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Budget Loss Up to $10 Million Feared

Government: While exact figures aren't known, Ventura County casualties could include health clinics and social service programs.

September 18, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County government is bracing for an additional $10-million budget cut, a loss that could result in the closure of health clinics and the slashing of social service programs for the area's neediest residents.

Preliminary estimates released Tuesday by County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston's office show the county could lose up to $10 million because of reduced funding in the state's recently passed budget.

Although precise figures won't be known for two weeks, county managers are already preparing to cut services for mentally ill adults, recipients of food stamps and oversight of children in protective custody due to suspected abuse or neglect.

Barbara Fitzgerald, director of the Human Services Agency, said she has been holding positions vacant for several months with the assumption she would fill them once the county's true financial health became clear.

But the magnitude of the proposed cuts means she won't be able to hire anyone, Fitzgerald said, leaving the remaining workers with too much to handle. Fitzgerald called Gov. Gray Davis' decision to cut funding for child-protective services "irrational."

"It means fewer caseworkers and it may mean fewer visits" to check the welfare of abused children, Fitzgerald said.

"We don't want to put children at risk."

The Human Service Agency's share of the cuts is $3.8 million. Health care programs would take an even larger hit at $4.3 million.

Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand was not available for comment Tuesday. But the funding cuts fall hardest on programs that help mentally ill adults get by on their own. The state has targeted the adult Systems of Care programs for $2 million in reductions.

The Behavioral Health Department already incurred a $3-million cut in an earlier round of budget slashing by the Board of Supervisors. At that time, officials were proposing to cut the Port Hueneme Mental Health Clinic unless additional revenue was found.

Supervisors will have to decide what programs are priorities for restored funding--if the revenue can be found.

One option is for supervisors to dip into tobacco settlement money. But that most likely would draw resistance from an advisory group that makes recommendations on how the $11 million in annual funding is spent.

Dozens of new health care programs--including smoking-cessation efforts--have been created in the county as a result of the advisory group's work. Advisory leaders have said it would be a mistake to gut the programs because of a temporary budget problem in county government.

But board Chairman John K. Flynn said it may be necessary to look at the funds.

"That's really the only place where there's a bag of money. And it's a very big bag," Flynn said.

"We are fundamentally responsible for providing basic human services. Anyone who comes to the hospital door has to be served. So we can't cut those services."

Flynn said he would also suggest looking at "inefficiencies" in the Human Services Agency, the department that administers social service programs.

It may also be possible to draw some money from First 5 Ventura County, an independent public commission that distributes $12 million annually in tobacco tax funding, Flynn said.

That money is reserved for programs serving children up to age 5.

The $10 million in reductions comes on top of $17 million supervisors trimmed from the county budget in June. Fiscal managers warn that even with the next round of cuts, the pain may not be over.

Sacramento legislators were able to patch together a $99-billion budget, but it relies on accounting maneuvers and financial assumptions that may not pan out, said Bert Bigler, deputy county executive officer.

"It's hard to be optimistic," Bigler said. "It may be that the toughest stuff has just been put off a year."

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