Board boosts funding for agencies struggling in fiscal first quarter

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RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Funding to offset a deficit in the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, along with allocations to cover the costs of a union contract and the sheriff’s purchase of a new helicopter, were approved by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to smooth out wrinkles that appeared in the first quarter of the current fiscal year.

In a 5-0 vote without comment, the board agreed to commit nearly $15 million in contingency money to meet agencies’ needs, taking the cash reserve down to $2.7 million.

More than $200 million in reserves, however, remains available in a variety of budget sub accounts.

The largest commitment that the board approved was a $4 million appropriation for the United Domestic Workers’ memorandum of understanding authorized in early October. The contract incorporates pay hikes over the next three years. UDW members are employed by the Department of Public Social Services.

The D.A.’s office was allocated $1.8 million to cover both personnel expenditures and technology upgrades, according to the Executive Office. D.A. Mike Hestrin has successfully shaved a considerable portion of the $10 million in red ink first projected for 2019-20 by delaying implementation of payroll expansions and holding the line on programs, but the funding gap has not been completely closed.

The board authorized $3.2 million for the Department of Animal Services to make up for falling revenues associated with license fee collections and rates charged to cities that contract with the agency. The department will use some of the money to replace several vehicles in its fleet.

DPSS’ Children’s Services Division will receive $3.17 million to bolster staffing amid reforms aimed at improving operations. The division has been under sharp scrutiny and underwent an internal audit following several lawsuits in 2018 that culminated in the resignation of then-DPSS Director Susan von Zabern.

The Department of Human Resources was granted $1.2 million to replace aging data processing platforms, while Sheriff Chad Bianco was allocated nearly $1 million to consummate the purchase of a $12.5 million Airbus H145 helicopter.

The board in August signed off on procurement of the twin-engine rotorcraft for sheriff’s operations, with the bulk of the acquisition being paid for via a bank loan arranged by the Executive Office.

A few red flags were cited in the budget report, including the imminent full opening of the $340 million John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, which will have 1,600 inmate beds – four times more than the existing Indio Jail. Yearly operational costs of the facility, which has been completed and is now undergoing warranty testing, are expected to put a strain on county finances.

Another trouble spot that officials said warranted attention is an estimated $7.4 million shortfall projected for the Riverside University Health System’s 10 health clinics countywide, which mostly serve the indigent and uninsured. Federal reimbursement rates for services have not kept up with county outgo, and rising labor costs are adding further pressure to the RUHS spending limits, according to the first quarter budget report.

County CEO George Johnson underscored the need for thrift in preparation for steadily escalating pension costs, which are expected to approach $1 billion annually in the next decade.

On the plus side, the budget report noted property tax revenue is expected to increase 6% in the current fiscal year, boosting discretionary revenue by about $5 million.

The economic outlook, as affirmed in a report released two weeks ago by the UC Riverside School of Business, is also positive for the coming year and beyond, officials said.

The board in June adopted a $6.1 billion spending blueprint for 2019-20, compared to $5.72 billion in appropriations during 2018-19.

Planning for the 2020-21 fiscal year is slated to get underway in mid-January, when department heads will be required to submit their tentative budgets to the EO for examination.