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Grim Forecasts Offered for Budget Year : Finances: Department heads give 'worst-case scenarios' if supervisors cut 20% throughout county government. The sheriff warns that two jails would be forced to shut down.

April 22, 1993|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates warned Wednesday that he would be forced to shut down two jails and release 210 inmates daily if the Board of Supervisors carries out a threatened budget cut of 20% throughout county government.

Gates' prediction was the most dire of more than a dozen forecasts to emerge from a daylong session on the 1993-94 budget Wednesday, in which county department heads offered the Board of Supervisors "worst-case scenarios" for the grim fiscal year that begins July 1.

With the county facing a budget shortfall of nearly $136 million, County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider asked top county officials in February to prepare forecasts of the impact on public services if funding in their departments were cut 20%.

Few believe that will actually happen. Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez called the chances of such a plan "remote," and Board Chairman Harriett M. Wieder said: "Twenty percent is a horrendous loss. I'm certainly not supportive of it at face value."

Schneider himself acknowledged that the across-the-board cut "is just not feasible or realistic," but said Wednesday's session represented an important exercise nonetheless.

"This is really just an opportunity for the board and the public to understand how serious our budget problems are," he said. "We're in deep (trouble), and we're trying to show that."

Gloomy forecasts--or "horror stories," as Wieder called them--were not in short supply Wednesday.

Some officials came armed with glossy charts and booklets to show the impact of past years of lean funding. Gates displayed crude weapons seized from inmates to dramatize the potential danger faced by understaffed jail crews.

Supervisors even briefly discussed the possibility and legality of joining Los Angeles County in a largely symbolic "revolt" against the state, under which the governments would refuse to turn over property taxes to Sacramento.

County officials blame the state for many of their fiscal problems, maintaining that Sacramento has consistently sought to balance its budgets on the backs of local government.

"It's a one-way track," Vasquez said. "We pay (the state), but we get nothing back."

Projected losses in state funding for the coming fiscal year, together with the continued recession and other financial problems, will produce an estimated shortfall of $93 million in the county's general fund, which includes law enforcement, health and social service programs and environmental management services, among others.

The county expects an additional budget deficit of $52 million in funding for redevelopment work and for special districts that provide water, fire and other services.

The projected shortfall, Wieder said, is "unprecedented in the history of the county."

However the county ultimately balances its $3.5-billion budget, it is unlikely the cuts will be absorbed equally throughout government. In the past, supervisors have been reluctant to cut deeply into law enforcement and the court system, citing widespread public support for those agencies.

But for purposes of beginning this year's budget talks, Schneider asked each department to assess the impact of across-the-board cuts totaling 20%. The results, county officials agreed at Wednesday's hearing, would be devastating.

Libraries would probably cut back their hours by a third, and purchase of new books would drop 60%, officials said. Major flood-control projects would be stalled. Health services would be curtailed, and residents in unincorporated parts of the county would probably wait longer for emergency response crews.

Many reports of child abuse would go unchecked, officials said. Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi predicted that he would be forced to reduce his staff by 76 lawyers, severely cutting into the county's ability to prosecute criminal offenders. The county might have to close several of its youth probation and detention facilities, a probation official reported.

Gates said a 20% cut in funding to his department--totaling $20.7 million--would force the county to close its James A. Musick and Theo Lacy branch jails as well, adding to the overcrowding problems that already plague the county system.

"We're at a point . . . that we can't cut $20 million in piecemeal reductions," Gates said. "We're going to remove body parts from my part of the system. We're going to remove arms and legs."

The cuts and closures, Gates predicted, would give gang members and criminals "free reign" over the streets.

"We might as well hand them the guns to do the next robbery," Gates told the supervisors. "We might as well just put children on the list and serve 'em up to sex offenders."

Donald E. Smallwood, presiding judge of the Orange County Superior Court, was no less foreboding.

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