BY JEFF HORSEMAN
Published: 28 March 2012 12:43 PM
Riverside County’s top administrator said Wednesday that as many as 196 county jobs may have to be eliminated in the coming months because, despite ongoing cuts, expenses still outstrip revenue.
In the first of two days of hearings on budget plans for 2012-13, county supervisors heard that and other unwelcome news, including the possibility of cutbacks in fire protection. The second hearing, covering the Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office, is scheduled for 9 a.m. today in the board chambers, 4080 Lemon St., Riverside.
Interim County Executive Officer Larry Parrish said the hearings are intended to provide “an overview of a strategy to handle what we’ve got in the way of an extremely complex and difficult set of circumstances.”
Parrish is asking for layoff plans from department heads by May 1. Formal budget hearings are in June.
In a memo to the supervisors, Parrish wrote that despite signs of economic recovery, “the revenue needed to sustain a full fiscal recovery of our county’s budget is not expected for several years.”
Sales taxes and employment are improving, but property tax revenue continues to lag, Parrish wrote. “Over the next two years, revenue growth will not solve the structural deficit or be a dependable means for closing shortfalls created by any (budget) overages.”
Parrish also warned that assessed property values may drop again, meaning the county stands to lose property tax revenue.
Deals signed with the county’s two biggest unions helped avert more layoffs, Parrish wrote.
The 196 figure is a projection and could change “drastically” throughout the budget process, said county spokesman Ray Smith.
He added that he didn’t have a breakdown of layoffs by department because the number is tentative. The county employs nearly 17,700 people full time.
Supervisor Jeff Stone wondered if the county should cut its workforce even more. “I’m worried that our government is bloated,” he said.
“I feel we have to do further cuts in personnel to be prudent, responsible stewards of the public treasury,” he added.
Supervisors for years have struggled to square falling revenues with the need to fund police, firefighters and other public services, as well as pensions of county retirees. Since 2006-07, the county’s discretionary funding – the amount directly controlled by the supervisors and which funds basic services – has fallen nearly $215 million.
For fiscal 2012-13, discretionary funding is projected to be about $572 million, a 2 percent drop from this year.
The county faces an $80 million budget gap next fiscal year. To close it, Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser outlined options including $32 million in spending cuts, and using $20 million in leftover money from fiscal 2011-12 and $15 million in other revenue, primarily Proposition 172 sales tax money directed to public safety.
Rising labor and pension costs, as well as the expenses associated with adding more jail beds, will put pressure on future budgets, Corser said. “We are on the fragile side of having a balanced budget,” he said.
Fire Chief John Hawkins detailed plans to cut $3.7 million to help bridge a $10.2 million shortage in his department.
Cuts would eliminate funding for 18 relief firefighting positions and six other jobs, including a battalion chief and a captain in the public information office. Hawkins said those whose positions are “zero funded” could end up working for Cal Fire in another capacity.
A fire engine in west Riverside would be cut, leaving in its place a two-person medical unit. Engines in Pedley and Rubidoux would cover the area, Hawkins said.
The west Riverside station is in Supervisor John Tavaglione’s district. After the hearing, Tavaglione said Wednesday was the first time he had heard Hawkins’ proposal.
“I need to talk further with the chief and find out what this means,” he said. At this point, he said, he doesn’t support replacing the engine with the paramedic unit.
Tavaglione said he’s optimistic the economy is rebounding.
“It’s not coming back as quickly as any of us would like. We grew so rapidly in the mid-2000s … so it’s only natural that we’re going to suffer a little bit more,” he said. “But we’ll get back and we’ll be stronger when we do get back because we’re making structural changes (to the budget).”