County enacts $637-million budget

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This week, Riverside County supervisors approved a final budget for fiscal year 2014-15 (which began July 1) totaling $637.4 million, $13.9 million more than the preliminary budget approved in June.

“Updated fiscal data used to develop final budget recommendations continues to support economists’ optimistic forecasts of long-term economic growth for the county,” wrote Executive Officer Jay Orr in his transmittal memorandum to the Board of Supervisors. “Although long-term forecasts for economic growth remain optimistic, the recovery’s current pace remains slow. Fiscal restraint remains essential as we work to regain balance between ongoing spending and revenue, while developing solutions to meet board objectives.”

The fiscal year 2014-15 budget grew 8 percent or $46.7 million more than a year ago. This is largely the result of the county assessor’s July report, which estimates that property assessments would grow 7.75 percent this year. Consequently, the estimate of the county’s discretionary revenue is $637.4 million.

At a budget workshop on Sept. 9, County Financial Officer Ed Corser described the proposed changes since June. These total $9.2 million and were possible because the county’s tax assessor recently revised the projected property tax revenue for next year upward to $21 million.

“All the departments are still absorbing salary and pension increases,” Corser stated. “That’s not sustainable over the long haul. This year, besides fire and police where we’re paying for the salary increases, $15 million of discretionary funding isn’t going to other departments that they need to pay for salary increases. At some point, we’ll have to face that issue.”

The largest departmental change was an additional $1.6 million for County Fire. Both the Transportation and Land Management departments received another $1.2 million and Probation received another $1.1 million. Other agencies, whose final budget was adjusted up this month, were the public defender, parks district, animal services, public health, the assessor, purchasing, capital revenue, county counsel and clerk of the board.

The Fire Department’s increase is actually $3.2 million, but half is offset with reductions, including a $425,000 cut to overtime. The additional money will fund hiring 18 more firefighters.

Overtime costs have been increasing recently, up 150 percent in the past year. Sick leave was also beginning to increase. Corser explained that with the additional staff, Fire Chief John Hawkins “agreed to look at why the overtime was so high” and with more staff, agreed to a reduction there.

Sheriff Stan Sniff said his department was on the path to have 1.0 deputies per 1,000 residents in the unincorporated areas. He plans to continue in this direction to implement the board’s goal of 1.2 deputies per 1,000 residents. When it dropped below 1.0 “it had a devastating impact on crime and recidivism,” he said.

But in the next few years, his agency will have to add about 400 more people just to staff the new Indio jail. In addition, the Sheriff’s Department will need to replace its helicopter fleet and the sheriff wants to rebuild the Gang Task Force, too.

Last year, one of the major demands on the county’s budget resource was the Riverside County Regional Medical Center. Its deficit was more than $40 million, but new management has increased revenues, cut costs and projected a balanced budget for 2014-15.

“Fourteen months ago, this board and Mr. Orr determined our hospital was in financial distress. Cash losses were $1 million per week,” said Lowell Johnson, interim CEO of the Medical Center. “We have made improvements and the 2014-15 budget is balanced.”

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