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O.C. halts hiring, plans budget cuts

Officials are preparing to trim $60 million as sales tax revenue drops and reductions in state funding are expected.

November 25, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Pfeifer is a Times staff writer

In its latest attempt to address a gloomy economic forecast, Orange County has imposed an across-the-board hiring freeze and begun preparations to trim more than $60 million from its budget, officials said Monday.

The freeze comes as Orange County budget officials confront a drop in sales tax revenue, possible reductions in state financing and another byproduct of a down economy -- fewer people willingly leaving their jobs.

Orange County, which employs more than 17,000 workers in fields ranging from social work to law enforcement, ordinarily has about 10% of its budgeted employee positions unfilled.

But with the economy down, only about 6.5% of the county's jobs are vacant.

"People are less likely to leave a stable employer" in difficult economic times, said Frank Kim, the county's budget director.

The higher-than-normal number of workers is one reason the county spent about 3.5% more than budgeted during the first three months of its fiscal year, Kim said.

The county imposed the hiring freeze last week, even after officials identified $32 million in other cutbacks, primarily from deferring construction and planned purchases, such as $470,000 earmarked for technology that would make it easier for department heads to place items on Board of Supervisors' agendas.

"When things are tight you have to shake things out in the system that are not as high a priority as others," Supervisor Chris Norby said. "Our main source of income, property tax, is down. Sales taxes are down. We haven't seen the bottom, and I don't know when we will. But our revenues are a reflection of the economy."

Additional cuts include the postponement of construction projects involving the county's Healthcare Agency and library system. Meanwhile, county workers remain concerned about the prospect of layoffs.

"The Social Services Agency has been meeting with our members, indicating that there's going to be severe reductions and that employees should be considering a furlough program in which they take unpaid days off," said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employee Assn.

Berardino said he thinks county officials would be wise to seek input from employees about other ways the county could save money.

"The hiring freeze is a good step and it makes sense. But what the county has failed to do, which was a mistake it made early in the [1994] bankruptcy, is reach out to the employees and employee organizations to identify where there's waste that can be trimmed," Berardino said. "Members have all kinds of ideas about saving money in their workplaces, which would save millions of dollars. But the county has not reached out to identify those areas."

Last month, County Executive Officer Tom Mauk asked department heads to propose areas where they could trim tens of millions in spending. Department officials said that it would be difficult to reach those levels without slashing services, such as community healthcare clinics and outreach programs to curb juvenile delinquency and child abuse.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the budget shortfall at its meeting this morning. Among the proposals the board may consider is using $10 million in park funds to pay for the Sheriff's Department to patrol county harbors.

Norby said the county should charge the cities of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach for harbor patrol services, instead of using money that could be spent on county parks.

"Newport Harbor is not a county facility. It is a harbor located in the city of Newport Beach. I don't think taxpayers in Anaheim, Fullerton or La Habra should have their park fund raided to pay for the harbor patrol," Norby said.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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