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SigAlert for Social Services

July 14, 2002

The freeway traffic jam analogy that Orange County officials are using to illustrate budget cuts on the horizon in the Social Services Agency is painful but accurate. Traffic jams quickly spread the pain to motorists beyond the immediate bottleneck as traffic on nearby surface streets is disrupted and distant motorists start plotting alternate routes. Similarly, the pain of a $39-million budget cut at the agency will move beyond thousands of residents who already depend upon the county agency for welfare-to-work training, adoptions, day care and other assistance.

A decision to save money by consolidating means fewer employees stationed at hospitals and similar centers. In addition to making services harder to get, fewer workers will be available to initiate paperwork to recoup funding from the state and federal governments for some mandated services.

State funding shortfalls are the main culprit in this budgetary SigAlert. A stalled economy has left the state with a $23.6-billion deficit; slowing retail sales also have led to a $10-million drop in sales tax receipts that fund public protection, including the Sheriff's Department.

One measure of the budget crunch is that, for the first time since the county's historic bankruptcy in 1994, the county will tap its reserves to offset an anticipated $57-million shortfall in the county's $4.3-billion budget.

Sacramento is using a time-honored tactic to deal with the deficit. It's cutting funds for state-mandated programs and pushing the fiscal pain to the county level. Larry Leaman, county Social Services Agency director, says it's too early to say which of the agency's tens of thousands of clients will be hurt most. But it's likely that this year's cost-cutting will be followed by more in coming years. And, given the nature of the Social Services Agency, cuts will fall on residents who most need help.

Some of the potential cuts are decidedly counterproductive. CalWORKS, a program designed to help people get off welfare, is one of those particularly frustrating examples. More than 5,000 clients could be affected by budget cuts. CalWORKS should be at work during a slow economy when it's harder for people to make the jump from welfare to work. A program that targets at-risk children also faces cuts, as do services that steer low-income and unemployed people into food stamp programs.

Those getting services won't be the only ones affected. Staffing cuts likely will create a logjam that slows delivery of needed services to those already registered. In the traffic jam analogy, it's akin to all of the traffic being funneled into one slow-moving lane.

The county's $57-million budget shortfall doesn't create the kind of headlines evident in Los Angeles County, where public health care is on the verge of a meltdown and the sheriff has released 1,200 nonviolent prisoners from overcrowded jails. But the pain in Orange County will be just as real for children who will wait longer in foster care before being adopted and for families living at the poverty level who will wait longer for food stamps.

The county can't be expected to deliver services without revenue promised by other levels of government. Sacramento obviously is feeling pressure from the slowing economy, but it must find a way to keep promises to fund mandated programs in Orange County.

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