Report: County hospital, fire and sheriff’s departments to end year in red

RIVERSIDE – Most Riverside County agencies will end the current fiscal year in the black, but shortfalls totaling more than $70 million are anticipated for the fire and sheriff’s departments, as well as the county hospital, according to a report to be reviewed tomorrow by the Board of Supervisors.

The 50-page third-quarter update on 2013-14 finances will be presented by the Executive Office as part of the board’s policy agenda.

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 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 last 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, Huron and RCRMC’s interim CEO, Lowell Johnson, have been called to task by Supervisor Jeff Stone for not stepping up the pace of reforms to stem the financial drain that’s been underway at the medical center for the last two years. Much of Stone’s criticism has centered on the backlog of ”treatment authorizations” which must be submitted to insurers 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 Public Safety Enterprise Communication system, activated the first week of January, has reached $800,000 — an unbudgeted expense that pushed the fire department budget farther into the red, according to county officials.

The sheriff’s department began the year $39 million in the hole, but has since narrowed the gap to $29 million, according to figures. 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 figure as too low, 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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