Faced with the potential loss of $62 million in the governor's proposed budget, Orange County's executive officer has implemented a countywide hiring freeze and suggested that the county stop allowing employees to cash in unused vacation and sick pay.
County Executive Officer James D. Ruth also instructed managers in all county agencies to eliminate nonessential spending and encourage a "culture of savings" in their departments.
He suggested that departments -- ranging from that of the public defender to the county clerk -- curtail travel, put off big projects and even turn down the office thermostat.
"We can prepare for the coming storm by spending less now and generating a larger carry-over for the next fiscal year," Ruth wrote in a memorandum to county managers.
His suggestion that employees be prohibited from being able to cash in unused vacation and sick time met with stiff resistance from county labor unions.
Ruth responded last week by retracting that order until his staff has time to discuss the matter with unions.
"We contacted him and informed him that they took the action without talking to us," said Nick Berardino, general manger of the Orange County Employees Assn. "We want to discuss it."
County department heads said they had been bracing for the upcoming budget cuts for several months and had implemented many of Ruth's suggestions even before he made them.
"This is a train wreck coming in slow motion," said Orange County Treasurer Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach, who supervises 92 employees. "I'm trying to do what I can in my department, eliminating positions, trying to take advantage of staffing.
"We're already in a tough budget climate. To not be looking at where we can cut would mean you're looking at a serious case of denial."
Deputy County Executive Officer Fred Branca, the county's chief financial officer, said that he believes the county already runs a lean operation and that finding areas to cut will be difficult. The county Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the next budget in June.
The county budgeted more than $1.5 million in the current fiscal year to send employees to out-of-town conferences and meetings, including $400,000 for the Health Care Agency, $291,000 for the Social Services Agency and $214,000 for Ruth's department, the county executive office. Although that's one area Ruth targeted, Branca noted that the county must send delegates to some out-of-town meetings in order to obtain state or federal funding.
"What we're saying now is think twice before going to that conference, wherever it might be," Branca said.
The cutbacks make sense, said John Adams, head of the county library system.
"I can't imagine there's anyone who doesn't wholeheartedly support him, because the indications are, there are very serious budgetary problems about to confront us," he said.
"To not be doing everything possible right now to mitigate those circumstances would be irresponsible."
Adams said the county libraries have already frozen seven job openings and taken other steps to curtail spending, including limiting the number of pages that patrons can print for free while using the libraries' computers. After five pages, Adams charges 15 cents per page.
He also has adjusted the thermostat in county library facilities to reduce energy costs.
"I'm assured that by moving those four degrees you can achieve real savings," he said.
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County tightens its belt
James D. Ruth, county executive officer, has instructed Orange County departments to eliminate nonessential spending and instill a "culture of savings." Hiring for vacant positions will be frozen, and each department will set savings goals. He asked the departments to pay particular attention to:
* Employee ideas for cost savings * Purchases of equipment and large supplies * Consultant contracts * Capital projects * Travel to out-of-area conferences and meetings * Energy conservation * Safety training and practices
Source: Orange County