. Agreements reached with employee unions last year and early this year included a 6% salary increase over three years. Those increases, along with benefit and retirement cost increases, account for $217 million in what Fujioka termed "unavoidable cost increases."

The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the initial budget proposal Tuesday and hold hearings in May before adopting a final spending plan in time for the start of the July 1 fiscal year.