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$12-Million Cut in AQMD Budget Urged : Pollution: State audit recommends slashing salaries, which it says are comparatively high. Director disputes figures.

March 29, 1995|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Urging major belt-tightening for a staff already strapped by sharp layoffs and pay cuts, a state audit Tuesday recommended that the South Coast Air Quality Management District slash its budget as much as $12 million, mostly from salaries.

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For the first time under a new state law, the California Air Resources Board reviewed the smog agency's $97-million proposed budget, seeking ways to cut expenses without disabling enforcement of the region's anti-smog laws. The AQMD--funded almost entirely by fees and fines paid by businesses--has been under fire in recent years from the Legislature, which has limited the fees it can collect.

The auditors reported that AQMD salaries are 20% higher than for comparable jobs at the state air agency in Sacramento. The report said that an entry level engineer at the ARB starts at $3,319 per month, while the AQMD's assistant air quality engineers earn $4,504 per month. The report said that a more reasonable difference to account for the Southland's higher cost of living might be 10%, and that cutting 10% would bring an annual savings of $4 million.

But AQMD Executive Officer James Lents said Tuesday that he doubts whether salaries can be reduced much further because pay has been frozen for two years and some wages have been cut. He disputed the 20% figure, saying his surveys show that AQMD management earns 5% to 10% less than management in other Southland government agencies, and that engineers and other workers earn 5% to 10% more.

"If you want to attract the good people you have to have salaries comparable to (other area agencies)," Lents said. "Quite frankly . . . they (the state reviewers) are way out of line for what I consider fair compensation for the staff."

Other cost-saving recommendations included cutting out-of-district and foreign travel by nearly half, or $100,000. Last year, some board members traveled to Germany for an automobile conference.

The audit also said it seems excessive for the AQMD to have a staff of six for community outreach, plus $200,000 for outside lobbying contracts in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento. But Lents said he "cannot support slashing the outreach budget" because the AQMD must communicate with 185 cities and thousands of small regulated businesses in the four-county region.

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The state officials recommended no reductions in funds for enforcement of smog rules. Many inspections of businesses have been eliminated and replaced with education programs--raising concerns about compliance.

In the report, the state agency noted that the AQMD has shrunk "virtually all aspects" of its programs at the same time it faces challenging federal mandates for cleaning up the Southland's smog. About 32% of its staff, or 368 positions, has been eliminated since 1992 and its budget is down 14% from $113 million in 1991-92.

ARB Chairman John Dunlap said the cost savings identified in his agency's report should "be used to reduce fees charged to Southern California employers."

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