By PAUL J. YOUNG, City News Service:
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors Monday tentatively approved a $4.76 billion budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, with Supervisor Kevin Jeffries casting the lone dissenting vote due to what he deemed a "lack of vision" in the spending plan's priorities.
"We're operating on a model from 20 years ago," Jeffries complained toward the end of a three-hour public hearing. "We have new challenges. We need new options going forward. I'm disappointed by the lack of vision."
The first-term supervisor, who served six years as an assemblyman, said the county seemed content to pay "three economists to bore us to death, but we can't even put a swing-set in place" at a run-down park in Good Hope.
Jeffries expressed frustration that the budget lacked capital infusions to support basic improvements within the First District, and was particularly turned off by an inability to spur "department heads" to action addressing a growing homeless encampment in Lakeland Village where crime has surged, as well as the number of fires.
"Deputies are telling me it's a major location for drug-dealing and thefts. Residents are cutting deals with the transients just to keep their houses from being ripped off," Jeffries said. "How we can allow that to go forward in Riverside County while funding other things is questionable."
According to the supervisor, it's high time to "drill into every department's budget and find every discretionary item" to determine whether it's legitimate.
"I've heard reports that in the last 60 days, agencies had surplus money on hand and spent it as fast they could ahead of the end of this fiscal year," Jeffries said. "I'm not supporting this budget until we see some vision and accountability."
The comments stirred reaction from colleagues, with Supervisor John Tavaglione suggesting that Jeffries should strive to build bridges with department heads.
"Make them your friend," said the Riverside native, now in his 20th year on the Board of Supervisors. "We've got a hell of a group here that knows how to take this county forward."
Supervisor John Benoit acknowledged that it was by no means a "perfect budget," but said it was better to "move forward."
Board Chairman Jeff Stone agreed that more needed to be done to address homelessness and Jeffries' other concerns.
"But we have finite resources," Stone said. "Our first priority has to be to stop the bleeding (at Riverside County Regional Medical Center). We're doing a good job of that. We're creating a world-class medical center."
Interim RCRMC Chief Financial Officer Chris Hans told the board that while the Moreno Valley hospital continues to face "significant challenges," the financial picture is improving, with next year's deficit projected to be $20 million instead of $82 million.
Overtime costs have been slashed in half and savings have been realized from a workforce reduction of 200 personnel over the last six months, according to Hans.
Plans are afoot to implement a "re-branding" strategy aimed at attracting more "paying customers with insurance" as opposed to those who turn to the medical center as a last resort for treatment, Hans said.
The troubled hospital is undergoing operational reforms being implemented by consultants hired at a collective cost of more than $28 million. The Executive Office expressed confidence that the 18-month overhaul would result in ongoing annual savings of $55.5 million -- enough to erase the medical center's red ink within a few years.
The 540-page budget blueprint detailed few other major monetary challenges between now and next June, though county CFO Ed Corser sounded cautionary notes.
"There's a lot of stuff out there that needs to be considered; we just need to figure out how to pay for it," Corser said, pointing out that the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, District Attorney's Office, Assessor- Clerk-Recorder's Office, Department of Probation and Office of the Public Defender were all facing elevated costs from labor contracts.
The sheriff's expenditures are on the front-burner and will remain that way for the foreseeable future, officials said. The county is seeking to expand and possibly build additional jails, as well as augment deputies to staff the East County Detention Center in Indio -- slated for completion in November 2016 -- and boost the number of deputies on patrol to return the deputies-to- residents patrol ratio in the unincorporated communities to 1.2 per 1,000.
The rate is currently 1 per 1,000, an improvement achieved over the last two years, which Supervisor Marion Ashley credited with reducing crime rates countywide.
Tavaglione questioned the pace of hiring 500 additional deputies to reach the 1.2-per-1,000 goal.
"We may need to back off by a year or two ( in creating new positions)," the supervisor said, worried that the growing payroll burden may threaten the county's fragile structural budget balance.
"We don't want to put in more money than the sheriff is going to need," Corser suggested. "We should rely on 'just-in-time financing.' But his shortfall has to be covered."
The sheriff's department received nearly $10 million in appropriations to cover cost overruns in the current fiscal year.
The 2014-15 budget will not be formally ratified until Sept. 23, after department heads have had time to assess appropriations limits and digest whatever impact the state's fiscal policies may have. About a third of the county's non-discretionary funds originate from the state.
The 2014-15 budget is about 4.5 percent larger than this year's. Spending will exceed anticipated revenue by more than $230 million, but Executive Office staff said the difference will be made up using carryover fund balances and one-time money.
According to figures, the county's discretionary revenue will come to around $623.5 million in 2014-15, compared with $590.7 million in the current fiscal year. The reserve pool should top out at $209 million, according to the report.