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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

CAO and Health Care Chief Clash Over Cuts

County: Hufford says Durand is playing politics to keep from reducing his agency's budget by $3.6 million.

May 23, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a new skirmish with another one of the county's most powerful department heads, chief administrator Harry Hufford on Monday accused Health Care Agency chief Pierre Durand of playing politics to avoid making necessary cuts to his budget.

Hufford has asked Durand to cut $3.6 million from his agency's budget to help eliminate the county's $12-million deficit by July.

But Durand has yet to submit a list of proposed cuts. Instead, he has recommended that Hufford slash administrative fees charged to the Health Care Agency for county services, such as payroll and routine audits.

Hufford dismissed Durand's request, saying the service fees charged to county agencies have nothing to do with the cuts needed to balance the budget.

"It's a diversion," Hufford said. "I've asked Dr. Durand to give me the impact of direct service reductions to his budget. One of his counters is to be critical of overhead charges [from] the [chief administrative officer's] department. What we really need from him is an impact statement on delivery of services."

Durand, a former auditor who himself has a reputation of being a tough fiscal manager, declined comment. With 2,000 employees and an annual $232-million budget, his agency is one of the county's largest, and therefore essential to any budget-reduction package.

Hufford already has demonstrated his willingness to take on the county's most powerful department heads over budget matters, including Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury. Last week, he called off negotiations with Brooks after the sheriff refused to submit $6.5 million in proposed cuts. It's the first time in seven years that the county's law enforcement agencies are facing potential reductions.

Now, it's time for Durand to adjust his budget, Hufford said.

Of the proposed $3.6-million reduction to the Health Care Agency budget, about $2 million would come from the $7 million that the Behavioral Health Department currently receives each year in county funding.

That cut would help make up for the millions of dollars lost in state and federal funding over a Medicare billing scandal and a botched 1998 merger of the mental health and social service agencies, Hufford said. The county so far has incurred $25.5 million in legal fees, accounting costs and other penalties.

Lou Matthews, a board member of the Ventura chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said restructuring the department may be a better alternative to cutting funding at a time when the needs of the county's mentally ill are so great.

"Here we are in the best of times, and we're in these financial straits when you would expect the mentally ill would be helped," Matthews said.

Although Hufford's final proposal for the 2000-01 fiscal budget is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors on June 13, most agency heads submitted reduction plans to the top administrator last week that outlined where cuts would be made.

Other areas targeted for cuts are the county Board of Supervisors, the Parks Department, the Probation Agency, the Human Services Agency, the Auditor-Controller's Office and the Public Works Department.

As a result of the county's financial troubles, Moody's Investor Service recently downgraded the county's credit rating from A1 to A2 with a "negative outlook," making it more costly to borrow money for long-term building projects such as a proposed $63-million juvenile justice center.

County officials will travel to New York next month to meet with representatives of the bond-rating agency. They said it is essential that they show the county is making a good-faith effort to regain solid financial footing.

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