By Jeff Horseman | | The Press-Enterprise
Published: January 8, 2018 at 4:19 pm | Updated: January 9, 2018 at 6:06 am

Riverside County’s $161 million savings could plummet to $8 million if costs aren’t cut, according to a new county staff report.

To that end, a hiring freeze is in effect across much of county government. Draining the county’s reserves would not only hurt the county’s credit rating, but leave the piggy bank bare should an earthquake or other disaster strike.

Meanwhile, officials with the county executive office, which oversees day-to-day operations, are moving forward with a plan to partially open the expanded Indio jail this summer, even though Sheriff Stan Sniff has said there’s not enough time to hire and train the needed staff by the time construction is expected to finish in late summer.

The budget woes, which are on the county Board of Supervisors’ agenda for Tuesday, Jan. 9, are the latest challenges for a financially squeezed county still searching for a path out of a flood of red ink.

After the Great Recession forced the county to furlough employees and close non-essential offices on Fridays — measures that have since been rescinded — tax revenues started bouncing back. But the rate of recovery is being outpaced by a series of new, ongoing and inflexible costs, including:

  • Raises contractually guaranteed to employees in exchange for pension savings.
  • A lawsuit settlement that will force the county to spend more on jail inmates’ health care.
  • Rising obligations to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. A new county projection has the county paying $279.5 million more than it does now for pension obligations by summer 2022.
  • The prospect of paying tens of millions of dollars a year more for a state-mandated program providing in-home care for indigent seniors and adults with disabilities.

The budget crunch has led supervisors to take a hard line in talks with several unions over new labor contracts, and terms have already been imposed on the union representing law enforcement.

To chart a new course, supervisors agreed to pay more than $40 million to consulting firm KPMG to find efficiencies and make county government decision-making more data-driven. Officials said KPMG’s efforts already have saved tens of millions annually.

Yet the county still is struggling to make ends meet. The latest budget forecast shows $23.6 million in overages, including $15 million for Riverside University Health System – Medical Center, $5 million for the district attorney, $2.2 million for the public defender and $1.1 million for mental health care for jail inmates.

That doesn’t include a projected $9.3 million shortfall for the Sheriff’s Department. In the past, that department has been able to erase its shortfalls by the end of the fiscal year.
Shrinking savings?

The county traditionally maintains more than $150 million in reserves, and the reserves currently stand at $161.4 million. But if nothing is done to bridge this budget’s shortfalls, those savings could shrink to $8 million by July 2020, a county staff report read.

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