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It Pays to Raise a Fuss : New supervisor Molina raises questions about the sleepy county budget process

August 06, 1991

Gloria Molina, the newest member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, is at it again--causing trouble. Thank goodness. Instead of going along with the status quo or wholly deferring to colleagues, she is asking tough questions about the county budget.

It's true that supervisors have little say about how most of the $12-billion county budget is allocated. State and federal mandates devour nearly 90% of a pie that is too small to satisfy all demands.

Under the current process, $1 billion or so in discretionary money is allocated primarily on recommendations made by the county's chief administrative officer and his staff. That process removes politics from much of the debate, but it also reduces accountability to the voters. Molina wants supervisors, not county managers, to determine how discretionary funds are spent.

She is also upset that budget deliberations take a mere two days. Molina is a veteran of the budget processes in Sacramento and at City Hall. She believes that a nickel found here and a dime taken there can mean life or death for a program or service.

And, during her first county budget process, Molina was astonished by the lack of specifics. The general outlines in the proposed budget failed to provide a breakdown of how much money would be spent on salaries, administration, supplies, travel, contracted services, furniture and other items.

Molina cited a choice she would have made differently had an issue come before the board. When the mental health department ended up with a $2-million surplus, the acting chief decided to spend nearly half of it on renovations for mid-level managers. An argument can be made that better workstations result in more productive employees, but, given the shortage of services, was that the best use of the money? That decision should have been made by the County Board of Supervisors, not by managers.

The new supervisor also believes that the board--and only the board--should hold the authority to approve or disapprove out-of-court settlements in malpractice suits against county hospitals. Those settlements cost the county $26 million during the last fiscal year, all without any review by the supervisors.

With her challenge of the budget process, Molina has proven again that she is a hands-on public servant who is not afraid to rock the boat.

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