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Riverside County Faces ‘Tough Decisions’ Over $31M Budget Gap

Sheriff's, fire, social services project shortfall
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(AP/FILE)

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RIVERSIDE (CBS) — A decision on how to close a $31 million deficit in the Riverside County budget was deferred on Tuesday as supervisors batted around proposals for a hiring freeze, benefit cuts and staff reductions without a resolution.

“We’re going to have our backs against the wall if we don’t quit kicking the can down the road and figure out how to pay our bills,” complained Supervisor Jeff Stone. “We have to make some tough decisions as stewards of the taxpayers of this county.”

The five-member Board of Supervisors spent around 2 1/2 hours discussing how to address the current fiscal year shortfall, outlined in a 63-page midyear budget report provided by the Executive Office.

“Our view is, without further controls we’ll be running another deficit this year,” said Executive Officer Bill Luna. “Do we let it ride or cut it off?”

The District Attorney’s and Registrar of Voters’ offices and the Fire, Public Social Services and Sheriff’s departments all project year-end shortfalls.

The smallest one, a $1.8 million deficit in the Registrar of Voters’ Office, arose from temporary hiring and ballot printing and equipment costs associated with the November general election. Thanks to a state reimbursement for election costs from a previous year, that red ink is expected to be erased.

But there were no easy answers for resolving a $13.5 million shortfall in the sheriff’s budget; a $4.3 million deficit in the fire department; a $7.2 million loss in the DPSS budget and a projected $6.3 million shortfall on the district attorney’s ledger.

Luna recommended that the board impose a hiring freeze on the sheriff’s department and consider lowering the deputy-to-residents patrol ratio in unincorporated areas from 1 per 1,000 to .85 per 1,000 until the sheriff’s budget picture improves.

But Sheriff Stan Sniff warned of less effective levels of law enforcement in communities where personnel are already spread thin, including the Banning Pass and Lake Perris.

“Let’s be darn careful about having traumatic amputations (in staffing),” Sniff said.

Supervisors Marion Ashley, John Benoit and John Tavaglione opposed reducing the number of sworn personnel. Board Chairman Bob Buster and Supervisor Jeff Stone supported changes in the interest of fiscal discipline.

“All assumptions need to be looked at,” Buster said.

Stone criticized the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association — which represents deputies — for rejecting cost-savings concessions as part of a new three-year labor contract and urged county negotiators to push harder, using the county’s financial hardship as “leverage.”

The fire department’s estimated $4.3 million gap raised the prospect of station closures and personnel cuts that the board shunned out of fear for public safety. The deficit will have to be carried into the 2011-12 fiscal year unless there’s “one-time” funds that can be applied, according to Luna.

The $7.2 million DPSS shortfall, stemming mainly from federally mandated welfare programs such as Medicaid, may require the use of reserves to cover, county officials said. According to Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser, the gap could widen to $15 million by June.

The midyear report briefly reviewed some of Gov. Jerry Brown’s state budget proposals, including the cost of “realignment” — or shifting a number of state-run programs to counties — and the phasing out of redevelopment agencies to close a $25.4 billion gap.

County department heads were still studying the potential impacts. The Executive Office noted the big what-if is whether the governor can convince voters to extend elevated tax rates during a special election in June.

According to the report, county sales tax revenue is expected to remain flat in the current fiscal year; building permits were down 8 percent in the second-quarter compared to the same time last year; and property tax revenue may grow a modest 1.5 percent over the next year.

The county expects to rake in around $594 million in discretionary income to cover its bills in the 2010-11 fiscal year, compared to $620 million in 2009-10.

Reserves should level out at $180 million, down from $241 million last year.

Luna and Corser cautioned against draining reserves further to meet obligations, prompting Stone to call for a countywide moratorium on hiring. The supervisor worried about bringing new employees aboard under the county’s current pension system, a defined-benefit plan that a county commission determined will become unsustainable.

Proposals for a second-tier plan are in the works.

The board backed away from immediate action, instead directing the executive office to study what savings might be obtained from a moratorium, as well as pay and benefits cuts of between 5 and 10 percent. A report is due back in March.

“We’ve got to get our budget balanced this year or next year,” Buster said. “We’ve been criticizing the state over and over again for its dysfunction. We don’t want to do the same thing here.”

(©2010 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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