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$28-billion L.A. County budget proposal aims to address homelessness, improve jails

$28-billion L.A. County budget proposal aims to address homelessness, improve jails
Los Angeles County officials on Monday proposed a $28-billion budget for the next fiscal year, an increase of about 1% over this year. Above, county Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai at a Board of Supervisors meeting in 2015. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County officials on Monday released a proposed $28.5-billion budget for the next fiscal year -- a plan that would boost overall spending by about 1% but does not spell out how shortfalls in the coroner's office and some other key programs will be solved.

In presenting the budget, county Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai said leaders are committed to "lifting the quality of life for all of our residents," but are "challenged by the demand for county services that far exceeds the available financing sources."

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The proposed spending plan is an increase of $282 million from the year before, offset by projected increases in property taxes and other revenues. It includes $99 million for the county's new homelessness initiative and $19 million for wage increases the Board of Supervisors passed last year for in-home care workers.

It also includes $11 million for physical and mental health services to be provided by the newly created Office of Diversion and Reentry, which is focused on moving low-level offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues out of county jails and into treatment programs.

An additional $9 million will go to setting up and running a new "sobering center" on skid row.

The budget also includes $148 million for replacing and upgrading jail facilities, including $118 million for refurbishment of the now-vacant Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster to turn it into a new women's detention facility, replacing the aging women's lock-up in Lynwood. It would put $5 million toward planning efforts for a new Men's Central Jail.

Questions remain about where the money will come from for some other potentially big-ticket items, including setting up a fund for affordable housing and addressing severe backlogs in the coroner's office.

The county's chief medical examiner-coroner, Dr. Mark Fajardo, announced plans to resign last month, saying his department had not been given the resources it needed to do the job.

The office has been under scrutiny over a backlog of autopsies and toxicology reports that has left family members waiting months for their loved ones' bodies to be released or for information about the cause of death.

The office requested an increase of 80 staffing positions in the coming year's budget, but the recommended spending plan increased the office's staffing by only two.

Hamai said the request was not granted because the department had not submitted required paperwork documenting its justification for the added positions.

She said her office is working to determine what additional resources the coroner needs, and positions might be added at a later stage in the budget process.

The budget includes $99 million for programs included in a plan for addressing homelessness that the Board of Supervisors passed earlier this year, but it includes only a $5 million down payment toward an affordable housing trust fund the supervisors voted to set up last year.

They had planned to start by contributing $20 million in the coming fiscal year and increase the annual contribution to $100 million over the next five years.

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Hamai said staffers are still figuring out where the money will come from, so only $5 million was initially set aside for the fund in the proposed budget. The remainder would be addressed in the county's midyear budget review, she said.

And the county is looking at options, including a potential tax increase ballot measure, to raise nearly $500 million in additional funds officials have said are needed to address the region's growing homeless population.

The budget document also includes cuts in some areas, including elimination of 50 unfilled positions in the probation department, which Hamai said were cut to offset expected revenue that did not materialize, and 78 vacant positions cut from the child support services department to offset anticipated deficits there.

At the same time, the county Department of Mental Health will get 40 new positions, including psychiatrists and supervisors for clinics around the county.

County supervisors will discuss the proposed budget Tuesday and hold public hearings on it next month before adopting a final plan in June.

Twitter: @sewella

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