LOS ANGELES COUNTY'S government this week did what it does best: It submitted an on-time, balanced and responsible budget. The document is the hallmark of David Janssen, the county's top staffer, whose deft touch over the last decade has moved the Board of Supervisors away from the disastrous days of the early to mid-1990s. Back then, the county veered toward bankruptcy. By comparison, it looks great today. On paper.
If only the rest of the massive county bureaucracy were in as good a shape as its financial department. In most organizations, a well-crafted budget reflects a rational structure, skilled management and careful oversight. But L.A. County's fiscal achievements are instead paired with dysfunctional, and sometimes deadly, programs.
Crisis is a constant. Foster care programs until recently endangered the very children they were designed to protect. Public outcry righted that, at least for now, but then inmates in overcrowded jails began killing each other in increasing numbers. This year's budget puts more deputies in the jails and begins an update of aging facilities, but now the juvenile halls are under federal scrutiny for insufficient attention to safety. It's as if the county has sprung 11 leaks but the supervisors have only 10 hands to plug them. Leaving, by the way, no one free to pick up a paddle.
It's too easy to say that perpetual crisis is simply the fate of local government. L.A. County is different. It is a virtual state, with a $21-billion budget but with the structure and funding mechanisms of a small town. The five supervisors pride themselves on resolving a crisis in animal control here, intervening with street maintenance there. They trumpet the ease with which they renew employee contracts and pass a budget.
But on big-picture challenges -- joining with cities to solve the homelessness problem or developing a reliable funding source for hospitals and healthcare -- they are exactly where they were a decade ago. One major downturn in the real estate market and it could be the 1990s all over again.
No doubt the county is better off with Janssen than it was before he came aboard. But in case no one has noticed, he retired in January. The supervisors enticed him to stick around for a while in part by transferring to him power he should have had years ago. But it was just a single stroke forward in the rowboat. A rational, efficient and life-respecting structure for running a government of 10 million people is still many miles upstream.