As expected, the Board of Supervisors approved a balanced $1.07-billion budget Tuesday--a move designed to return the county to fiscal stability after years of overspending.
The supervisors praised Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford as the architect of the 2000-01 spending plan, calling their unanimous approval an obligation to an administrator charged with getting the county back into top financial shape.
"Cooperation with Harry was the key," board Chairwoman Kathy Long said after the meeting. "This was not business as usual. It was a tough decision to make, but I feel we're on good, sound footing for the future."
The budget, which takes effect Saturday, modestly reins in public safety spending in the coming fiscal year and limits expansion of mental health programs--to the dismay of advocates who complain services are inadequate.
The county found a bit of budget relief Tuesday morning after the county assessor announced property tax receipts had increased in excess of Hufford's final budget estimate, padding coffers by $972,142.
That money will be added to $2 million set aside for potential budget pitfalls throughout the year.
The money would provide a cushion in case local cities withhold portions of their sales tax revenue from the county, as well as funding for unforeseen future projects.
Also, part of the money could be used to begin repaying a short-term loan used to cover federal fines from a multimillion-dollar Medicare billing scandal.
The final spending plan was met with disappointment from mental health advocates, who until the last minute had pushed to receive the additional money found by Assessor Dan Goodwin.
In the approved budget, the county's behavioral health department was spared $1 million in reductions set forth in the preliminary budget, but must still cut $1.6 million.
Hufford had initially proposed cutting $12.4 million from the overall county budget, but reduced that to $7.9 million.
"We have made some progress and moved the budget in the right direction," said Neal Andrews, chairman of the Mental Health Board. "They say that cut won't affect significantly the provision of service, but there's no way to cut that much without" doing so.
Hufford said that while he could have transferred the additional property tax revenue to mental health programs, he needed to prepare for "other demands out there."
Requiring fewer cuts seems to have eased the struggles between Hufford and several department chiefs who had earlier predicted disaster.
The Sheriff's Department now must cut $1.5 million instead of the $3.5 million Hufford recommended two weeks ago.
The district attorney's office will be out $250,000 instead of $666,400.
And the Ventura County Medical Center and its clinics will be spared $1 million in trims because of increased Medi-Cal rates, which leaves the hospital with no cuts to make.
Hufford's final budget is actually the largest ever for Ventura County, an increase of nearly 12% from the fiscal year that ends Friday.
But he said inflation and negotiated salary increases will eat up those gains.
In addition to approving the budget, the board directed Hufford to prepare a report on how the county's tobacco settlement--$260 million paid over 25 years--should be spent if control over the money is not taken from county government in a November initiative sponsored by Community Memorial Hospital.
Supervisors are now stressing the money be spent on health care, and on Tuesday approved a series of meetings with the community to discuss using the money.
Hufford presented a report he released Monday on County Ordinance 4088, a 1995 law that guarantees public safety agencies budget increases on top of proceeds from a half-cent sales tax for public safety, suggesting the county has contributed as much as $44 million more than required.
That prompted Supervisor John Flynn to suggest that $500,000 be removed from the Sheriff's Department budget to fund a mental health crisis team.
That the proposal received no support from other board members revealed just how much the supervisors have placed themselves in Hufford's hands.
"That was the longest silence you will ever hear on the board," Supervisor Susan Lacey said, after Flynn sought a second on his motion. "We've had long discussions about strengthening the CAO's position. . . . Our obligation to support the CAO has to take precedent."
Hufford's final proposed budget remained virtually unchanged once the $972,000 from the assessor's office was taken into account.
The board agreed to withdraw from an organization of county leaders that requires about $12,000 in annual dues, and agreed to spend about $15,000 on a summer program through the parks department.