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Ventura County

County Budget Includes $17 Million in Cuts

Spending: State shortfall will likely force supervisors to economize even more.

June 05, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County supervisors adopted a $1.2-billion preliminary budget Tuesday that trims more than $17 million from government programs for the poor and slashes 140 vacant positions.

But the worst could be yet to come, county officials cautioned.

State legislators are wrangling over how to deal with California's projected $23.6-billion budget shortfall. Depending on what they and Gov. Gray Davis decide, even more draconian reductions could be on the way, County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston said.

"You can only go so far with working harder and smarter.... In the end, there will be fewer employees doing the work," he told supervisors just before they unanimously adopted a draft version of the county's 2002-03 budget.

Total revenues are projected to increase 2.18% in the coming year, to just under $1.2 billion. But the cost of negotiated salary increases, spiraling health insurance premiums and other items is climbing much faster, leading to the budget cuts.

General fund dollars, the crucial pot of discretionary money that supervisors use to pay for a variety of services, are expected to fall 2.23% over the current-year budget.

The fiscal plan avoids dipping into reserves to make up the funding shortfall, a practice that in past years masked a growing structural imbalance, Johnston said. When a final version is adopted by supervisors later this month, the county budget will be balanced for the first time in years, he said.

That cautious approach paid off when officials learned Tuesday that the county will maintain top marks on Wall Street for creditworthiness. County officials traveled to New York last week to explain the new fiscal strategy to two influential credit-rating agencies.

Both agencies, Moody's Investor Services and Standard & Poor's, responded with top credit ratings for the county. That means the county will qualify for low-interest rates when it borrows money, a crucial cost-cutting goal.

But the biggest question--how much of the county's state funding will be cut--remains unanswered. In a budget revision last month, Davis proposed cutting more than $1 billion in disbursements to counties.

Initial estimates show that could mean another $23 million in lost revenue for Ventura County and the elimination of 91 more jobs. Davis' reductions fall heaviest in the areas of health and social services for the poor.

A dozen speakers at Tuesday's meeting urged supervisors to fight proposed state reductions in crucial government programs, such as Medi-Cal and CalWORKS, the state's welfare-to-work program.

Several speakers accused Davis and state legislators of trying to balance the budget on the backs of the state's neediest citizens.

Instead of service cuts, they said, the Legislature should back a proposal by Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) to raise taxes on California's wealthiest residents. Burton's bill, SB 1255, would add a 10% tax rate for single taxpayers with incomes in excess of $130,000 or married filers with incomes exceeding $260,000.

About 2% of Californians would fall into the new tax bracket, according to the California Budget Project, an advocacy group for the poor.

"If it is the richest Californians that profited from prosperous times, it is fair to ask them to bear a larger share of the tough times," said Das Williams, legislative analyst for CAUSE, a regional poverty advocacy group.

In Ventura County, the budget ax would fall heaviest on departments not involved in public safety. Agencies that fix potholes, run parks and administer health-care, agricultural and welfare programs would see an average 4.2% cut.

Four public safety departments that receive special funding--sheriff, district attorney, public defender and probation--would see an increase of 2.1% over current levels. Johnston said those departments' budgets are protected by a county policy that funnels all proceeds from a special half-cent sales tax to them.

But it is the first time that public safety budgets would receive only a standard inflationary increase, instead of the double-digit hikes of previous years, Johnston said.

Sheriff Bob Brooks has said the modest increase is less than he needs to continue his operations at current levels. The sheriff estimates that he will have to trim 36 positions, 16 from patrol units and 20 from the county's jails.

Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury would lose 23 positions, and Public Defender Ken Clayman eight slots if the preliminary budget is adopted.

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