Report: County on solid ground financially going into next fiscal year

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RIVERSIDE  – A proposed $6.86 billion fiscal year budget for Riverside County that will be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors next week contains no significant spending gaps and larger-than-expected reserves, but several agencies will likely have to make do with less.
The first hearings on the proposed 2021-22 spending plan will be Monday morning at the County Administrative Center, and the board is expected to consider requests and continue refining the proposed budget over the next two weeks, with tentative adoption set for June 29.

“The budget represents almost $7 billion in spending, including more than $950 million in general fund expenses, that ensures county departments have the resources they need to continue to deliver vital … services,” county CEO Jeff Van Wagenen said at the beginning of the nearly 500-page budget proposal. “While we are optimistic for the future, we must recognize that challenges remain. We have financial constraints that are real and must be
appropriately addressed.”
The proposed budget is about $69 million, or 1%, larger than the 2020-21 spending plan, according to the Executive Office.
Officials pointed out that federal infusions provided meaningful offsets to budgetary challenges over the last year.
The county received almost $500 million under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act of 2020, though some of that money could only be spent on narrow objectives. A total $479 million has been promised under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Half of the sum has already been received, and the other half will be released to the county next spring, officials said.
The county’s discretionary revenue is slated to top out at $921 million in 2021-22, compared to about $895 million in the current fiscal year, mostly thanks to the liquidation of more than $25 million in redevelopment agency assets handled by the state under the phase-out of RDA projects that began as part of then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget realignment in 2011.
The reserve pool is projected to swell to $284 million by the start 2021-22 — $60 million more than what had been predicted last June. However, the Executive Office noted that some funds will need to be siphoned out of various accounts to meet ongoing needs.
The budget, as in every year, revealed that public safety is the largest consumer of general fund revenue, eating up just under 40%, and the Sheriff’s Department is the agency with the greatest need for allocations within that sphere.
The agency has struggled to cover increasing manpower expenses and find the necessary resources to operate the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio.
According to the budget report, Sheriff Chad Bianco requested $77 million more in appropriations for 2021-22 compared to 2020-21, but the Executive Office is recommending only $54 million more instead to hold the line on spending.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin likewise asked for close to $25 million in additional funding for 2021-22, citing the increasing cost of state mandates, staffing of specialized units and assignments of personnel to pare down a sizable backlog of cases that built up during court-ordered postponements of trials due to the public health lockdowns.
EO staff are recommending the board approve $19 million more and let the DA handle the balance relying on reserve funds, attrition and a hiring cap.
Most other agencies, including the Department of Probation and the Office of the Public Defender, will have their appropriations requests fully satisfied under the proposed budget.
The Department of Animal Services went into the current fiscal year with a structural budget deficit that prompted partial closure of the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus, and the revenue picture has not improved since then, according to the report.
“Revenues are down to $8 million from $11.3 million during the last fiscal year,” staff wrote.
License fee and impound fee revenues plummeted amid the lockdowns, as fewer people adopted pets, and calls for service in cities that contract with the agency dropped off precipitously. The number of authorized — funded — positions has declined by 52.
Animal Services requested $20.8 million in appropriations, but the EO has recommended an additional $1.7 million on top of that to bolster the troubled department.
Among the new additions to the appropriations table in 2021-22 will be a $3 million account designated specifically for use on public works and other projects in county unincorporated communities.
The impetus behind the set-aside was a countywide survey that uncovered numerous complaints that unincorporated areas have been badly under-served. Supervisor Kevin Jeffries has been a strong supporter of directing more funding into the communities.
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