County staff and supervisors worried about budget

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The Riverside County Board of Supervisors only approved the final fiscal year 2017-18 budget in late September. Days later, on Sept. 30, the first quarter ended.

Now, six weeks into the second quarter of the fiscal year, County Executive Officer George Johnson, County Finance Officer Don Kent and the whole board are already worried about what adjustments may be needed for the budget before the fiscal year ends on June 30, 2018.

At last week’s board meeting, Johnson said, “[The board] agreed to strategically draw upon reserves while holding expenditures flat until reserves can grow and bring the budget into structural balance.”

Then he added, “A select few departments have provided early signs of distress … I can’t emphasize enough the critical importance of maintaining fund discipline by controlling spending until growth in reserves brings us back to structural balance.”

In his budget overview, Kent reported that the board had added nearly $40 million to the proposed fiscal year 2017-18 budget to help several departments such as the District Attorney, Public Defender and Sheriff.

After the first quarter, these three and the Riverside University Health System have indicated they will need another $33 million to balance their budgets by the end of the year.

In his memorandum to the board, Johnson expressed concerns about future revenues, besides spending. “My office is closely watching trends in property and sales tax revenues. Sales and use taxes show continued downward trends, particularly in consumer goods … Likewise, the growth rate in property taxes is lagging slightly.”

“We are on an unsustainable trajectory,” Kent said to the board. “The projected overages are unsustainable.” To achieve the recommended reserve levels, Kent urged the board to curtail deficit spending and constrain costs within existing allocated levels.

After hearing Kent’s presentation, Supervisor Marion Ashley (4th District) spoke for his colleagues: “The First Quarter Budget Report certainly is not good news. Obviously, corrective action needs to be taken.”

Johnson had already announced that his staff was working with these agencies and he plans to report back to the board with “any action plans that may be needed.”

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries (1st District) was more direct about his assessment of the budget condition. Addressing the Probation Department funding, he noted that 100 positions are in jeopardy and may be eliminated.

“They’ve eaten up all their reserves and nothing is left. Either we use more reserves or this is a different looking department this time next year,” he said. The result would exacerbate issues in his communities that rely on the Probation Department to resolve.

He also expressed exasperation with the budget projections that ignore known future budget demands, such as the costs for staffing the John J. Benoit Detention Center, which should open in the second half of 2018.

Later, Ashley absolved the county staff for the growing deficit and attributed a large portion to the state Legislature, which has been shifting programs, such as jail prisoners and in-home support services, to counties without adequate funding.

“These may be worthy programs, but we’re the victims,” he noted.

Looking beyond the current fiscal year, Chair John Tavaglione said, “We have some tough, really, really tough, decisions in the next year on behalf of our citizens and on behalf of our employees that are not going to be very pretty.”

No specific action was taken at this meeting and the board awaits further recommendations from Johnson.

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