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Popejoy Warns of 2,000 Layoffs : Bankruptcy: County CEO, in a confidential memo about cuts to be announced next week, says the human toll will be 'severe.' Stunned labor leaders call news a disaster.


SANTA ANA — As many as 2,000 county employees could face layoffs when sweeping budget cuts are announced next week, according to a confidential memo to county supervisors written by Orange County Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy.

The anticipated layoffs, which represent the biggest reduction of county personnel to be forecast since the county declared bankruptcy Dec. 6, sent shock waves of dread among county workers, department heads and labor leaders.

"The morale (among employees) would probably be better if they were told that Adolf Hitler was taking over the county tomorrow," said Bill Fogarty, executive secretary treasurer of the Orange County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. "I think they'd feel there was more hope. It's a disaster."

"Popejoy himself has said there's not a lot of fat in the county," added Tobye Lovelace, a spokeswoman for the 11,000-member Orange County Employees Assn. "When you talk about thousands of people being laid off, you're cutting the bone. You're cutting vital services that are going to felt by the public."

In the Feb. 24 memo to the board, Popejoy wrote that preliminary estimates received from department heads--who have been asked to slash 28% of their budgets--indicate that the human toll from future budget cuts will be "severe."

"The personnel reduction component alone may well involve termination of between 1,500 and 2,000 employees," Popejoy noted in the memo, which was obtained by The Times. Those cuts would go significantly beyond the approximately 200 layoffs ordered so far in the wake of the county's financial disaster.

When asked about the memo Thursday, Popejoy said the figures still were evolving. "That damn memo was personal and confidential," he said. "The numbers could go deeper or be less."

Popejoy added that the intent of the memo was "to impress" supervisors about the severity of the financial debacle and spur them to make significant cuts in their own office budgets.

Supervisor William G. Steiner said that if board members didn't get the message earlier, they did Wednesday, when Popejoy laid off 25 employees in his own office.

"What he did yesterday went like an earthquake through county government," Steiner said.

Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said Popejoy told him Thursday that the layoff figures are "inconclusive."

County department heads, nonetheless, are preparing for drastic cuts.

"We're now realizing how much more severe the numbers are," said Health Care Agency Director Tom Uram, one of three county officials who earlier this year struggled to come up with $30 million in budget cuts for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

"This is not a fun exercise. It's not something we signed up to do when we took these (management) positions."

During that early round of budget cutting, Uram said, county officials "were trying to reduce as much as we could and still protect the public health, safety, welfare and economic necessity."

But Uram said he was uncertain whether the county could still protect those vital interests if more than 1,500 employees are terminated.

"That remains to be seen," said Uram, who said he was unaware of Popejoy's memo until questioned by a reporter. "(Massive cutting) obviously limits your ability. You have to choose to make those reductions in the least offensive way, the way that has the least impact on people in the county."

Sweeping cuts and massive layoffs also would be devastating to the Orange County public defender's office, which was forced to slash its budget 22%, or $7.4 million, during the last round of budget cuts in December.


"It would not only be severe, it would be fatal," Superior Court Presiding Judge James L. Smith said. "It would impossible for that office to provide indigent defense and this county has no option but to do it. It would be the miracle of the fish and loaves for them to cut any more money."

In a presentation to board members earlier this week, Popejoy warned that tremendous "pain" would be imposed on employees as the county struggles to prepare a fiscal 1995-96 budget. Popejoy said the next year's discretionary general fund will be $188 million--41%--less than this year's.

Even with deep cuts, Popejoy said, the county may operate at a deficit during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Popejoy also told supervisors that most of the layoffs will have to come from the 4,500 county positions that are part of the general fund budget. The 10,500 other county jobs are largely funded by state and federal money. Popejoy said layoffs would occur over the next three months.

Popejoy declined Thursday to discuss which departments will suffer the layoffs or precisely how many there will be, saying he will present a detailed plan with the exact number Tuesday.

Labor leaders reacted with anger and surprise Thursday to the news that there could be thousands of layoffs to come.

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