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County Celebrates Cost-Cutting, but Some Question Its Figures : Finances: Officials say they saved taxpayers $253 million in year. But they admit submitted estimates were accepted at face value.

October 26, 1994|TRACEY KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under the glare of popping flashbulbs Tuesday, Los Angeles County officials beamed for the cameras, claiming to have saved taxpayers a whopping $253 million in cost-cutting programs during the last fiscal year, more than four times what was saved the year before.

Officials of the county's Productivity and Quality Commission sponsored the brief celebration at the Hall of Administration to mark a banner year cutting government waste and encouraging innovation.

No doubt some of the programs--such as consolidating courts in Santa Monica--have improved public services and reduced costs from last year's $13.7-billion budget.

But on closer examination, some of the touted savings may not be what taxpayers had hoped for.

For instance:

* The county Department of Health Services estimates that it earned an extra $10 million in revenues through more efficient Medi-Cal billing at Harbor / UCLA Medical Center. But the commission failed to note that the department lost another $24 million at some of its other hospitals because of delays in Medi-Cal billing caused by the collapse of an expensive computer system.

* The Department of Public Works estimated that 451 homeowners in Malibu and the San Gabriel Valley will save $50 million over the next three to four storm seasons if they heed the department's advice and take steps to reduce erosion of fire-ravaged hillsides. While the "Post-burn Mudflow Protective Advice Program" may indeed reduce property damage and prevent the loss of lives, "I wondered myself about whether it is really a direct cost savings to the county," said Virginia Bortin, the commission's executive director. Nonetheless, the $50 million was added to the county's tally of savings.

* The county Department of Community and Senior Citizens Services helped land a $20-million federal grant for homeless programs that the commission counted as part of the county's total savings. But not only is the money to be shared with the city of Los Angeles, the county would probably not have spent that much on such programs had the grant been denied.

County officials acknowledged that some of the savings may be questionable. The commission accepted at face value the estimates submitted by 184 program managers.

"We probably should have proved those numbers first," said Robert M. Hertzberg, an attorney who sits on the 17-member commission.

But even if the county only saved half of the $253 million estimated by the commission, that's still more than twice as much as the year before, county officials said. The commission's annual effort to recognize programs that cut costs and improve services is still worthwhile, they said.

*

"It has spin-off value," said County Administrative Officer Sally R. Reed, who, since she was hired a year ago, has urged the county to be more fiscally responsible. "The more positive attention you give to those kinds of efforts, the more county departments are going to be that way."

Health Services Director Robert C. Gates said: "If you always balance the gains against the losses and say no one deserves recognition, you've eliminated the incentive for people to make improvements."

Massive state budget cutbacks have forced the county to save more during the last fiscal year than in each of the past seven years since the commission has kept track of such data, Bortin said. "Departments were under the knife," she said.

But Supervisor Gloria Molina, a frequent critic of the county's fiscal policies, suggested that much more needs to be done.

"There are good things that go on; you can't dismiss those things," she said. "But whether we're more efficient now; I don't know whether that's a claim we get to make yet."

The steps the county took to save taxpayers money or improve public services include:

* Installing better computer systems, including one in the Department of Mental Health that reduced the county's costs by $1.4 million and another in the Administratively Unified Courts that saved $2.5 million.

* Consolidating the Santa Monica Municipal and Superior courts, avoiding the need for a new $56-million courthouse.

* Using volunteer attorneys in Glendale Superior Court to resolve civil cases. The program saved about $1.9 million in court costs.

* Reducing illness or injury claims in several departments--including the County Administrative Office, where a wellness program was projected to save more than $2 million annually, and in the public works department, where a safety program saved $4.3 million.

* Establishing a county team to investigate financial abuse of the elderly.

Counting the Savings Los Angeles County officials praise cost-cutting programs that have saved taxpayers $253 million for the 1993-94 fiscal year. Closer examination raises some questions about county arithmetic. *

The Good Department: Courts Program: Consolidate Santa Monica municipal and superior courts. Estimated savings / revenue: $48 million Explanation: Avoids need for new $56-million courthouse *

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