After a very difficult and, at times, personal discussion, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors approved a budget for 2016-17. The overall budget is nearly $5.4 billion, but only the discretionary general funds, which amount to $814 million, was subject to intense scrutiny. A board that usually achieves consensus was faced with fractious comments last week.

County Executive Jay Orr warned the board in February the current-year budget would present difficult decisions and bring long-term ramifications. Simply funding all departmental requests would have reduced the county’s reserves to less than $100 million.

But the supervisors were adamant that $150 million must be the lowest level for reserves and this budget achieves that goal. However, it limits the growth of public-safety programs and maintains tight limits on other departments.

A hiring freeze has been imposed on all county programs. This budget is the first step in a journey toward fiscal sustainability, Orr believes.

“In the short term, we can expect discomfort as a result of holding spending down,” Orr said in his July 20 memorandum to the board. “Our long-term solution is to achieve operational savings as a result of the KPMG-led re-alignment effort.” The county has hired a consultant to review all its programs, with emphasis on the public-safety programs.

But the crux of its success is the board’s willingness to continue tough budgeting, which Orr stated in his memo means “substantial restraint to maintain overall discretionary spending flat over the next five years while still delivering mission-critical county services.”

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries (1st District), who recognized this vital component months ago, and questioned the board’s willingness to forego increases after one year, was charged with panicking and frightening county staff during last week’s session approving the budget.

“[T]he current budget process is the worst … I’ve seen or worked with in 22 years on the board,” said Supervisor John Tavaglione (2nd District), who then devoted several minutes criticizing a member of the board, on his right, without using Jeffries’ name.

Eventually, Tavaglione described Jeffries contributions: “Some of your ideas are good, but some are crazy — $35,000 art projects …” He then chastised Jeffries for recommending cutting or reducing projects “in every district but yours” and the diminished quality of “stupid ideas coming out of a certain board member.”

Tavaglione is comfortable with Orr’s budget strategy and was concerned about the frequent references to layoffs. “We can do it without harming our own employees. Why shock them? They are nervous by comments we make in these hearings.”

Jeffries was surprised with Tavaglione’s charges and replied, “I didn’t know my ideas were revolutionary. I feel very sorry for my colleague, to know that suggestions to look at different ways to find efficiencies, to engage in dialogue with department heads, is such an upsetting suggestion that it would require a personal insult, one after another. I’ve experienced that in Sacramento … it hurts and was painful. Not one of my suggestions was to encourage layoffs.”

The board adopted the 2016-17 budget on a 4-1 vote with Jeffries opposed. Chair John Benoit (4th District) agreed to meet with District Attorney Mike Hestrin and Orr in the next few weeks.