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Riverside County supervisors wrestle with financial challenges in proposed 2019-20 budget


Last updated 6/11/2019 at 4:21pm

RIVERSIDE - Riverside County supervisors on Tuesday, June 11 refrained from approving a list of recommended appropriations under the proposed 2019-20 budget, electing instead to debate lingering concerns during next week's meeting.

"I'm prepared to make changes in order to preserve more frontline services that residents depend on, particularly in the unincorporated areas,'' Board of Supervisors Chairman Kevin Jeffries said. "But it's premature to make any changes today, not having all the numbers.''

The board initiated hearings Monday evening on general fund allocations for the next fiscal year, and additional testimony was received this afternoon. Chief Financial Officer Don Kent requested that the board move forward with tentatively approving the fiscal blueprint in place, then making adjustments before the formal adoption of the budget on June 25.

"We must maintain fiscal discipline,'' Kent said. "It's vital to embrace cost containment (and) improvements in efficiency and productivity.''

Supervisors Manuel Perez and Chuck Washington were unwilling to make any approvals without spending more time weighing budgetary impacts, mostly to public safety agencies.

Transportation & Land Management Agency Director Juan Perez gave a stark presentation on the years-long compression of the Department of Code Enforcement, which is under the TLMA umbrella. Code has seen its general fund support chopped 45 percent since 2016-17, and over the last decade, more than 100 field officers have been downsized, Perez said.

"This has led to serious consequences,'' he said. "We will have to take a more measured pace. We will do the best job we can with the resources that we have.''

Supervisor Perez insisted that the board take time to "dig a little deeper'' to identify possible alternative solutions than to continue shaving code's funding, despite the county's financial constraints.

The total appropriations for the current fiscal year topped out at $5.72 billion, according to the Executive Office. The proposed 2019-20 total -- $6.1 billion -- would exceed that by 6.6 percent.

Salaries and benefits remain the county's largest expenditure, with about 40 percent of revenue dedicated to payroll.

Public safety remains the largest consumer of general fund appropriations, at 44 percent, according to the 700-page budget report.

The county is projecting that property tax receipts and motor vehicle license fee revenue will both increase about 6 percent in 2019-20. The two combined comprise the greatest share of general fund discretionary money, which is expected to total just over $1 billion in the upcoming fiscal year.

Figures showed that discretionary revenue should continue to climb over the next four years, though the reserve pool will decline as draw-downs are used to cover costs. Reserves are presently holding at $212 million, but that amount could drop by $50 million during 2022-23, according to the report.

As in most years, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department sought an increase in general fund appropriations, which the recommended budget estimated to be $300.6 million, or roughly $20 million more than the current year's level.

The sheriff's total outlays would be $742 million, compared to $722 million in the current fiscal year, if the proposed budget is approved by the board. That amount combines fee collections, Proposition 172 public safety sales tax revenue, grants, law enforcement contract payments and other sources, in addition to the general fund.

The department's No. 1 near-term challenge will be staffing and maximizing use of the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, which will be operational by year's end, according to the report.

The District Attorney's Office is slated to receive a $5 million boost in general fund allocations, which would bring the agency's total budget in 2019-20 to $129.2 million.

Executive Office staff said D.A. Mike Hestrin continues to struggle with a rollover deficit projected at $9.7 million, even as he has not filled some vacant positions to manage costs.

According to the EO, the agency is under a major "strain'' to meet "an astonishing 136'' state mandates that have been implemented over the last three years, including changes in state law that permit some drug offenders to have their convictions reduced, as well as some gun crimes to be retroactively modified for the benefit of convicts.

Public Defender Steve Harmon, whose agency is entirely dependent on general fund money, is also in line for an appropriations increase, totaling $1.5 million, as deputy public defenders also contend with higher caseloads and demands, according to the Executive Office.

In other segments of the public safety sphere, however, appropriations will be held at nearly the same level, or even reduced, under the recommended budget.

The Department of Probation is seeking the same general fund infusion in 2019-20 that it requested in the current fiscal year -- $40.7 million, while the Fire Department's recommended allocation is about $1.5 million less than in 2018-19.

The Riverside University Health System, which serves as a hub for multiple county units, would receive $3 million in additional funding, raising the composite RUHS budget to $678.8 million.

RUHS has been working to resolve a projected $16 million deficit due to ongoing losses at the 10 county-run public health clinics. Officials have blamed the red ink mostly on inadequate federal reimbursement rates for healthcare delivered to the indigent and uninsured, as well as rising labor and pension costs for employees.


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