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D.A. Chastised as County Ends Budget Hearings


Ending seven days of emotionally charged budget hearings, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday set the stage for what are expected to be lengthy, complex and hard-fought deliberations as they forge a $13.1-billion budget that falls at least $1.6 billion short of funds needed to maintain current services.

Deliberations are scheduled to begin next Tuesday and will convene "every day thereafter until we finish," said Board Chairman Ed Edelman.

But before the hearings wrapped up, exasperated supervisors vented some of the frustration they had built up while listening to hundreds of speakers plead for extra dollars.

When Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti made an unscheduled, last-minute appearance before the board late Tuesday, he was chastised for pushing too hard.

"Your campaign, frankly, does not do you or the D.A.'s office any good," Edelman told Garcetti. "Coming back here day after day does not have a positive impact. We have already been overly generous."

Garcetti has raced around the county in recent weeks, enlisting the aid of mayors and suburban chambers of commerce to pressure the Board of Supervisors into giving him additional funds. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan had been scheduled to appear before the board Tuesday on behalf of the district attorney, but canceled at the last minute, pleading a scheduling problem.

"It's backfiring, Gil," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke told the district attorney.

Garcetti--whose office is expected to suffer an 8% cut, compared to cuts of 22% to 30% for most other departments--shot back: "It may be backfiring, but what I'm doing and will continue to do is to tell you what the consequences are." Garcetti has threatened to end all misdemeanor prosecutions if he has to accept budget cuts and lay off prosecutors.

But by Tuesday afternoon, the supervisors had heard plenty of worst-case scenarios spun out during about 40 hours of testimony from all sorts of concerned citizens, bureaucrats and gadflies. Budget analysts say the fiscal plan is at least $1.6 billion short of what is needed to provide a reasonable level of services.

Now that the shouting, posturing and public crying is over, the back-room rumblings will begin.

For the next week, all five supervisors will be shopping for votes among their colleagues, hoping to build the alliances necessary to save their favorite programs as each county department is pitted against others in seeking funds.

During the next week, bureaucrats also will complete a rash of special reports requested by the supervisors to build a case for their positions--or to provide the ammunition they need to shoot down competing proposals.

Although each of the supervisors has voiced areas of special concern, all said in interviews that the one department that can count on at least a partial reprieve from the budget ax is libraries.

The Public Library Department was targeted to take one of the biggest cuts and was slated to close 45 of 87 facilities and cut hours at the remaining offices by 50%

"We have to help the libraries survive," Edelman said Tuesday.

"The library cuts are the most painful," added Supervisor Gloria Molina. "We really have to respect their role in the community" and reinstate as many as possible, she said.

Most supervisors said they also would like to restore some funding to the parks department.

At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, most of the supervisors said the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office have received about all that they will get out of the board this year.

"I'm satisfied with the level of funding," said Supervisor Deane Dana about the proposed budget that would cut the sheriff's appropriation by 3% and the district attorney's by about 7%--two of the smallest cuts in the budget.

"I'm holding the line on public safety," said Molina. "We've already been very generous" to those departments, she said.

"Being realistic, there's not much more they can get without other critical functions being severely impacted," Edelman said.

Only Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he will fight for full funding of the two law enforcement agencies. "The (proposed) budget is not acceptable," said Antonovich, adding that the necessary funds should come out of the health and welfare budgets.

One of the board's first chores will be to divvy up $38 million in funds earmarked for public safety programs.

Dana said he wants lifeguards and harbor patrols to get some of the money.

Edelman said hospital emergency rooms should qualify as public safety and share in the pool of available funds.

The main budget battlegrounds will likely be health care, children's services and general relief.

Molina said that for her, "some decision are so very clear." Because of federal matching funds programs, she said, a $12-million investment by the county in welfare programs reaps $100 million in federal funds. Similarly, a $2-million investment in children's services entitles the county to more than $10 million in additional outside funding.

Burke said the deliberations will go far beyond simple addition and subtraction.

"We need to do a lot of creative things, shift things and delay things to soften the blow," she said.

Dana, for instance, recommended that departments be responsible for their own utilities and be ordered to conserve water and electricity to save money.

But board Chairman Edelman lamented that such tinkering will save only pennies compared to the big-ticket problems that must be confronted.

But even after the board manages to cobble together a budget, the plan could unravel.

That's because the proposed budget is based on two sweeping assumptions: that in November voters will approve the extension of a half-cent sales tax surcharge that will raise $200 million, and that employees will accept $215 million in wage and benefit concessions.

"We're building this budget on quicksand," Edelman said. "There are grave uncertainties. This is a heck of a way to do a budget."

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