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County Facing Cuts to Budget

After forecasting a shortfall of $205 million in the general fund, the top official today will introduce a plan for a leaner 2003-04.

April 14, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

From sheriff's deputies to nurses, lawyers and janitors, Los Angeles County workers are steeling themselves for a fresh round of cutbacks in a government that already has absorbed significant reductions in public safety and health services.

Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen will release a 2003-04 budget proposal today that includes multimillion-dollar cuts to cope with California's worst budget crisis in decades. While department heads have been told what to expect for their agencies, Janssen's office would say only that the spending plan will be smaller than this year's $16.85-billion budget.

The proposal must be approved by the Board of Supervisors, who will hold public hearings and debate it in coming weeks. The budget takes effect July 1.

The county's spending plan will put off some tough decisions, which won't come until late summer or early fall, when what is expected to be a shrunken California budget could mean further cuts for the state's 58 counties.

In Los Angeles County, 29% of revenue comes from the state.

In a budget forecast last month, Janssen predicted a $205-million shortfall in the county's general fund for the coming fiscal year, in part because of higher caseloads for In-Home Supportive Services and Children and Family Services, and various salary and employee benefits.In some cases, California's severe budget woes have already begun to bite into county coffers. The state, which is supposed to reimburse counties for spending on state-mandated programs, this year has withheld about $40 million it owes Los Angeles County. Sacramento also delayed the county's April child-support funding because the state agency was out of money.

In the fiscal year that begins July 1, the Sheriff's Department is likely to be among the hardest hit.

Paul Tanaka, who as chief of the department's Administrative Services Division oversees the sheriff's budget, said the agency needs an increase of $68 million to maintain the current level of service. Instead, Tanaka said, he has been informed that the county will cut the sheriff's current $1.67-billion budget by $14 million.

"We have gone past the fat, into the meat, and we're dangerously close to the bone," Tanaka said. "If we have to make any more cuts, we're going to have to start pulling [deputies] from the field."

Last year, supervisors trimmed the department's budget by $84 million, and Sheriff Lee Baca has repeatedly warned that further cuts could jeopardize public safety.

Earlier this month, Baca began releasing 2,600 low-level offenders from county jails to save an estimated $15 million, drawing harsh criticism from Los Angeles officials. Over the last decade, the department has closed five jails, including the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, to save money.

"This is intolerable," Baca said at a forum on gang violence last week, "but the sheriff doesn't invent money."

For now, the Sheriff's Department is trying to make do by slashing overtime, closing wings of various jails and erasing more than 400 positions from its books. In one of the county's tried-and-true budget tricks, the department hopes to avoid layoffs by not filling jobs as people retire or quit.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he has been told to expect a $4.6-million cut.

As a result, units that prosecute sex crimes and domestic violence could be cut by half, left to handle "only the most serious, difficult cases," Cooley told his employees in a memo last week.

Other divisions that could be consolidated or reduced include those dealing with environmental crimes, elder abuse, quality-of-life offenses, hate crimes, Asian gangs, arson and high-tech crimes.

"I am absolutely determined to make it through the next fiscal year without layoffs or pay cuts," Cooley said.

The Probation Department, meanwhile, intends to close the Glen Rockey juvenile probation camp in San Dimas and wipe 47 positions from its books.

Some departments -- most noticeably the Department of Health Services, which runs the county hospitals -- have already dug deep to try to avert a fiscal meltdown.

In the last year, the department has closed 16 health clinics and moved to shut two hospitals. Those cuts, coupled with cash infusions from the federal government and a voter-approved property tax, will keep the system afloat for a few years, according to projections.

Some of the county's smaller agencies, such as the Department of Beaches and Harbors, are also preparing for major belt-tightening.

Kerry Gottlieb, the department's chief deputy director, said a potential 21% budget reduction may force workers to cut back on cleaning restrooms and combing the sand at the 16 beaches it operates from Nicholas Canyon to Cabrillo Beach.

"We're known worldwide to have the cleanest beaches," Gottlieb said. "We're constantly raking and sanitizing the beaches and picking up debris -- everything from seaweed to diapers."

In better times, the department could patch the budget gap by increasing fees at beach parking lots. But that isn't likely to work this year because of a drop in tourism, Gottlieb said.

Similarly, the Department of Parks and Recreation may have to eliminate a nine-person crew that maintains some 345 miles of trails to make up for a proposed 5.4% budget cut. The department's regular maintenance crews would take over the job, spokeswoman Sheila Ortega said.

The county Board of Supervisors has until the end of June to revise the proposed budget, a politically charged task even in rosy times. Last year, they saw most of their efforts to save favored programs voted down.

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Times staff writers Daren Briscoe and Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.

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