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County's Tiny Districts Hit Hard by State Budget Cuts : Economy: An independent fire protection district serving an unincorporated area might lose, for example, up to two firefighters from its meager five-person force.

September 07, 1992|LEN HALL and RICHARD CORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Special districts in San Diego County were hit especially hard by the austere new state budget.

No one understands this better than Lorenzo Gigliotti. As chief of the tiny Crest Fire Protection District, he has to find a way to cut $32,000 from his lean $320,000 budget.

Years of recession and the lingering fallout from Proposition 13 have left him no fat to trim. Now comes the agonizing decision. If this means layoffs, who among the grand total of five firefighters in the department must go?

"(This) cut, to us, is quite a bit," he said tersely. "It could cause me to lose two people."

Gigliotti and his firefighters are not alone. Gov. Pete Wilson's $57.4-billion budget has slammed cities and counties all over the state.

But nothing has been hit harder than the independent special districts that provide services people take for granted. Every time someone flushes a toilet, calls a paramedic or goes to the library, there is a good chance a special district employee is part of the action.

The new state budget drains $375 million in property taxes that had been earmarked for special districts statewide. Special districts in San Diego County stand to lose $19 million.

Many district administrators are not as soft-spoken as Gigliotti about these moves. Bill Hollingsworth, the recently retired general manager of another of the 60 independent special districts in the county, the Olivenhain Water District, is convinced the cuts are more than unfair.

Hollingsworth says the state Legislature is stealing.

"There just might be a lawsuit coming along over this. I don't think it's constitutional," Hollingsworth said. "The money doesn't belong to the state legislators and it's none of their business. If the state needs money they ought to get their backbone up and raise it someplace else."

Hollingsworth and other administrators of the small districts say the cutbacks attack the heart of the districts. Special districts, which are mostly formed in unincorporated areas by close-knit groups of neighbors, are government at its smallest and its most local level, they say.

These are boards where Joe Citizen can walk up to his elected officials, look them in the eye and speak his piece, Hollingsworth said. Those legislators in Sacramento who are doling out the budget cuts hide behind the local governments, he claims.

"Government on this level is the front lines, so to speak," Hollingsworth said. "The average citizen can get to these people on these boards, but they can't get to the legislators. Now, when 120 legislators and a governor can't figure out how to balance a budget, they let 3,000 directors around the state do their scrambling for them. The state legislators are ducking their responsibility, in my opinion."

The mini-governments Hollingsworth refers to are those that provide such essential services as flood control, libraries, water, sewers, ambulances, firefighters, road maintenance and mosquito abatement, often to remote areas.

"You name it and these districts do it," said Catherine Smith, deputy director of the California Special Districts Assn., a lobbying group that represents more than 500 special districts statewide.

After months of negotiations, Wilson's final budget takes 35% from each special district's property tax revenues or 10% of their total revenues, whichever is lower. Either way, most district officials call this a drastic hit to their balance sheets. This is money the state will be taking away, not, as in the case of schools, money that was being promised for a later date.

For people in such areas as Blossom Valley, Crest, Harbison Canyon and Alpine, these cuts will translate into higher water rates. Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which serves most of the East County, was strapped with a $636,000 cutback from a total budget of $20 million, most of which will be directed at those East County communities, said Andy Lovsted, the district's finance director.

Lovsted and his board of directors are studying a selection of ways to manage the cuts. But to make up for the property taxes, there is no doubt water rates will go up, he said.

In these rural communities, water rates will jump by 13%, an increase that sits on top of the 9% hike the district implemented last June.

But county officials say no districts were hit any harder than fire districts, which can't raise money on their own, making cutbacks even more painful.

Districts such as sewer and water districts can increase the fees they charge their customers to make up for losses and to balance their budgets, and in some cases, fee increases of up to 20% are now being considered.

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