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BILL BOYARSKY

Rx for Reform Too Bitter a Pill for Supervisors

May 18, 1994|BILL BOYARSKY

Sally Reed arrived at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration with the naive assumption she could bring honest bookkeeping to county government.

But Reed, the county administrative officer, has seen her proposals shredded by the supervisors who hired her. In the seven months since she arrived, she's learning there's not much market at the hall for her simple prescription for reform.

No matter who is supervisor, no matter whether the board is liberal or conservative, county government is stubbornly wedded to its secretive, impossible-to-comprehend budget process.

Reed first tried a budget with no one-time financing, no gimmicks, no depending on problematic state aid. The deficit in this truth-in-budgeting spending program totaled $900 million. Because the county is not allowed to have a deficit, Reed proposed balancing the budget with big cuts.

The supervisors ordered Reed back to her computer. She compromised, coming back with a budget more to the supervisorial tastes. She abandoned a reserve fund, reduced estimates of some welfare costs, and added some hoped-for money from the federal and state governments and from employee pension funds.

She also proposed a $60-million cut in the Sheriff's Department. The cut would have given the county's public safety departments, which include the Sheriff's Department, 45% of available county funds, up from last year's 41%. But Sheriff Sherman Block wanted more. He threatened to go to war against the supes. So Tuesday, the supervisors voted to give the sheriff just about what he wanted, dipping into another one of those many mysterious county funds that only the most knowledgeable insiders can find. This one is supposed to be used to make early payments on debts to improve the county's credit rating. Only Supervisor Mike Antonovich objected.

Once again, the supervisors refused to swallow Reed's bitter medicine. In view of these continued rejections, it's interesting to examine why they hired her in the first place.

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Reed won the job 3 to 2, backed by an odd coalition of liberal supervisors Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke and conservative Antonovich. Deane Dana and Ed Edelman were opposed. The nature of her coalition is as much to blame for her troubles as is her approach to budgeting.

The idea of a woman CAO no doubt had some appeal to Burke and Molina. Antonovich seemed to approve of Reed's conservative fiscal philosophy.

Reed made a good first impression. She's a friendly, open person with a good sense of humor. She continued predecessor Harry Hufford's weekly Monday morning meetings with the Hall of Administration press corps, discussing hot issues in a forthright manner.

It was clear she was more conservative than the liberal board majority of Edelman, Burke and Molina. But with even liberal Democrats talking economy these days, it seemed like a philosophical accommodation might be possible. Everyone knew that the county would one day have to put its fiscal house in order. That was one point that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown agreed on. And the state is the main source of county funds.

But in preparing her first budget, Reed made mistakes that left her coalition crumbling.

The cuts she advocated were too massive for Molina and Burke to support. They included heavy reductions in the county health and welfare services so important to the East, Central and South Los Angeles areas they represent. Reed left her supporters behind as she raced toward her destination.

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No doubt, Reed should have gone slower. But that's a criticism of her technique, not her policy. What's most important is that Reed is on the right track, heading for the proper destination--a county government that is open with the people in fiscal affairs.

I thought of open government while I watched the Los Angeles City Council's budget debate. It's all being done in public, with every item argued openly, first in committee and then on the council floor.

Mayor Richard Riordan and his assistants presented the budget to the council. Administration aides have been subjected to days of hostile questioning. The council's own fiscal experts, Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton and his staff, go up against the mayoral team. The public has testified at committee hearings and before the full council. A rough consensus is formed out of this clash, reflecting L.A.'s political will.

The supervisors would rather have only themselves and a few other powerful insiders understand the county's fiscal condition. In that way, they can raid obscure funds, put off decisions and avoid the day when they must confront the fact that county spending exceeds income.

That is why so many people--Wilson, liberal Democratic legislative leaders, Howard Jarvis conservatives--question the county's figures. Reed is having trouble because she has tried to change the stubborn and secretive process.

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