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Supervisors Take Their First Crack at Massive Budget : Government: Board members fail to make headway in balancing the county's $13.1-billion spending plan. But they do approve an eggshell inspection program.


Following 1 1/2 weeks of emotional hearings, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday got to the task of actually piecing together its $13.1-billion budget.

But in the opening session of their budget deliberations, the supervisors' main actions were to delay action and to order more reports and studies before trying again today to balance the massive spending plan that is $1.6 billion short of what officials say they need to provide a reasonable level of service.

In one of the few definitive actions taken in two hours of deliberations Tuesday, the board agreed unanimously to approve an eggshell inspection program in the Department of Weights and Measures.

"Obviously, we won't finish this (budget) in a day, or two days or three days," board Chairman Ed Edelman said at the outset. "But this will lay a foundation."

"Traditionally, the first day of deliberations moves this way," Supervisor Mike Antonovich said. "Everyone has questions, everyone is finding their way around."

The county is already 27 days into its fiscal year and has been operating on a tentatively approved budget since June.

Deliberations could drag on through the week as supervisors scramble to gather the three votes necessary to approve a slew of amendments to the proposed spending plan.

Antonovich said he is hopeful that the board will approve a budget by Friday. But on Tuesday there appeared to be little agreement among supervisors on priorities.

For example, Supervisor Gloria Molina said she wants to avoid cuts in welfare if possible, but has had little luck in winning over her colleagues. Referring to the vote-swapping process going on behind the scenes, Molina said: "We've been shopping around the General Relief issue. But there are other supervisors who see cultural affairs like museums and performing arts as much more important."

Depending on how the shifting majority moves, the supervisors could elect to make some wholesale changes in the way county government is run--or simply nip and tuck around the edges and delay the really big decisions while waiting to be bailed out by federal or state sources.

The county is under no legal deadline to pass its budget, and Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said some parts of the process could take months to put to rest.

"Obviously, some of the basic issues are a long way from being resolved, although some we will have to try to resolve in the next few days," said Burke.

Burke said she would support a "two-stage budget" that would delay some of the larger and more painful decisions, such as shutting down several dozen libraries and mental health clinics.

"I don't know if all of my colleagues are willing to go along with this, but I think we can find a way to fund certain things until September, until we have more information on some of the legislative options and impacts."

Some county officials are hopeful that a new cigarette tax being considered by the state Assembly could provide the county with several hundred million dollars in new tax revenues. County officials are also hoping that the state Legislature will approve a proposed library benefit assessment district that would raise tens of millions of dollars.

On the table before the supervisors are some hefty measures, including mergers involving a dozen departments, combining beaches with parks and recreation, the coroner's office with the Sheriff's Department and affirmative action with the chief administrative office.

The supervisors are also considering limiting their own office budgets, selling the county's massive data processing operation and contracting out all of its computer work, making drastic cuts in General Relief and a granting a reprieve to dozens of libraries and health clinics.

But on Tuesday, they didn't get very far. It wasn't for lack of trying, though: Supervisors first attempted to work through the budget from the bottom of the agenda up, then scrapped that approach and took it from the top down. Nothing worked.

After the supervisors agreed to put off eight agenda items in a row, the audience--and even the board's support staff--began giggling.

In an attempt to put the process into perspective, Antonovich said county budgets are like microwave ovens: "Everyone's life is touched by them, but few know how they work."

Times staff writer Tracey Kaplan contributed to this story.

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