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Money Woes Put Tehama County Near a Shutdown

October 25, 1987|STEVE GEISSINGER | Associated Press

RED BLUFF, Calif. — Folks in this town with strong Old West roots refuse to cut more from county government, as others have across the state. When Tehama County goes broke in June, they have vowed a temporary shutdown.

County leaders said Tehama is so poor from running state-required programs and from lingering effects of California's 1978 property tax revolt that some sheriff's deputies have to drive old cars that cannot hit top speeds and officers are spread so thin at times that just one is patrolling the county's 3,200 square miles.

Local officials said criminals, hoping that they will be safer from arrest, have migrated to Red Bluff, the county seat of this farming and lumber region, which is so openly proud of its conservative "cow town" image that the Tehama seal sports a bull's head.

'Bomb Waiting to Go Off'

Another problem caused by the financial crunch is "a bomb waiting to go off," county Social Welfare Director Del Skillman said. Overburdened county social workers have time to probe only about half the child-abuse reports. "A case that doesn't sound that bad could blow up and a child could get hurt or killed," Skillman said.

While Tehama steels itself for what state and local officials believe would be the first county government shutdown in California history, essentially intended as a protest to attract attention to financial woes, other counties have chosen different courses in dealing with the plight.

To the north in Shasta County, supervisors closed all libraries and plan to shut down the county hospital.

In mountainous Sierra County, to the southeast, the cost of trials after a rash of nine murders drained coffers so much that supervisors were forced to lay off employees, Clerk-Recorder Sandra Loving said. Recent state legislation will channel additional money to the county to ease the burden, she said.

"Although those three counties on the brink of financial disaster are in the worst shape, about half the counties in California are having a tremendous problem balancing their budgets," said Dan Wall, a tax and revenue expert for the County Supervisors Assn. of California.

Local officials said the budget crunch, particularly in rural counties, has worsened throughout the 1980s. Much of their money is devoured by ever-expanding services, mostly health, welfare and criminal-justice programs, which the state requires but only partially funds.

Revenue Limits From Prop. 13

Meanwhile, lingering effects of the 1978 property-tax slashing initiative, Proposition 13, continue to limit county government revenue, they said. Tax increases require a rare two-thirds vote on a county ballot.

In 1986, after year upon year of cutbacks and last-minute state bailouts without long-term solutions, Northern California counties threatened to secede and form a 51st state. The threat was only somewhat in jest.

Tehama Supervisor Burt Bundy said his county has an estimated $600,000 shortfall in a $30-million budget even after this year's state bailouts but added that Tehama is no worse off than several others.

What sets Tehama apart is that the board of supervisors in the rural county of 46,000 people, about 200 miles north of San Francisco, has unanimously, though informally, adopted bold tactics.

"We're the first, not the worst," Bundy said of supervisors' plans to keep all government programs operating as fully as possible until the money is gone near the close of the fiscal year June 30, then shut down all but, possibly, essential Sheriff's Department services for up to perhaps two weeks.

"Why should we have to continue to crawl on our knees to Sacramento for funding? It's going to take something like this to get lawmakers' attention" and trigger long-term change, Bundy said.

No one seems certain if any agency would step in to fill the gap in services during a shutdown, or what legal dangers the county would face. "No county has ever done this before," Wall said.

County employees, who would get an unpaid vacation, generally say they favor the plan as perhaps a means of an eventual pay raise. In their offices, bulletin boards are papered with job offers from outside government agencies offering more money than Tehama can afford.

Supervisors' aide John Sims said workers and the public know the crisis is real. "We haven't tried to play Chicken Little by yelling that the sky is falling, when it isn't. It is falling," he said.

Aging Buildings

Many county employees work in scattered, aging buildings such as abandoned schools where storage rooms and even closets have been converted to office space. Desks are a few feet apart. Some broken office machines sit defunct because repair costs are too high. Supplies, books, records and even confidential files are sometimes stacked nearly head-high in hallways.

Workers, in some cases, have had to become handymen because there is no money to hire outside help. In the probation department, Assistant Probation Officer Hollis Huckleberry says he has installed electrical wiring and works on cars.

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