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Orange County

In Pinch, D.A. Getting Budget Boost

O.C. supervisors, in a preliminary vote, help him avert layoffs. Health chief also lists woes.

June 11, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to boost the district attorney's office budget by $5.7 million, an increase Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said would prevent the layoffs of dozens of prosecutors, investigators and clerical staff.

The move, on a preliminary vote, came on the first of two days of budget hearings during which the Board of Supervisors must decide how to divvy $4.78 billion the county intends to spend on public services in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Rackauckas told supervisors the increase was needed because of a shortfall in sales tax revenue earmarked for law enforcement agencies. Without more funding, the district attorney said, he would have to lay off 42 employees, including 19 prosecutors, assigned to such critical areas as sexual assault prosecution.

Although some on the five-member board have criticized Rackauckas in the past for his fiscal management -- such as spending more than $740,000 in salary and benefits for workers he has suspended with pay since 1999 -- supervisors asked only a few questions Tuesday about the department's budget.

Supervisor Bill Campbell inquired whether it was good policy for Rackauckas to assign a deputy prosecutor who is the wife of the district attorney's campaign manager to handle inquiries from reporters rather than prosecute cases.

"That is an interim arrangement that is unfortunately lasting longer than anticipated," Rackauckas replied.

Finances are a sensitive area for Orange County government, which carries more than $800 million in debt related to its 1994 bankruptcy. Increasing payroll costs, limited investment returns and the state budget gap have led county administrators to propose dipping into savings this year to avoid significant service reductions. The board hopes to complete its budget by June 24.

Juliette A. Poulson, director of the county Health Care Agency, told supervisors that without more funding, her department will have to make $24.6 million in cuts in the 2003-04 fiscal year. The agency provides medical and mental health services for the poor and fulfills other public health and safety duties.

But after nearly four hours of testimony and discussion, during which advocates for the poor and mentally ill expressed serious concerns about the impact of proposed cuts, some board members noted that the proposed budget would give the health agency more than $471 million -- a 5% increase over last year's funding.

"I think a cruel joke has been played on some people here," Campbell said.

Supervisor Chris Norby added, "I don't think we're cutting. I think we're increasing."

Poulson conceded that the county's budget is about the same as last year, but she said costs have soared, forcing the proposed service cuts. The board voted to give the agency an additional $1.5 million that Poulson said will allow the agency to reduce its planned cuts in public health, including testing for tuberculosis and venereal disease and treatment for those with chronic mental illness.

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