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Riverside County Proposes Budget

The $3-billion plan is up nearly 3% over 2002-03, but supervisors have cuts in mind if needed.

June 06, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Riverside County officials proposed a $3-billion budget Thursday that avoids the painful cutbacks facing most Southern California counties, but also lays out $14.1 million in trims that could be adopted if the state budget crisis continues.

The spending plan is nearly 3% greater than last year's budget, with the Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office and other public safety agencies receiving the greatest boost in county funds.

Much of the budget comes from state and federal money and must be spent on specific programs and services, but the county's share of costs rose to $419.3 million in the proposal -- up from $399.7 million this year.

The proposal is for the budget year that begins July 1.

Ed Corser, the county's finance director, said the county is in good shape because the Board of Supervisors has spent conservatively in past years. The county has $56 million in reserves, and the county's sources of tax revenue -- fueled mostly by booming development -- remain healthy.

"Other counties aren't so lucky," he said.

To close an $800-million budget gap, Los Angeles County officials are considering closing hospitals, libraries and jails.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors this year adopted more than $100 million in spending cuts for next year, which will translate into the loss of hundreds of units of low-cost housing, reduced health care and delays in assessing child-abuse cases.

Still, the uncertainty of how the state will balance its books is having a chilling effect on Riverside County's budget.

"At this point, I'm still very cautious because all of this seems to change, I would say drastically, from day to day," Corser said.

The main financial problem facing the county is that it is spending more from its general fund that it receives in revenue. Corser said that deficit was created because the state is behind in paying for its mandated social service programs.

"We are advancing too much money for too long a time to the state for programs that are theirs," he said. "We're having to use local funds to fill that gap and, fortunately, we've been in the position to handle it up until now. If we have to go more than one more year doing that, we will be in deep water, as will all other counties."

Corser is optimistic that the state will pay what it owes, but some supervisors believe the county must prepare for the worst.

Included in a budget proposal this week were $14.1 million in potential cuts that, county officials say, would allow the county to trim spending without affecting public services.

The savings would come from a hiring freeze, no longer using temporary labor and eliminating travel expenses, training and major purchases for all but public safety agencies.

Supervisor Bob Buster said he wants to consider adopting some of the savings immediately.

"We don't know what's going to happen this year, let alone next year, from the state perspective, and even from a local perspective," he said.

"We need to put on the brakes here. I'm not talking about cutting vital services, but taking all those things staff can come up with that can be postponed, that aren't absolutely necessary right now.... We can husband those funds as a cushion against the worse case that could happen."

The proposed budget already forgoes most capital projects and other extras that have been regularly granted in past years. Budget hearings begin Monday.

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