SAN DIEGO — In a case being watched by financially strapped county governments throughout California, a state appeals court Monday ruled that the San Diego County Board of Supervisors acted illegally when it tried to kick 2,200 people off general relief.
The county contended that the recipients were able-bodied and entitled to no more than three months on general relief a year because they were capable of supporting themselves by working.
But the 4th District Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that the county had not met the state requirement of proving that it had no other financial alternatives before tightening eligibility for general relief.
"While a county in financial extremes may not be required to commit economic suicide in vain attempts to fund all programs," the appeals court ruled, "it may not meet its financial burdens by redefining state standards of eligibility" for general relief.
What that means, said San Diego County government spokesman Bob Lerner, "is that only after you abandon every park, every health clinic, and cut the Sheriff's Department to the bone, only then can you cut able-bodied adults from general relief."
County supervisors will decide next week whether to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
General relief is a state-mandated program for people who cannot qualify for other welfare programs such as Aid to Families With Dependent Children. In San Diego, recipients get $291 a month.
In early 1992, the Board of Supervisors, facing severe budget problems, voted that able-bodied adults could receive general relief for only three months a year.
But before the new requirements could take effect, the Western Law and Poverty Center in Los Angeles sued the county and obtained an injunction blocking any change.
Lerner said the case is being watched "by 57 other counties with budget problems. . . . If San Diego ultimately wins, I think you will see several counties cut general relief."
The county contended that it could no longer afford the $4.7 million to $5.2 million a year spent on relief for the able-bodied.
But Western Law and Poverty Center attorney Robert D. Newman said that that figure represents less than 1% of the county budget. He said supervisors are engaged in bashing welfare recipients for political gain.
"I'm not saying the county doesn't have budget problems," Newman said, "but are there no pockets of waste and inefficiency in the county? Of course there are."
The state Legislature last year voted to allow counties to cut general relief, starting next year, if they can prove that other social service programs would be imperiled without the cuts.