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BILL BOYARSKY

Plain Talk Cuts Through Fog on County Budget

March 20, 1994|BILL BOYARSKY

If you can pierce the fog of bureaucratese and double talk, the annual budget battle among Los Angeles County, Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature is one of California's most entertaining and instructive political fights.

This year, it promises to be more interesting than usual because of a new participant, Sally Reed, the county administrative officer. In her last job as Santa Clara County administrative officer, she was quick to make tough budget-cutting decisions, a quality rare at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration.

The budget battle is about how much aid the state will give the county to maintain essential services, especially health care for the poor, law enforcement and the courts.

The all-but-impenetrable language of the debate is the legacy of years of combat and compromise necessary to maintain services no longer affordable under the restrictions of Proposition 13, the famous property tax limit imposed by the voters in 1978.

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Reed is a straightforward, serious-looking woman who speaks plain English rather than bureaucratese. In her previous job in Santa Clara County, she pushed through big spending cuts.

It was a troubling experience. "I literally felt people would die because of my decisions," she said during a recent lunch with Times writers and editors. "But you make those tough decisions and the worst outcome doesn't happen. People won't die. The system will manage to handle the most serious problems."

When she took over her post here a few months ago, she analyzed the way Los Angeles County has dealt with its budget shortfalls since Proposition 13 passed, and didn't like what she saw.

Knowing that homeowners love Proposition 13 because it limits property taxes, no politician has dared tamper with it. So each year, the county supervisors have gambled that the state will bail out the county. Trying to help, state legislators have worked with the supervisors to search out every loophole and obscure funding provision in the state budget to keep the county hospitals, the courts and the jails operating no matter how much Proposition 13 limited taxes.

During these negotiations, the supes would cry poverty as they tried to squeeze every dollar from Sacramento. But later in the year, after the budget fight was over, county fiscal officers would report a "miracle," the discovery of a previously unnoticed nest egg.

Later, after the state budget was passed, the supervisors would approve a county spending plan. This permitted them to combine state aid with money from the previously hidden county funds.

But this year, the state is even more broke than the county and is extremely unlikely to provide the extra funds L.A. County needs to balance its budget.

With the county facing a $900-million budget deficit in the current fiscal year, Reed is proposing to change the rules of the game. As she put it in a report to the supes in January: "The county has relied on a number of stopgap budgetary practices in order to maintain services in the face of severe budgetary shortfalls. In the long run, these practices are detrimental to sound fiscal management." And, she added, "with each successive budget miracle, the credibility of the county's fiscal plight has been damaged. This has undermined our advocacy effort in Sacramento."

She proposed making big cuts now, and passing the county budget by June 17 without waiting for the state to bail out L.A. County.

"This will demonstrate that the board has taken all steps necessary to move the county toward establishing fiscal stability within its own means," she told the board. "Any relief from Sacramento cannot be relied upon at this time."

But there's another side of the story, and it was heard last Tuesday when Reed brought the supervisors her proposal to pass the budget in June.

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Among the hundreds of thousands of people dependent on county services are mentally ill men, women and children cared for in nonprofit centers that are partially financed by county funds. As private donations dwindled during the recession, the county money became more important to the survival of these psychiatric care facilities.

On Tuesday, Richard Van Horn, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Assn. of Los Angeles County, sat in the audience in the board's hearing room, along with Gloria Nebrit, who heads the Kedren mental health center in South-Central Los Angeles.

Kedren provides care to about 3,000, she said. She and Van Horn said they opposed the Reed strategy. They wanted a vote on the county budget delayed until the state acted. They were confident they could persuade legislators that the mental health centers were worthwhile enough to deserve a bailout.

They proved more persuasive than Reed, whose plan was defeated 3 to 2 by the supervisors.

"It is my experience that they are a very powerful lobby, so we ought to give them a chance before we cut these mental health programs," said Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman.

It was a defeat for Reed. Once again, the board refused to come to grips with Proposition 13. But because of Reed, at least we know what's going on. Los Angeles County is not living within its limited income.

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