10:44 PM PST on Tuesday, November 9, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Facing continued fiscal challenges, Riverside County supervisors Tuesday vowed to hold the line on spending and work to overcome a projected $46.7 million budget gap without raiding reserves.

“The budget challenges facing this board and this county are severe and unrelenting,” County Executive Bill Luna said.

Based on three months of data, county officials estimate five departments could end the fiscal year in June with $46.7 million more in expenditures than revenues. Tapping reserves to plug the hole will only delay future cuts, Luna said.

“We now have to consider a decline in services in the critical area of public safety,” he said. “The fiscal solvency of the county must take precedence.”

As part of the county’s first-quarter budget review, supervisors did take some steps toward closing the shortfall.

In a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Jeff Stone dissenting, the board approved criteria for deciding which fire stations to shut down to help the Fire Department close a $6 million gap.

closures possible

The county is considering a plan to close three stations. The criteria, including workload, level of service and the ability of volunteer companies to meet an area’s needs, will help identify the specific stations.

A separate decision is expected later this month on whether to follow through with the closures.

In addition, to overcome a budget shortfall in Animal Services, supervisors approved recommendations to lay off 15 people and delay the opening of a new shelter in San Jacinto.

Supervisors approved the county’s current budget in August and balanced it with $71 million in cuts and $62 million in reserves.

It was the first budget in a two-year plan to end the county’s use of reserves to fund ongoing operations.

“We have a plan in place,” Luna said. “Should we stick to it, it will likely yield structural stability in two years.”

Supervisor Marion Ashley agreed. “We can’t bail out now,” he said.

Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser said that if the county were to use reserves to overcome the $46.7 million gap this year and a similar amount in fiscal 2011-12, it would leave the county with only about $44 million in reserves.

That’s enough to meet one payroll, he said.

The departments with a projected shortfall are the sheriff, public social services, district attorney, fire and registrar of voters.

Corser cautioned that the shortfall numbers are estimates based on trends from July, August and September.

The board took no action Tuesday on detailing how most of those departments will overcome the gap.

There was disagreement on the shortfall amounts between the county executive office and District Attorney Rod Pacheco.

The county estimated the district attorney could go over budget by $9.1 million. In the first-quarter report, Luna said there is “no evidence the department has a concrete cost savings plan in place.”

In a letter Monday to Ashley, the board’s chairman, Pacheco said his office is projected to end the year with a $2.1 million surplus. The $9.1 million shortfall figure is “patently false,” he wrote.

“It is difficult to envision another alternative other than an attempt to mislead the Board, county employees and the public by this startling failure to even note our surplus,” Pacheco wrote.

Assistant District Attorney Kelly Keenan told supervisors any shortfall can be overcome through attrition.

He said the office is down to 758 personnel from a high of 970.

Corser said the office has a potential for a shortfall, but it is not guaranteed.

“We look at what has happened in prior years,” he said.

“We are certainly not trying to lie our way through this.”

Sheriff’s Shortfall

The Sheriff’s Department has the largest projected budget gap at $17 million.

Sheriff Stan Sniff said cutting into jails and patrols in unincorporated areas are the only two places where he can achieve significant savings.

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