County hospital, public safety agencies facing yearend shortfalls

RIVERSIDE – The Board of Supervisors agreed today to allocate an additional $10 million in support of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and another $2 million for the county fire department to help the agencies overcome deficits lingering on their books as the fiscal year winds down.

The board voted unanimously to make the adjustments, without comment, during a block motion approving a number of items on its policy agenda.

A third-quarter update on the 2013-14 budget was submitted by the county Executive Office, which indicated most agencies will end the current fiscal year in the black, with the exception of the two public safety agencies and the county hospital.

CEO Jay Orr noted in the budget report that the county began the fiscal year ”with a number of serious challenges” that will need to be addressed as the June 30 deadline to implement a 2014-15 spending blueprint approaches.

Although efforts to slash a projected $50 million deficit plaguing the Riverside County Regional Medical Center have netted savings, the hospital is still expected to end the year about $43 million in the red, according to the report.

County officials said Chicago-based Huron Consulting Inc., with which the county contracted in November at a cost of $26 million to restore the hospital to fiscal health, has successfully implemented a lower-cost pharmacy benefits program and reduced personnel expenses, including overtime for nursing staff. The consultants have also identified initiatives that could result in $20 million in annual savings, according to the report.

In biweekly updates to the board, however, Huron and RCRMC’s interim CEO Lowell Johnson have been called to task by board Chairman Jeff Stone for not stepping up the pace of reforms to stem the financial drain underway at the medical center for the last two years.

Much of Stone’s criticism has centered on the backlog of ”treatment authorization requests,” which must be submitted to Medicare and Medi-Cal in order for the hospital to be reimbursed for patient services.

The budget report pointed out the need to allocate another $2 million to cover a shortfall in the county fire department’s budget, stemming primarily from ”unanticipated personnel costs.” According to the Executive Office, a higher than expected number of firefighters suffered ”long-term on-the-job injuries,” requiring increased expenditures for relief personnel to be brought in to fill the gap.

Meantime, the agency’s cost for hardware and services connected with the county’s new Public Safety Enterprise Communication system, activated the first week of January, has reached $800,000 — an unbudgeted expense that pushed fire’s budget farther into the red, according to county officials.

Today’s board action addressed that funding shortfall, as well as slashed the sheriff’s projected yearend deficit of $29 million by one-third.

The sheriff’s department began the year $39 million in the hole but managed to narrow the gap, the budget report stated. Most of the sheriff’s cost overruns can be attributed to board-directed plans to recruit more deputies to staff correctional facilities and patrol unincorporated communities.

The unincorporated patrol deputy-to-residents staffing ratio fell to .75 per 1,000 in 2012 following several years of budget cuts. But board members unanimously rejected the ratio as too low and putting public safety at risk.

In March 2013, the board committed to re-establishing the 1.2 per 1,000 ratio, expected to be reached within four years. County officials noted, however, difficulties in ”testing, hiring and training” qualifying deputy candidates.

The budget report predicted the county would end the fiscal year with roughly $33 million more in the bank than first estimated, with discretionary revenues reaching $623.6 million, as opposed to $590.8 million. Similarly, the county’s reserve and ”designated” accounts, from which money can only be spent on specifically defined goals, were expected to end the year with a pool of $212.7 million, compared to $173 million at the beginning of 2013-14.

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