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County Looks at Ways to Save

Riverside County supervisors will consider two simple ways to cut spending. Tougher measures are in reserve if necessary.

August 19, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Trying to cope with the effects of state budget cuts, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors will consider adopting two painless spending reductions today -- postponing the purchase of new county cars and heightening scrutiny of major equipment purchases.

County financial officials also will lay out far more drastic remedies, from freezing most hiring to across-the-board reductions in budgets, in case major cuts become necessary.

"We need to put the brakes on hard here," said Supervisor Bob Buster. "Nothing should be off the table at this point."

Kathryn Field, an analyst in the county executive office, said the two proposals that the board will consider today -- forbidding departments except for police and fire from buying new cars, and having the county executive office review purchases over $5,000 -- could save the county $1.4 million.

"We just felt those were some relatively simple-to-implement strategies that we can do while waiting to see what our beginning balance is for the year," she said.

Reductions are necessary because the state has cut $36 million from the county's general fund to balance its own books. Additionally, pension costs have skyrocketed.

The county already has dipped into its reserve fund to avoid cutting most of its programs and services, causing the fund to drop from $39 million earlier this summer to $12 million.

That reserve needs to be increased in case the state takes away more local dollars during the next budget cycle, Field said.

"We would like to have a cushion going into the next fiscal year," she said.

The more drastic proposals, which could save the county nearly $43 million, include cutting all departments' budgets (except police and fire) by 4%, reducing police and fire spending by 1.5%, using money from the tobacco settlement ahead of schedule, freezing the hiring of non-safety personnel, no longer using temporary workers, and requiring county employees take 160 hours of furlough annually.

As state and county financial pictures become clearer, one or more of these options may become necessary as soon as October, Field said.

Mandating furloughs would require negotiations with unions and is the most unlikely of the proposals, she said. Supervisors added that reducing public-safety budgets is equally unlikely.

Board Chairman John F. Tavaglione said the other cuts must be strongly considered, though he needs more information on a number of the proposals.

"We need to understand a little more -- I don't see all this being adopted tomorrow. But we could set the stage for some of these being adopted" in the future, he said.

Buster said the county must consider reducing pension costs by renegotiating contracts with the unions.

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