Riverside County braces for deep spending cuts in coming fiscal year

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   PAUL J. YOUNG
   City News Service
RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Riverside County agencies face across-the-board spending cuts in the next fiscal year, with some of the steepest reductions impacting public safety agencies, as the county contends with revenue shortfalls stemming from the public health shutdowns, according to a proposed budget the Board of Supervisors will debate next week.
“The economic hardship caused by COVID-19 has created much fiscal uncertainty and will require difficult budget decisions,” county CEO George Johnson said in an introduction to the 385-page document. “This recommended budget strikes a balance to reduce (costs) to our county general fund departments, while maintaining services at the highest level afforded by the fiscal reality of much less revenue. We must keep in mind that reduction in expenditures while utilizing reserves will result in a decline in some services.”
The proposed 2020-21 budget is about $6.46 billion, compared to $6.26 billion in the current fiscal year, a difference of roughly $200 million, or 3%. The board will hold its initial budget-impact hearing Monday.
In anticipation of revenue losses expected to total $100 million, the Executive Office is calling on the board to adopt a two-phased cost-cutting plan that nearly equals the revenue plunge and prevent a widening of the county’s structural budget deficit. The first cut would amount to 5% and be implemented in the first two months of the fiscal year, while a second 5% cut would follow in the fall.
According to officials, only $842 million in discretionary revenue — the one-fifth segment of the general fund available for the board to spend to meet needs outside of programmed obligations — will be available, while discretionary expenses are estimated to approach $868 million.
The Executive Office stated that the reserve pool, which totaled $264 million at the start of the current fiscal year, will likely be depleted down to $180 million by the end of 2020-21 to meet ongoing needs.
The county lost large sums of commercial tax revenue, sales tax receipts and other streams because of the public health regulations that closed businesses and drove the regional unemployment rate just above 15%. Major cuts in state funding are anticipated for a variety of mandated programs.
The most daunting reductions are expected to be in the public safety sphere of the budget, where every agency head approached the Executive Office with higher appropriations requests than officials have targeted to contain costs.
The Sheriff’s Department is seeking aggregate appropriations of $862 million for 2020-21, while the Executive Office’s cost-mitigation strategy calls for a maximum of $776 million. Sheriff Chad Bianco is contending with soaring expenses tied to pension obligations and higher benefits guarantees to deputies under a collective bargaining agreement with the Riverside Sheriffs Association. The operation of the newly constructed John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio is another overhang.
According to the Executive Office, if the board holds the line on expenditures, the sheriff will have to find ways to slash outgoing, and that could mean removing 100 deputies from the payroll. However, it’s unknown whether the board will brook such a reduction, since most of it would impact the unincorporated communities, where patrols are already thin.
The Department of Animal Services is also facing dire decisions. The agency is seeking $29 million in appropriations, but the cost containment effort would permit only $22.5 million in commitments. That could mean closures of the Blythe Animal Shelter and the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus, according to the budget report.
The District Attorney’s Office is asking for $153.5 million in general fund outlays, but the Executive Office is recommending only $126 million. District Attorney Mike Hestrin has been employing austerity measures since he took office in 2015 to close ongoing budget gaps. How creative he can be under the current budget constraints is yet to be seen. The office continues to operate with vacant positions.
The Department of Probation had one of the few revenue requests that was closely in line with the Executive Office’s wishes, with $146 million in general fund outlays sought, compared to $141.8 recommended by the EO. Chief Probation Officer Ron Miller has already indicated that more than 100 positions will not be funded in 2020-21. How that will affect operations was not immediately known.
The Fire Department also had a budget figure relatively close to what the EO deemed necessary — $368 million versus $364 million, according to the report. There was no indication that any of the county’s nearly 100 fire stations would have to be shuttered or other operational rollbacks might be on the table to adjust spending priorities.
Budget hearings are slated to run all day Monday and part of Tuesday. Additional hearings may be scheduled if necessary.
The board is expected to tentatively approve the next fiscal year budget on June 30. Formal adoption of the budget is slated for early September. The board generally waits until the first quarter of the new fiscal year passes before authorizing all components of the budget to gauge the impacts of cuts in state allocations.