Large increases loom in future years

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors held hearings for the fiscal year 2019-20 budget last week. The hearing was left open in order for the board to make some adjustments that would require only a majority approval rather than four-fifths if a preliminary budget had been approved.
The overall budget is about $6.1 billion, but this includes grants and specially earmarked revenues. The supervisors basically have control and discretion over only $840 million. Funds dependent upon the board’s approval are designated Net County Costs.
For example, public protection, including the Sheriff’s Department, is 29 percent of the total county budget. And the sheriff’s share of this total will approach or exceed $700 million. However, of the NCC portion of the budget, the sheriff’s total is $300.6 million, which alone is 35 percent of the NCC total.
On Monday evening, June 10, before discussing the budgets for specific departments, the board listened to an overview from George Johnson, county executive officer, and Chief Financial Officer Don Kent.
Johnson emphasized that the proposed budget was financially responsible, which “… means just like at home, we have to live within our means and not spend more than the revenue we have coming in.“
Both he and Kent told the board that revenue growth is about 5 percent, but costs in various areas grow faster and sometimes unexpectedly. For example, the county’s general assistance costs at the beginning of this fiscal year were budgeted for $2 million. Since July, these have grown $12.2 million. For the new fiscal year, the beginning total is estimated to be $20 million, an $18 million jump in 12 months.
“Demand for services significantly outweighs our modest revenue growth,” Johnson noted.
Other areas rapidly increasing are the in-home support caseload, inmate health care (both mental and total health), election equipment, the immigration surge in Blythe, the anticipation of staffing the John J. Benoit Detention Center later this year, the new medical building in Moreno Valley and adding new health clinics.
Besides the costs to provide these new or growing service demands, the county is facing significant increases in the cost of pensions for staff — both public safety and non-safety.
The board has been aware of the increasing pension liability for several years. But the two new board members — Karen Spiegel (District 2) and Jeff Hewitt (District 5) — felt the county needs to address the issue and perhaps dramatically take action against CalPERS.
Third District Supervisor Chuck Washington pointed out that the pension issue was not the county’s fault, but due to the economy and CalPERS funding.
At Hewitt’s insistence, the board voted to create an ad hoc committee to examine its options, but Hewitt would not defer to Washington’s interest in serving on the committee. So Hewitt and Spiegel are the committee members.
One of the proposed budget cuts was the cooperative extension program with the University of California. The Executive Office proposed a $1 million reduction, not elimination. These funds go toward youth agricultural programs, such as the 4H program.
But nearly two dozen speakers came to the meeting opposing the reduction and convinced Johnson and the board to find an alternative to the reduction.
“The message is received. We’ll identify ways to move cooperative staff from leased space to county owned and ways to share support staff,” Johnson said and the supervisors unanimously agreed.
New Sheriff Chad Bianco told the board his current budget would end the year with a surplus and he would not need to increase the proposed NCC allocation for FY 2019-20.
“For 2019-20 we are balanced. I have no additional funds requested. We are living within the budget, staffing level and the opening of the new jail,” he said.
His staff has looked for many ways to save money and work more efficiently, he stated.
The John J. Benoit Detention Center is now expected to be completed at the end of August. Bianco told the board the next 30 days would be a testing and preparing for the inmates to occupy it. Then it will take 60 days to transfer all of the inmates.
DA Mike Hestrin argued that his office did need another $4.7 million.
“When I took office, the department’s deficit was $18.6 million; today it is zero,” he told the board. “My obligation is to lay out the risk we face and the challenges if we don’t get what we need.”
Of the added funding request, Hestrin said about $1.4 would be for salaries for current staff, and $3.3 for restructuring and integrating technical advances into operations. The DA’s office has reduced staff and shifted more work to paralegals from attorneys, he said.
Hestrin also told the board he has added a fourth regional office. The Mid-County office in Banning will handle cases from Hemet, San Jacinto, Banning and Beaumont areas. This office was created as the courts have changed their jurisdictional coverage.
Both the Animal Services Department, and Code and Planning made arguments to support more funding.
These issues will be reviewed in the next week before the board approves a budget at the June 25 meeting.