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Board Acts to Soften Cuts

Ventura County supervisors vow to find funds to spare some social and health programs from deep budget reductions.

June 09, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County government leaders vowed Tuesday to blunt the effect of harsh budget cuts on, in the words of one supervisor, "the people without a voice, the poorest and sickest among us."

The Board of Supervisors directed County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston to find money that could be used to save several social and health programs that have been on the budget chopping block for several weeks.

Its action means that programs for foster children, seniors, veterans, the homeless and those with mental illness might be saved, or at least incur less severe cuts, than first anticipated.

County administrators earlier this year had recommended reducing, and in some cases eliminating, a range of public services to help close a $36-million budget shortfall for the 2004-05 fiscal year. Up to 300 people could lose their jobs.

Supervisors acknowledged Tuesday it was unlikely there would be any new infusion of cash to bail out threatened programs. Still, they asked Johnston to find any extra "crumbs" that might be coming into county coffers that could be used to offset proposed cuts.

The board also restated its commitment not to dip into reserves to cover operational costs. Wall Street analysts have made clear that the county must maintain its rainy-day fund if it wants to keep a strong credit rating, board Chairman Steve Bennett said.

Several supervisors blamed the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for the county's budget woes. The state, facing its own budget crisis, has proposed cutting $7 million in county funding and slicing into other state-funded programs.

"We are living within our revenues ... and if the state would leave us alone we'd be a lot healthier now," Supervisor Kathy Long said.

Board members received a preliminary budget of $1.3 billion, kicking off two weeks of review that will culminate with public hearings June 21. Final adoption of the fiscal plan will occur after that.

Projected county revenues have risen 4.1% for the coming fiscal year, an increase of slightly more than $9 million over the current budget. Driven by high home prices and a tight real estate market, property taxes in particular are escalating at a rapid rate. Budget managers say property taxes are projected to grow by 9% in 2004-05.

But the cost of running government has grown even faster because of higher salaries, benefits, workers' compensation insurance and other fixed costs. To bring the budget into balance, Johnston recommended a series of program reductions and layoffs.

About 700 positions were eliminated, 300 of them filled. Employees to be laid off were notified over the past two weeks, and their last day of work will be June 30.

The county general fund, the pot of money over which supervisors have the most discretion, is expected to reach $732.3 million. As they have in past years, budget managers have recommended that the county continue paying for special education services that the state is supposed to cover.

If supervisors agree, the money for those services, about $4.1 million, would come out of the county's reserve funds. That would violate the board's pledge not to use reserve funds, but Bennett said the county was forced to take that position because it would be sued if it did not continue to provide the services.

The money would be returned to the county, and the reserves replenished when California's economy recovers, budget managers said. But the financial hit would temporarily deplete the reserves to lower-than-recommended levels, despite years of effort to build a fund balance back up, supervisors said.

"Our reserves are dropping, which is not good," Bennett said. "If it weren't for the state budget crisis [the reserves] would be growing."

Over the next two weeks, Johnston and analysts in his office will focus on how the county can restore such services as a hot meals program for shut-in seniors and help for veterans trying to sign up for federal benefits.

Supervisors also agreed to attempt to restore social workers who investigate cases of child abuse and neglect, and a foster-care coordinator.

A program for homeless families at Camarillo Airport will get a second look for continued funding, as will workers in the agricultural department who inspect produce and work with farmers to prevent pesticide drift.

Responding to a county union leader's request, Johnston said he would also prepare a report indicating whether manager layoffs were proportionate to jobs being eliminated at the lower levels.

Supervisor John Flynn urged his colleagues to remember the "poorest and sickest among us" when deciding where cuts should be made. Flynn, the board's longest-serving member, also suggested that board members cut their own salaries by 20%.

Flynn said he was considering cutting his own salary even if his colleagues do not go along.

"We live in desperate times," Flynn said. "And we can't go along with the salaries that we as supervisors get."

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