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NEWS ANALYSIS : $13 Billion Just Won't Go Very Far Anymore

July 21, 1993|FREDERICK M. MUIR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So $13.1 billion sounds like a lot of money, right?

Wrong, if you are the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, whose giant county budget--larger than that of 42 states--has more strings attached to it than a tennis racquet has.

And they are tying the board's hands as supervisors try to unravel the fiscal mess they are in.

Right off the top of the $13.1-billion budget comes $10 billion in state and federally mandated and funded programs, such as welfare, roads and flood control, over which the county has little or no authority.

For instance, money for welfare programs such as Aid to Families With Dependent Children comes from the federal government and is channeled to recipients--with the county, as the middleman, getting only a small administrative fee for handling the paperwork.

Of the remaining $3 billion that remains, $700 million automatically goes to satisfy federal and state matching requirements for the costs of health, mental health, welfare and similar programs.

An additional $900 million in spending by the county is largely set by legal decisions, which dictate how much should be spent on programs such as court operations, jails, indigent health care and general relief.

What's left, about $1.4 billion, is what all the haggling is about and where the real budget cuts are about to occur.

In recent days, scores of bureaucrats, community activists and users of a multitude of county services pleaded with supervisors in hearings for additional funds--or at least a reprieve from proposed cuts--for their pet programs.

"It's devastating," Board of Supervisors Chairman Ed Edelman said. "There are so many needs in this county, so many. . . ."

But even the $1.4-billion slice of pie is spoken for, in part. More than half of it is expected to go to the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney, which are likely to take some of the smallest cuts of any county department.

Splitting the remaining $700 million are parks, beaches, libraries, museums, a host of regulatory commissions and boards, and the general business of government, including the registrar-recorder, assessor, treasurer-tax collector and the Board of Supervisors.

Most of these departments are facing cuts of 22% to 30%, and some could be eliminated. The board has notified the state that it will stop maintaining beaches and supplying lifeguards after this fiscal year.

The Sheriff's Department, by comparison, is facing only a 3% cut in funding.

The relatively small pot of money the supervisors control is just 50% of what they had to spread around two years ago, before the state began paring back the amount of property tax that it shares with the county, Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford said.

In the state budget accord signed by the governor last month, the county lost about $500 million in property tax revenue, which is being shifted to school funding.

That was partially offset by the addition of $200 million in new sales tax revenue, leaving the county with a net loss of at least $300 million.

But the net loss of $300 million in tax revenues is so devastating to the county's operations that the supervisors are seeking to publicly blame Sacramento.

Last week, the county posted hundreds of signs in its facilities that read: "Notice of Potential Service Reduction. Actions by the governor and state Legislature may force service reductions at this facility. Los Angeles County's funding in the 1993-94 state budget is insufficient to meet vital community needs."

"It's vitally important that the public understand the consequences of the state budget," Edelman said. "The public is entitled to know how the state budget adversely impacted county services."

Meanwhile, demands on the county are escalating.

"The county has so many responsibilities for services that are impacted by the recession," Edelman said.

Demands on public health care, welfare, general relief, mental health and a variety of drug and alcohol programs go up along with the unemployment rate, Edelman said.

The county pleaded its case in Sacramento, but many legislators have long blamed Los Angeles supervisors for running a bloated bureaucracy. The L.A. County message also was all but drowned out in the cacophony of special interests that erupts at budget time.

And, Edelman said, the county got little support from local organizations, which are now pleading for more money.

"The problem," Edelman said, "is that people don't understand what the heck the county does. . . . No one feels sorry for the county as a whole. They feel badly about libraries, or health care, or parks being cut back. But no one seems to understand that we do all these things. People see us with blinders on. They are only concerned with their own little area."

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