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Some Budget Issues Settled as Hearings Begin

Government: Supervisors appear ready to spare veterans office, ease Juvenile Hall crowding. Mittermeier's plan puts most other programs at or above existing funding levels.


SANTA ANA — The Board of Supervisors kicks off three days of public testimony on the county's $3.6-billion budget Tuesday evening with some of the most pressing funding issues all but resolved.

The Veterans Affairs office in Santa Ana, which under an earlier budget plan was scheduled to shut down on Sept. 30, now appears likely to receive the $300,000 needed to keep it open through next summer.

Most supervisors said they support funding the 68-year-old office, which if closed would force veterans and their survivors to use facilities in Long Beach or Westwood for help with pensions, medical benefits and other services.

Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier's final 1996-97 county budget also provides more than $1 million in additional funding to address another urgent need, overcrowding at Juvenile Hall.

The Probation Department would use the money to add 112 detention beds, 48 at the old Santa Ana jail and the remainder at the new Santa Ana jail for juvenile inmates who will be tried as adults.

Officials said the extra money would help ease overcrowding at Juvenile Hall, which was designed for 374 inmates but regularly houses more than 500.

But other issues remain unresolved.

Health-care advocates will ask the board to increase to pre-bankruptcy levels the county's spending for mental health services, health education and other programs. They also want the Sheriff's Department--which faced smaller bankruptcy cutbacks than the Health Care Agency--to pick up the costs of operating jail medical facilities.

Supervisor William G. Steiner said he will seek budget augmentations for the Orangewood Children's Home, child-abuse prevention programs and health services, which took some of the biggest financial hits of the bankruptcy.

"We can't turn our backs on the most vulnerable of our citizens," Steiner said. "We need to strengthen the social fabric of Orange County."

Even though the county emerged from bankruptcy just three months ago, the proposed budget maintains funding for most programs at their existing levels.

In fact, Mittermeier's final budget provides additional money for dozens of "critical" items, ranging from the district attorney's domestic violence programs to more mental health beds.

Mittermeier proposes spending about $5.5 million on these "critical" needs, with additional funding coming from the state and federal government. The supervisors would then have an additional $1.5 million to allocate toward other budget requests of their choice.

In addition to child-welfare programs and the veterans office, some officials, including Supervisor Marian Bergeson, said they want to accelerate planning for a new courthouse in South County.

Mittermeier's final budget also sets aside $14.8 million toward the early repayment of the $800 million in bonds the county issued as part of the bankruptcy recovery plan. Supervisor Don Saltarelli, who proposed the idea, said early repayment will save the county substantial interest payments.

But some activists questioned the logic of paying back the debt early when so many health and social services needs are going unmet.

"It doesn't matter when you retire the debt if you are going to have people dying," said Felix Schwartz, executive director of the Health Care Council of Orange County.


Budget Hearing Schedule

Three hearings on the county's proposed $3.6-billion budget will be held this week. The public is invited to attend at the Board of Supervisors meeting room, Hall of Administration, 10 Civic Center Plaza in Santa Ana. The schedule/subjects:

* Today: 7 p.m.; social services, health care and community services programs

* Wednesday: 9:30 a.m.; Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office, Probation Department, capital improvements, debt service and other fiscal issues

* Thursday: 9:30 a.m.; Planning Department, Harbors, Beaches and Parks Department, environmental management issues, assessor's office, auditor-controller, treasurer-tax collector and other general government services

Source: County of Orange; Researched by SHELBY GRAD / For The Times

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