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Wilson Budget Leaves County 'at a Precipice,' Officials Say : Spending: Plan to shift funds would close hospitals and increase ranks of homeless, lawmakers are told. Fears are expressed for neglected and abused children.

May 15, 1993|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hospitals would close, child adoptions would come to a halt and the ranks of the homeless mentally ill will increase dramatically if Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed state budget is adopted, Los Angeles County officials told state legislators at a special hearing Friday.

Assemblywoman Barbara Friedman (D-Los Angeles) convened the hearing of the Assembly Ways and Means subcommittee on health and human services to discuss Wilson's proposal to shift $2.6 billion in property tax revenue away from local governments across California.

Los Angeles County officials have said the proposed state budget would leave them with a $1.4-billion budget shortfall, by far the largest in county history. A 25% reduction in county services--including the closure of jail facilities--might be necessary to balance the county's $13-billion budget.

"We are in a crisis beyond comprehension," state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) said during the three-hour hearing at County-USC Medical Center. "County government is at a precipice."

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to begin its 1993-94 budget deliberations in July. The extent of the cuts will depend on the outcome of the state budget, to be hammered out by Wilson and the Legislature this summer.

Although the county's budget rollbacks may not be as severe as the worst-case scenarios described Friday, even the most optimistic forecast calls for an 8% across-the-board reduction in nearly every county department.

County administrators have asked department chiefs to draw detailed budget plans--including specific program cuts--to help dramatize the seriousness of the county's fiscal crisis.

Health department officials say they are drafting plans to close all but one of Los Angeles County's public hospitals and to eliminate more than 5,700 of 8,500 jobs at County-USC Medical Center.

Sol Bernstein, the medical center's chief of staff, said that many of the county's AIDS patients would be left without treatment if the cutbacks are implemented. The medical center treats 40% of the county's AIDS patients.

In a moment of quiet drama, Friedman asked about the fate of the AIDS patients--and the thousands of others who use county hospitals--if the cuts take effect.

"Where would they go?" Friedman asked.

"I don't know where they would go," Bernstein answered.

"Where would the babies be born?" Friedman asked.

Bernstein said many babies would have to be born in private hospitals, even though there is limited capacity in such facilities.

"We have a hospital jail ward that would also close," he added.

"Where would they go?" the assemblywoman asked.

"I don't know," Bernstein answered softly. "I don't know."

Areta Crowell, director of the county Department of Mental Health, said the proposed budget cuts would force her to discharge up to 3,700 mentally ill patients.

"There will be more homeless mentally ill people," Crowell said. "More people committing acts of danger to themselves and others. There will be more pressure on law enforcement."

Officials from the Department of Children's Services said they would lay off about 125 employees and be unable to handle any of the estimated 1,200 adoptions processed annually.

They added that protection for abused and neglected children would be unavailable in many cases because of sharp reductions in the department's work force.

The service reductions will result in "the maltreatment of children who would otherwise not have been victimized," said Norine Boehmer of the county Commission for Children's Services.

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