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Supervisors Dig Deep for Budget Plan : Spending: Officials scrutinize reserve accounts and raise tax revenue estimates.


In what has become an annual ritual, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday shook out all the old purses and checked pockets for the spare change--make that spare millions--that is badly needed to balance the precarious $14.5-billion budget.

Three months into the new fiscal year, the time had come for the supervisors to finalize the annual spending plan, and as in most years they were facing more needs than revenues.

After rummaging through all the old reserve accounts and special funds, county officials turned up a few million dollars, but there was still not enough. So the supervisors simply raised their estimates of this year's tax revenues and set about spending the newfound money.

County Chief Administrative Officer Sally Reed advised the board that its ploy was risky and unwise, but the board went ahead and identified about $32 million in new revenues and new ways to spend it.

The board first set aside $11.7 million to help law enforcement agencies cope with the added expenses of enforcing the new "three strikes and you're out" law. Of those funds, the supervisors immediately gave the district attorney $4.1 million to hire prosecutors, investigators and clerical help. They also gave the district attorney $2 million from another account to help correct weaknesses identified in a recent grand jury report.

The remainder of the law enforcement reserve funds will be doled out later to the Sheriff's Department, probation, public defender's and other departments as their needs are quantified. The board agreed, however, that new employees should be put on short-term contracts rather than assigned to permanent positions because there may not be enough money to keep them on the payroll next year.

Even the newfound cash couldn't solve all the board's nagging budget problems.

Although the board found $22.5 million in new funds to save the library system from drastic cuts, an ongoing philosophical debate kept the supervisors from mustering a majority to actually allocate the money.

Two board members, Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Ed Edelman, said they prefer to fund the libraries through a recently adopted tax that would raise about $15 million. The two supervisors say the tax, approved by the board six weeks ago, is the only way to assure library funding in the future. They argued that the county's general revenues should not be paying for libraries that only serve limited parts of the county.

The assessment would affect property owners in the unincorporated county areas and 16 independent cities that decided to join the assessment district. The annual fee would cost the average homeowner about $28.50.

When the board narrowly approved the tax in August, Supervisor Gloria Molina said she would change her position and vote to rescind it if surplus money could be found. Now that the board has come up with the extra funds, Molina said Tuesday that she is prepared to vote down the tax at a special hearing set for Oct 14.

"I will not support taxing the taxpayer . . . when we have funds in hand," Molina said.

But in a procedural quirk, Molina and her anti-tax allies, Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana, could not approve spending the newly found $22.5 million. That procedure takes four votes and neither Burke nor Edelman would give ground.

So although both camps want to aid the libraries, their actions could leave the troubled department with no new funds and no taxing authority. The issue will come to a showdown at next week's special hearing.

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