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Dana Parsons

County Has Long Cried Wolf Over Budgets; Is One Here?

April 23, 1993|Dana Parsons

It was once likened (with no little bemusement), to a medieval ritual in which the humble supplicant appeared before the king, cap in hand, seeking succor. Bowing down before his lordship, the lowly peasant would describe the depths to which his lot in life had sunk, imploring his majesty for a crust of bread or whatever the wise one deemed appropriate.

Playing to the crowd, the king would take a few moments to lament the state of the fiefdom, but then, in his miraculous beneficence, give the poor subject not a crust of bread but an entire loaf. Huzzahs all around.

We speak, verily, of the county budget process.

Peasants (actually, well-paid department heads but still humble servants) have paraded annually before the king (the Board of Supervisors) and stated their case. Somehow, the money always seemed to be there. The masses, conditioned over the years to dire reports, eventually dismissed them as just so much regal hot air.

We're at that stage again, and it's getting harder and harder to distinguish between the peasants and the king.

Here comes Sheriff Brad Gates as peasant, saying that under "worst-case scenario" budget cuts, "we might as well just put children on the list and serve 'em up to sex offenders." Muggers and thieves would rule the roost, he suggested.

Superior Court Judge Donald Smallwood said some courts might close one or two days a week and that law-abiding citizens might feel safe outside only if they put bars on their homes and packed a .357 magnum when leaving the house.

Not to be outdone, the board even mentioned joining in a symbolic revolt against the state and not surrendering tax revenue to Sacramento.

That's all entertaining medieval theater, but like most farce, tends to amuse rather than enlighten. Exaggeration for effect is good comedy, bad drama.

The irony in all this is that the county may be as bad off as it says. It's just that it's spent so much credibility in years past talking about dire consequences--only to find money in this or that account, or by playing the attrition card or various other numbers games--that no one believes them this time.

"I suppose to some extent it is an annual ritual," says a former county budget official and now a private consultant specializing in municipal finance. "We'd always go through this thing where we'd say, 'It's real bad, it's real bad,' to the extent that we used to kid that we were crying wolf again. And we'd always seem to pull a rabbit out of the hat someplace."

What's happening now, he said, "is that there are only so many rabbits you can pull out of a hat, and we're getting closer and closer to making some major structural changes and cuts."

That impression has also filtered down to the rank-and-file. I asked one longtime county employee who works in the courts if people are taking the ominous talk seriously.

He chuckled. "They are worried, and I chuckle only because it's a timely question. I've gotten half-a-dozen calls from my folks this morning, asking if we're really going to close down one day a week."

The employee said he's only partly skeptical. "I've not heard them (county budget officials) at this point as gloomy as this, ever. We always heard doom and gloom, because that's de rigueur for government, post-Prop. 13, so what I'm suggesting is that cutbacks may be required, but in what areas and levels, it's going to be up to each department."

Historically, Orange County could get away with crying wolf because there were backup cash sources. Money could be transferred from a special fund to the general fund, or departments wouldn't spend as much as projected, for example. In addition, budgeters estimated low on property assessments and could count on more revenue than forecast. No one worried about sales tax revenue flattening or shrinking.

All those conditions have changed in the last couple of years, the consultant said.

Still, a credibility problem probably dogs local governments. "It was like in the days of Prop. 13," he said. "We used to go around explaining to homeowners (about the dire consequences if it passed), and they listened. Prop. 13 passed, the state then gave us 90% of our monies back (from surplus funds), and the public thought we were total idiots and we had no credibility."

I asked the consultant how worried people should be. He thinks local governments, especially cities, probably have at least one more year of survival before they have to begin considering major cuts.

Significant budget cuts at the county level translates to people losing jobs. It would be nice, therefore, if the county leaders began talking up to us, instead of down to us.

Worst-case scenario talk makes corporate sense, but for governments I fear it merely makes people yawn and say, "Yeah, I've heard this before."

As a mere commoner, I'd beseech the keepers of the castle to junk worst-case and talk to us in language we can understand. And believe.

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