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Ventura County Moving on Cuts

Finances: With a potential $20-million deficit, programs for the poor, and jobs, are at stake and facilities could be closed.

January 15, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Child-care subsidies for working poor families could be reduced, a jail shut and dozens of jobs cut under cost-trimming options Ventura County officials are considering to close a projected $20-million deficit.

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston has told the heads of 24 departments to begin saving money now because the budget picture is only going to get worse. The state's deepening recession means Sacramento lawmakers probably will agree to some of the $12 billion in cost savings recommended by Gov. Gray Davis in his budget released last week.

Sacramento's budget squeeze will doubtless trickle down to counties, Johnston said in a report to the Board of Supervisors.

"The severity of pain will depend on the general health of the economy and budget decisions at the state and federal levels," Johnston said. But, he added, "by starting now to plan, we can [lessen] disruptions to public services.'

A good place to start, Johnston said, is trimming $7 million through June. Agency heads then should identify an additional $15 million in potential cuts for next year-even if it means eliminating vacant positions or reducing services, the county chief said.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve those recommendations at its meeting today.

Johnstonstopped short of calling for across-the-board cuts or a hiring freeze. But he warned that more severe measures may be necessary if managers are unable to come up with the cost savings by early February.

Sheriff Bob Brooks said he already has temporarily cut 11 vacant patrol positions and five jail jobs. Beyond that, he would be forced to eliminate programs or close facilities to meet budget targets, Brooks said.

One possibility is closing the East County Jail on Olsen Road in Thousand Oaks. Closing that booking facility used by police agencies in Simi Valley, Moorpark and Thousand Oaks would save about $1 million, Brooks said.

Law enforcement education programs, such as the DARE anti-drug effort and the Police Activities League, also could be on the chopping block, Brooks said. But ending those programs would save the department only about $200,000 because much of the cost is underwritten by grants and donations, the sheriff said.

"They'd be painful to cut, but they are not the bread-and-butter service of law enforcement," Brooks said. "We just don't have anything left that will not impact the public.'

Social services also are expected to suffer.

Human Services Agency Director Barbara Fitzgerald said she will absorb reductions this year by leaving some positions vacant and contracting out some services.

But the real challenge would come in the 2002-03 fiscal year, especially if the state approves funding cuts proposed by Davis.

Of the $2.6 billion in cuts Davis has proposed, about half would come out of programs crucial to the poor. Programs that provide them with medical and dental services, child care and housing would take at least a $1.1-billion hit.

In Ventura County, the biggest effect probably would be on low-income families who rely on subsidized child care, Fitzgerald said.

Davis is proposing to toughen the eligibility requirement and to increase co-payments. The governor also is proposing to slash a cost-of-living increase in welfare payments.

In Ventura County, 5,200 households rely on those monthly checks, which average $479, Fitzgerald said.

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