Report: County’s current deficit from COVID-19 emergency at $45 million

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RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Riverside County’s current deficit from coronavirus emergency measures that impacted many sectors of the regional economy is $45 million and shortfalls are anticipated in the coming fiscal year, requiring sacrifices from all county agencies to save money, according to a report that the Board of Supervisors will review tomorrow.

“Maintaining fiscal discipline is needed to preserve the county’s fiscal health,” county CEO George Johnson said in an introduction to the 50-page third-quarter budget report. “To align spending with the impact of the severe projected revenue shortfalls, and weather the financial uncertainty during these difficult times, very hard decisions will need to be made.”

According to Johnson, most of the revenue losses in the current fiscal year stem from shortfalls in sales taxes, penalty fee collections and documentary transfer tax receipts.

The red ink will require drawing down the county’s $264 million reserve pool, leaving it with a balance of $219 million.

According to the CEO, directives to agencies in March to curb spending in anticipation of financial hits to the general fund mitigated some of the damage. He said $431 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security — CARES — Act appropriations to the county is additionally alleviating some financial pressure, but none of that money can go to balancing the budget.

Agencies seeking appropriations before the 2019-20 fiscal year ends include the Department of Animal Services, the Office of the Registrar of Voters and the Department of Public Social Services.

The latter is contending with increased demand for its general assistance program, which provides relief for the unemployed and others. The board is expected to appropriate an additional $1 million to DPSS before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Animal Services is seeking about $95,000 to cover unexpected costs for equipment, including protective gear connected to COVID-19, and the registrar’s office is in need of $2.85 million to reduce overages that developed following elections in Blythe and Rancho Mirage, as well as the May 12 special election for the 28th state Senate District.

The report indicated that no public safety units — the Fire, Sheriff’s and Probation departments and the offices of the District Attorney and the Public Defender — are projecting year-end gaps that cannot be managed internally, but big question marks hang over 2020-21 revenue and spending forecasts.

Budget hearings are set for June 15, 16 and 23.

According to Johnson, by that time, the county should have a better grasp of how reduced funding streams from the state will adversely affect the county. In his May revise last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $54 billion budget deficit stemming from state-mandated shutdowns to address the virus.

Johnson is asking the board to consider a “two-phased” budget cutting plan for 2020-21. In the initial phase, agencies would be required to absorb a 5 to 10% slash in appropriations compared to the current fiscal year’s outlays, and in the next phase, they would have to absorb a 5% cut.

The reductions should net about $102 million in savings, according to the executive officer.