April 17, 2007

LA County $21 Billion (thats billion) budget starts July 07

When you think of "B"illion dollar budgets you think federal, not county level. Once again robing Peter to pay Paul. The Supes must be saying to themselves "Perhaps we can work some magic again and push all these tough issues onto the next administration or at least until we can scurry out of office". We love the part about the falling property tax revenues for 2007-08. We have not seen the bottom yet and they plan for a 6% increase. Full speed ahead! Oh and don't forget about that Measure B we passed a few years back..remember that?

L.A. County to boost public safety funds
Its budget earmarks money to revamp jails, add deputies to streets and target gang crime. But the healthcare deficit remains a challenge.

By Jack Leonard and Susannah Rosenblatt
Times Staff Writers

April 17, 2007

Spurred by the last year's increases in home prices, rising property tax revenues will help fund a boost in public safety spending in the coming fiscal year as Los Angeles County seeks to refurbish its aging and dangerous jail system, put more sheriff's deputies on the streets and target gang crime, officials said Monday.

The 2007-08 proposed budget, unveiled by Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen, also earmarks money to redesign juvenile camps, overhaul camp management and upgrade security in an effort to fix the county's troubled juvenile detention system. The U.S. Department of Justice has demanded improvements to the county's three halls and is investigating conditions in its probation camps.

Janssen's $21-billion budget plan, which would take effect July 1, most likely marks his last as the county's top fiscal officer. Janssen officially retired in January. But after a failed search for his replacement, he agreed to remain for the rest of the year.

The budget is a far cry from Janssen's first in 1997. At the time, the county faced painful job cuts as it struggled to cope with a ballooning deficit in its health system and the aftermath of a recession.

Still, Janssen, known for his fiscal caution, raised some warning flags Monday about the county's future finances, citing the looming healthcare deficit and concern over the cost of retired employees' healthcare benefits. In addition, he said the slowdown in home sales will undoubtedly cut into rising property taxes. He estimates a 6% increase next year rather than this year's 10%.

"We have challenges," Janssen said. "I think we've demonstrated over a number of years now our capacity to deal with budget challenges, so I'm not exercised or concerned about whether or not we're going to be able to deal with those challenges."

The most intractable problem remains the public healthcare system's deficit, which is projected by some county estimates to reach $794 million over five years. The new budget does not cure the problem. Indeed, Janssen said that he employed "very optimistic assumptions" in drafting the healthcare budget and that the gloomy financial forecast could eventually lead to cuts in health services.

Supervisor Don Knabe said in a statement he was concerned that the health department's fiscal outlook was "quickly reaching a day of reckoning," and he voiced concern about the uncertainty of federal funding.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky underscored the fragility of the health department's finances, but said the county had previously been able to cobble together needed funds with a combination of federal, state and county dollars.

"Every year we get to the brink," Yaroslavsky said, "we're able to patch things together."

The health department will receive $190 million to help complete a state-of-the-art medical center that is replacing County-USC Medical Center in East L.A. along with upgrades at two other county hospitals.

Similar construction funds have been put away for the county's beleaguered jail system, which has been beset over the last few years with violence and overcrowding that forced the Sheriff's Department to release inmates early.

The budget includes $245 million to add much-needed jail beds to house inmates, including barracks for women at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, and to refurbish the empty Sybil Brand Institute jail for women in Monterey Park. It will take several years to finish the project.

Under Janssen's plan, the Sheriff's Department also could add 165 deputies to patrol jail corridors and hallways where inmates have taken advantage of limited security to attack one another. An extra $16 million will pay for a redesign of the aging Men's Central Jail.

Melinda Bird, senior counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, said that she welcomed the proposal but that the jails need even more deputies.

"Our inmates-to-deputy ratio is far too high," she said. "It contributes to violence, inmate rape and generally poor and unconstitutional conditions."

Sheriff Lee Baca applauded the budget for adding more than 100 deputies to patrol unincorporated areas of the county, which suffered staffing cutbacks during lean times a few years ago.

"With this additional amount, it's quite a recovery," Baca said. "It should be exactly where we were before, and it could be beyond it."

Gang suppression efforts will also receive an additional $6.4 million.

But Supervisor Mike Antonovich said the extra funding was not enough, given the scope of public safety problems.

"This budget severely shortchanges the Sheriff's Department's ability to properly address the gang problem and jail security," Antonovich said in a statement.

Like most public agencies, the county has done nothing to deal with the growing bill it will face in future years for retiree health benefits. Rather than putting money away, the county simply pays the cost of retiree benefits each year ($377 million this year).

The projected cost over the next few decades is likely to be a lot more. A grand jury estimate two years ago put the figure at $9 billion. But Janssen, whose office has conducted informal estimates in preparation for a more comprehensive study due in the next month, said that figure could be low. "I'd be happy if it wasn't more than $14 billion," he said.

The county, he added, must quickly put money aside to meet its commitments. He suggested starting with $400 million in surplus pension funds and $17 million from next year's regular budget.

Janssen is expected to present the budget to the Board of Supervisors today. Hearings start May 9.


susannah.rosenblatt@latimes .com

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