Budget Crunch Forces Counties to Cut Services

November 15, 1987|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

REDDING, Calif. — The Shasta County Public Library was boarded up last week, the word "shame" scrawled angrily across a handbill announcing the closure. At the county hospital, the few remaining patients, indigents all, were being hauled away by ambulance--another institution gone down. And in the halls of county governance, the customary drowsiness of local bureaucracy had been replaced by currents of real tension, real confusion.

Short of cash, and of answers, the bureaucrats and politicians who run Shasta County have been hurriedly dismantling services long considered untouchable elements of county budgets throughout California. Beyond its library and hospital for the poor, the rural Northern California county (population 132,000) has contemplated abandonment of services ranging from its 4-H adviser to significant ranks of sheriff's deputies.

'Emptied Our Cupboard'

"All the fat is gone," Auditor-Controller Edward Davis said in an interview. "We are in very severe financial difficulty. . . . At our existing level of operations, which we feel are minimum to meet our responsibilities, our costs are exceeding our revenues. We have pretty much emptied our cupboard of reserves."

The crisis is not peculiar to Shasta County. Throughout the state's rural north, a verdant, sparsely populated sprawl of timber and pastureland, several counties have sounded sirens of fiscal collapse. Tehama County officials have forecast imminent bankruptcy. There has been talk in Plumas County of taking deputies off the roads at night. At least one county, Butte, has toyed with the notion of disbanding altogether.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 18, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
A story on Shasta County's financial problems, which appeared Nov. 15 in The Times, incorrectly described the $1.1-billion state tax rebate as a property tax rebate. Actually, it is a state income tax rebate.

While the crunch has been felt first in this region, where tax bases are small and local economies have followed the slumping timber industry, some officials contend that many of California's 58 counties are strapped for money, and there have been suggestions for a fundamental re-examination of how California provides services through a ziggurat of state, county, municipal and special district governments.

'Dramatically Wrong'

"All counties in a certain respect are depressed or distressed," said Victor Potorff, deputy director of the County Supervisors Assn. of California. "It is the institution of county government. Something is dramatically wrong and out of kilter here."

Potorff said, for instance, that parallels can be drawn between the Shasta County Library closure and the crumbling of Los Angeles County's trauma care system.

Most involved believe that the dilemma is more one of tax distribution than of tax collection. The point is buttressed by the fact that, even as several county governments claim to be on the brink, a property tax rebate of $1.1 billion is to be distributed statewide and Gov. George Deukmejian has salted away several hundred million in an emergency surplus fund.

The driving force behind the dilemma, according to officials here, is that the state government in Sacramento increasingly dictates how counties spend their tax revenues. More and more dollars are needed to meet the demands of new, state-mandated programs, primarily related to welfare and administration of justice, leaving less and less money for such so-called discretionary items as libraries.

Migration of Urban Poor

Although the programs are financed largely, and in some cases exclusively, with state money, many require counties to pitch in a small percentage. Officials here and in other small, rural counties maintain that these additional matching funds were enough to break their budgetary backs. Compounding the problem, they said, is a migration of urban poor to rural regions, where uniform welfare payments stretch further.

Such complaints from counties are not new. They started almost immediately after adoption of Proposition 13, the historic Jarvis-Gann tax initiative of 1978, which reduced property tax revenues and made it difficult for counties to raise property taxes.

With the closure of its public library system, however, Shasta County raised the rhetoric to a new pitch.

On its face, Shasta County's immediate budget crunch does not seem especially drastic.

County officials were confronted with a $2.6-million deficit, a seemingly tiny fraction of a $110-million budget. However, they said, nearly three-quarters of the budget was consumed by state-mandated programs. This meant cuts had to be found among the roughly $25 million worth of so-called discretionary items--essentially the Sheriff's Department, the county hospital and the library.

First Victim

The library was the first victim; the main library and its nine satellite branches were shut down Oct. 15. Forty-six employees were laid off.

The hospital was next, posting a notice last Wednesday that it would no longer admit new patients and taking steps to move the remaining patients to other hospitals by week's end. Many of its employees, anticipating the closure, already had left. Cuts in the Sheriff's Department were avoided this week, barely.

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