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Jobs Reprieve for County Workers May Be Short-Lived : Budget crisis: Those who provide health care to the poor could be on borrowed time. And those whose departments survived say they are weakened.


LONG BEACH — Most area sheriff's deputies, health care workers and other county employees who were threatened with layoffs will keep their jobs, the county Board of Supervisors decided last week--but nobody knows for how long.

Among the most anxious employees are those who provide health care to the poor. Deep cuts in health services were delayed to give the county more time to find funds for the programs--but no one is sure how much money will be found or what might still be cut.

Affected programs could include pediatric care at a Compton clinic, pregnancy testing at a Bellflower clinic and dental care at the Long Beach Comprehensive Health Center.

"I don't think any of us know what will still be cut," said Margaret Berumen, chief executive officer for the Coastal County Health Centers, which include clinics in Hawaiian Gardens and Norwalk.

Other county programs also are bracing for cuts--but not until next year. The Board of Supervisors reached a compromise on the county's budget Tuesday that avoided deep cuts in law enforcement, libraries and recreation programs. But the board's action, in effect, postponed the budget crisis until next summer, when analysts predict at least a $300-million shortfall.

In the meantime, even those who are grateful that their departments were not decimated point out that they were still weakened.

"Clearly, we are gratified we can protect the public we serve," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Burns, "but the office still received significant cuts."

Burns' office in Bellflower was one of 13 that would have been closed under the proposed county budget but was spared in the final vote.

Still, $7.3 million was cut from the district attorney's funds. That likely will mean no layoffs for the Bellflower office, but it also means law clerks and student workers who were laid off last summer will not be replaced, Burns said. And any positions vacated by employees who take early retirement will be left unfilled, Burns said.

Burns cautioned that such cuts could reduce the effectiveness of his department because a smaller support staff could lead to less aggressive prosecution of nonviolent crimes.

"I think that it is incredibly depressing for the future of our communities to see public safety negotiated on a dollar-and-cent basis," he said.

In the Sheriff's Department, $35 million of the proposed $48 million in budget cuts was restored. That means 531 employees will not be laid off and six substations will not be closed to the public. But it still leaves the department with a $13-million shortfall--and that's on top of a $66.5-million cut July.

"Something is going to have to go someplace, but we don't know what that is right now," said Capt. John Anderson of the Lakewood sheriff's station.

Capt. Norman Smith in Norwalk was elated when he heard that the Board of Supervisors had restored most of the proposed cuts.

"It's absolutely fantastic," he said, but quickly added: "At least, the devastation is not there."

Anderson and other sheriff's captains said that their ability to fight gang violence and other problems has been hampered since July, when budget cuts forced the agency to eliminate 115 investigators and reduce other support services.

The greatest effect is in the unincorporated areas, which are financed by the county. An anti-drug program in the schools, for example, will continue to be provided in cities that contract with the Sheriff's Department but has been cut in unincorporated areas, spokesman Larry Lincoln said.

But even cities that contract for law enforcement from the Sheriff's Department are affected because the agency has reduced its support services, such as detectives and community relations, officials said.

The latest proposal "would have devastated the Sheriff's Department," Anderson said. Morale in his station--and in others--has been low, as young deputies wondered whether they would lose their jobs.

"(The budget) changed almost every time we had a meeting," Anderson said. "Everybody asked you a question on Monday, you gave them an answer on Tuesday, and by Wednesday it would change."

That's still the case for health service workers, as the county has yet to figure out how to make up the department's funding shortfall.

On Tuesday, Supervisors pledged $60 million toward a $104-million gap in the Health Department budget, said Gary Wells, deputy director of financial services. The $60 million is a onetime source of funding that health officials hope to supplement with additional state and federal money.

But the county has no guarantee it will get additional funding. Kathryn Barger, a health deputy working for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, put the chances of finding more funds at "less than 50-50."

"We love challenges around here," Barger said.

While pledging to keep health clinics open, the supervisors agreed last week to hold a public hearing Oct. 13 to consider service reductions. Health officials said they don't expect cuts as drastic as those originally proposed, but if enough money is not found in the next few months, some programs may be reduced or eliminated.

The board also has yet to resolve whether it will cut monthly payments to the poor from $341 to $299 to make up a $65-million deficit in the county's general relief program.

To pay for most of the restored cuts, the county plans to borrow at least $200 million from employees by deferring pay and benefit increases, which it will later have to repay with interest.

Supervisor Ed Edelman cast the lone dissenting vote against the $13-billion budget Tuesday, saying his colleagues averted a crisis this year but created another one.

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