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Ventura County Supervisors Face Tough Year

Government: Budget and labor woes are among challenges in 2002. Two seats are up for election.

January 01, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with falling revenues, a big hole in the budget and tense labor negotiations, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors is confronting a year of tough choices in 2002.

Sticker shock arrives in mid-January, when Gov. Gray Davis is expected to announce reduced funding for counties to help close an anticipated $12.4-billion shortfall in the state's 2002-03 budget.

That will set the tone for the next six months as supervisors scramble to keep local government running on fewer dollars, officials predict.

Budget analysts already are projecting a $20-million shortfall in county government's $1.1-billion budget for the coming year, a figure that does not include any further reductions from the state.

Financial pressures will probably force the Board of Supervisors to trim the county's 7,200-member work force and possibly reduce services to make ends meet, several supervisors said.

"So much of our budget relies on those pass-through funds from the state," Supervisor Kathy Long said. "It's going to be a Scrooge of a year any way you look at it."

Though budget decisions will dominate, board members will face other thorny issues in 2002. They include:

* Contract negotiations with the union representing sheriff's deputies. Talks have dragged on for a year, with each side accusing the other of distorting facts and fanning rancor. With no settlement in sight, deputies are vowing to ratchet up the pressure on supervisors in 2002.

* Creation of a land preservation district. Sixty-eight percent of Ventura County voters said they wanted one in 1998. But supervisors are split on whether they will support the state legislation needed to get the ball rolling.

* Anti-terrorism preparation. County leaders will continue beefing up safeguards against terrorist attacks, improving coordination with health officials, emergency workers and law enforcement.

* Review of supplemental environmental studies for the proposed Ahmanson Ranch development. Stopping the 3,050-home development at the county's southeastern fringe has become a rallying cry for a vocal group of opponents in Thousand Oaks and Los Angeles County. The issue will again be closely watched in the year ahead.

* Mental health housing and services. Supervisors will debate whether to add a limited amount of affordable housing for mentally ill residents on county-owned property near Camarillo. Some mental health advocates are pushing for a more expansive project that includes a variety of nonprofit housing and services.

Finally, the March primary will produce at least one new board member.

Since there are only two candidates in each of the two supervisorial contests, the primary will decide both seats.

Supervisor Frank Schillo will depart his Thousand Oaks-based district in December 2002, setting the stage for what is expected to be a costly battle to replace him. Two candidates, Thousand Oaks City Councilwoman Linda Parks and businessman Randy Hoffman, are facing off on the March 5 ballot.

Supervisor Judy Mikels, meanwhile, has one challenger, Moorpark fraud investigator John Lane.

Though winners won't be seated until January 2003, the election's outcome will signal which way the board is likely to tilt on everything from union demands to growth policy.

Nearly everyone at the Hall of Administration agrees that budget problems will consume much of the supervisors' time in the coming year.

A recession-spawned slowdown in sales taxes and other funding sources is expected to hit with full force by mid-June, County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston warned.

That means budget cutters will be looking to squeeze out every dollar they can, including revenue flowing to the county's public safety departments, Johnston said.

Last year the board did not exercise its option of cutting the cost-of-living allowance given to the sheriff, district attorney, public defender and probation chief. Those departments received a 9% increase in general fund dollars, Johnston said.

But the new fiscal reality suggests that the board may approve little more than a standard 3% inflationary adjustment, the county chief said.

That could be a tough wake-up call for law enforcement, which has become accustomed to hefty voter-approved increases in the last decade.

"This year [Sheriff Bob] Brooks got less money than he said he needed, about $4.5 million less," Johnston said. "It will be even tougher next year."

Negotiations with the union representing county sheriff's deputies and district attorney investigators are also expected to be fraught with tension.

Deputies are pushing for an enhanced pension benefit that Johnston says will cost the county's retirement system $100 million. Union leaders say the real cost is closer to $80 million.

The union accuses Johnston and the supervisors of trying to paint them as greedy for asking for something that is quickly becoming standard for law enforcement across California.

The dispute has dragged on for a year and got so heated in late 2001 that deputies threatened to stage an illegal strike.

Though they backed away from that, leaders of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Assn. have vowed to pursue legal options to resolve contract issues.

Beyond that, association chief Glen Kitzmann has said members will work tirelessly to elect union-backed candidates in the March primary. Hoffman and Lane have both been endorsed by the deputies' union.

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