Hearings set for next month

Riverside County Executive Officer Jay Orr submitted what may be his final budget recommendation to the Board of Supervisors at its May 9 meeting.

In order to fund several major, unplanned and costly issues for fiscal year 2017-18, Orr imposed a 6.5-percent reduction on most county agencies, but not public safety.

“However, this was not sufficient to offset the entire gap,” he told the supervisors. “… most departments are able to absorb the 6.5-percent net county cost costs, increased pension contributions, and changes in internal services and insurance charges.”

Orr will present the consequences of these budget reductions to the board at a budget hearing June 19. The board will adopt its preliminary 2017-18 budget at the June 27 board meeting.

Orr’s goals were to devise a balanced budget and preserve at least $150 million in reserves. The largest unexpected budget demand was the governor’s decision to shift the In-House Support Services program from the state to the counties.

This imposes a $37-million demand on the budget. However, on May 11, Gov. Jerry Brown modified his proposal to provide about $400 million to the counties, which is about two-thirds of their costs. Orr has not had time to address this change and its effect on the county budget.

“Board members will have to decide whether they want to change any of the current budget plans,” said County Public Affair Officer Raymond Smith in an email. “… It is crucial to build reserves and reduce ongoing costs wherever possible. Rolling back the cuts would do little to address these other challenges.”

Other budget issues remain, Smith stressed. “… even after reducing next year’s liability for IHSS, the county still must prepare to open the Indio jail in 2018, cover the costs of the settlement in the inmate health-care lawsuit, and deal with increased pension and salary costs.”

Immediate funding issues include the new state contract for firefighters’ salaries. The initial estimate from the Riverside County Fire Department was that this would add $11.9 million to the county Cal Fire contract in 2017-18. During much of the late winter and spring, the fire department’s budget was frequently on the board’s agenda.

With the operational changes Fire Chief John Hawkins has recommended, at this time Orr believes the added cost has been shaved to $6.2 million.

“We are working closely with the fire department to identify other steps to reduce that increase,” Orr put in his letter.

The Registrar of Voters estimates that another $5.7 million is needed for her budget to offset “lower cost recovery projected for the election cycles occurring next fiscal year.” But Orr recommended only $5 million more for the registrar’s budget.

Overtime for the sheriff’s department has continued to create a bind as needs for more deputies continued to go unfilled. Orr said that 10 positions will be funded for the correctional staff to reduce their overtime and $1.4 million will be used for deputies in the court system.

The public defender and district attorney’s offices both need more funding to balance their staffing needs, he said.

Exacerbating the added costs is revenue growth slowing. “… [P]rojections of the growth rates of key discretionary revenues continue softening,” according to Orr.

“At the third quarter, property tax revenues are still trending lower than expected,” he advised the board.

The result is that reserves may remain stable for two more years before beginning to increase. Consequently, Orr warned the board, “Any increase in the burden on the general fund will be at the expense of existing commitments.”

Although the board unanimously approved the draft budget 4-0, Supervisor Kevin Jeffries expressed his continuing concern. “At some point, [I’ll recommend] we perform triage on the budget and not treat every department the same,” he said. “I don’t want to see a first-line [sheriff’s] deputy cut and the same for firefighters.”