BY JEFF HORSEMAN
STAFF WRITER
jhorseman@pe.com

Published: 11 June 2012 12:04 PM

For the first time in several years, Riverside County supervisors approved a budget that doesn’t need savings to stay balanced.

The vote on the preliminary budget for fiscal 2012-13 came after a public hearing Monday, June 11, in which Sheriff Stan Sniff asked supervisors to let him recruit and hire more deputies for unincorporated areas, where budget cuts have taken a bite out of coverage.

The roughly $4.7 billion budget will cut spending by 9 percent from the current fiscal year, much of it due to the state-mandated demise of the county redevelopment agency. The spending plan won’t be completed until Sept. 11, when there’s a clearer picture of exactly what money’s coming in and how the state budget affects the county.

But for now, the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 aligns revenue with expenses, and the county won’t have to dip into its $140 million reserve fund. Of the $4.7 billion, the Board of Supervisors has direct control over 12 to 13 percent — $575.6 million. The rest pays for required programs such as health care for the poor and elderly and other public assistance.

Less of a hit?

In balancing the budget, officials are relying on a projected $40 million in savings that county departments expect to achieve by July 1. Another $32.9 million is coming from a special portion of sales tax allocated to public safety and the savings achieved from a lighter-than-expected social services workload.

The county also is devoting $7 million instead of $20 million to a special fund for emergencies. Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser said the goal is to restore that allocation to $20 million in the months ahead.

A structurally balanced budget is a goal for a county, which has lost $230 million in ongoing revenue since 2007. More than 200 county workers are being laid off by July 1 and more job cuts are possible.

The budget could be thrown out of whack by a projected drop in the county’s assessable base, which fuels property taxes and accounts for 80 percent of the revenue controlled by supervisors. Early forecasts predicted a $10 million loss in property taxes, but Assessor/County Clerk/Recorder Larry Ward said Monday the actual decline may not be as bad as first thought.

Officials also are bracing for new, future spending obligations, including pay raises agreed to in union contracts and the cost of running an expanded jail system.

The new costs could add up $258.5 million total in ongoing expenses between now and 2015-16. However, Corser said the county may only be on the hook for $52 million of that figure.

‘Short-term view’

Sniff, who is elected by voters rather than appointed like county department heads, told supervisors his department expected to end this fiscal year with a $6 million surplus. It began with a $5.5 million deficit.

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