Los Angeles County supervisors approved a $23-billion budget Monday, trimming almost every category of spending but delaying some of the toughest decisions for months.
The supervisors said they were forced to postpone hard choices on layoffs and severe program cuts — probably until September — because the state budget is unfinished, as are negotiations over federal funding for health services.
Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget proposal, the county could lose $1.25 billion, with hundreds of millions in additional cuts possible from federal authorities, according to the county's chief executive, William T Fujioka.
Supervisors grappling with budget choices were hamstrung in part by their own internal problems.
The Probation Department, with an annual budget of $700 million, is at serious risk of a civil rights lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice over conditions in its juvenile camps and halls. Costly improvements are needed to avert court action that could take away local control of the department's spending.
But the department has been unable to account for $79 million for several months now, and Chief Probation Officer Donald H. Blevins reported little progress Monday, leaving supervisors reluctant to address the mental health and internal affairs allocations needed to satisfy federal authorities.
"The money that we are spending," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said, "may be going down the rat hole, and nobody knows, and it's just driving me crazy that an organization this big that's supposed to be this advanced and this modern can't know the very basics. It's just very frustrating to me."
Blevins said he believed that all of the $79 million had probably gone to hire staff, but he said that months of forensic auditing had yet to identify which staffers in which locations.
Supervisor Gloria Molina told him: "I think every member of this board wants to know, where did that money go?.... Did it go anywhere? Did it go into somebody's pocket?"
Blevins promised to continue to search for answers and vowed to improve conditions in the department he took over earlier this year, even if limited to existing resources.
Other critical needs will remain unaddressed for now.
The Times reported last month that some 3,700 tips about child abuse — many involving multiple children — have been open two months or longer without a determination whether abuse or neglect is taking place in the home.
Director Trish Ploehn told The Times that her department needed 133 workers — at the probable cost of $15.7 million in the first year — and that she would argue for them forcefully during budget deliberations. As of Monday, she had not submitted a request to fund those positions.
"Under ideal circumstances, we would have liked to request funding for additional emergency response workers," Ploehn said in a statement released Tuesday. "Realizing this wasn't an opportune moment due to fiscal constraints, no request for additional funding was made."
Concerned that federal funding needed to keep the county's public hospitals and clinics afloat could disappear, supervisors asked Fujioka to meet privately with their staffs and report back next month on cuts.
"Would we close clinics?.... Would we close specialty services?" Molina asked. "It might be worthwhile for our legislative leadership, for our congressional leadership, to have a better understanding" if the county loses hundreds of millions of federal dollars that help fund care for the poor.
Amid budget difficulties, supervisors also approved $16 million for their discretionary accounts, or $3.2 million for each, down $200,000 from the previous year. Supervisors make allocations from the accounts, without a public vote, to fund their office staffs and pay for items that have included chauffeurs, parties for friends and lobbyists and pet projects.
Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.