10:48 PM PST on Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors could be in for another lengthy debate Tuesday as they again take up how best to overcome a $71 million budget gap.

Supervisors are scheduled to discuss whether to provide general-fund money to the sheriff, district attorney, probation and fire departments to help them overcome unexpected losses in Prop. 172 sales-tax revenues.

Prop. 172 is a voter-approved sales tax dedicated to public safety. The county has seen revenues from the tax drop this year by more than $15 million.

In addition, the county’s top administrator calls personnel and program cuts unavoidable and will ask supervisors for direction on how much to trim department budgets.

“The past few years of declining revenue now mandate the budget cuts we face in the coming fiscal year,” CEO Bill Luna wrote in a mid-year budget report headed before supervisors Tuesday.

“We must address the inevitable and reorganize, funding only the programs our revenue will support.”

For weeks, county officials have debated how best to deal with a worsening financial picture. Supervisors first took up the Prop. 172 declines and potential department cuts Jan. 26 but did not reach a decision.

Discretionary revenues, which supervisors have control over, dipped to $609 million in the current fiscal year. Ongoing expenses are $680 million.

The county must bridge that $71 million budget gap by the close of the fiscal year. And with revenues only estimated to increase to $614 million in the fiscal year starting July 1, supervisors face similar challenges as county departments prepare upcoming budgets.

The original estimate for Prop. 172 revenues stood at $125.8 million for the current fiscal year. It’s now estimated at $110.6 million.

Supervisors must decide whether to use general-fund money to make up for that $15.2 million decline — $9.32 million for the sheriff, $2.51 million for the district attorney, $1.48 million for probation, and $760,000 for fire — so the departments can balance their budgets.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Marion Ashley declined to say where he stands on the issue, saying he will make his views known at Tuesday’s meeting.

Supervisor Jeff Stone said he supports backfilling the decline to help the sheriff and district attorney.

“All departments in the county are not created equal,” he said.

Stone said he expects sales-taxes revenue to begin to rebound, but he favors a cap on backfilling the losses so the county does not burn through its reserves.

Assistant District Attorney Kelly Keenan said the department has made significant budget reductions. In the past two years, he said, the department has trimmed expenses by 17 percent.

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