Orange County supervisors on Tuesday exempted themselves from an across-the-board 5 percent cut imposed on virtually every department during the county’s annual public hearing aimed at crafting a $5.4-billion budget for the next fiscal year.
While property tax and sales tax revenues are increasing, county leaders recently lost a high-profile lawsuit in Superior Court brought by the state Department of Finance involving more than $150 million in property taxes.
The court decision triggered the recommendation that 5 percent be cut from county departments across the board.
Like many of the straw votes taken on Tuesday, the one to approve the umbrella budget for county supervisors’ offices was split. Supervisors John Moorlach and Shawn Nelson voted to impose the cut on their own office budgets.
Moorlach opened the round asking, “I’m just wondering if we’re going to consider a 5-percent reduction like everyone else.”
“Yes, we are,” replied Nelson.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who reminded his colleagues that he had sought an office budget augmentation earlier in the year, came out swinging against any cuts. He argued that when it came to supervisors, cuts should be voluntary instead of mandatory.
“Doing it across the board would not take into account various districts and how they deal with constituents,” Spitzer said. “I plan to do it as a voluntary. I just don’t want to do it as a mandate.”
That drew a terse but short reply from Nelson, who has protested the fact that supervisors’ office budgets aren’t capped, with the result that some supervisors spend more than others.
“I’ve always struggled why we had different budgets,” he said.
Each district is indeed different, Nelson argued.
Supervisor Pat Bates has the most cities. Spitzer has one of the largest unincorporated areas. Nelson has the highest population. Supervisor Janet Nguyen has the highest percentage on public assistance, he noted.
But, Nelson said, “the fact of the matter is our budgets should be the same, because we all have the same responsibility.”
Nguyen publicly backed Spitzer, saying “each of us already do give back money in one form or another.” Supervisors could return funds later in the budget year if they so chose, she said. Then Nguyen moved to adopt the budgets without changes.
A quiet vote ensued with Spitzer, Nguyen and Bates voting to exempt supervisors from mandatory budget cuts.
“There’ll be no cuts in the budget,” Nelson said in a somber tone after registering a no vote along with Moorlach.
That wasn’t the case for the rest of the county departments.
“One of the things all of us have in common is none of us have enough money,” declared Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. She referred to the imbalance of a state plan, brought on by Assembly Bill 109, that shifts responsibilities for housing prisoners and monitoring parolees from the state to counties.
Hutchens spoke during deliberation over a proposal from city police chiefs across Orange County to increase funding for local police departments to handle the unanticipated costs of dealing with more parolees.
While supervisors supported an increase, they delayed any funding decisions until the first quarter budget update later in the year.
Supervisors also voted to strip Orange County Superior Court judges of lucrative health care benefits funded by taxpayers.
Nelson was visibly nervous, saying that stripping judges of benefits could trigger a mutual exchange of cost increases, since the two bodies offer a slew of services to each other.
That effort passed on a 3-1 vote, Nelson opposing and Nguyen abstaining.
Spitzer also led the charge to lower grand jury stipends from $50 a day to $15 daily, which was consistent with his earlier effort this year to oppose a midyear funding increase.
Given the controversial grand reports critical of the county this year, supervisors unanimously voted to lower the panel’s stipend.
Local hospitals also protested the current year budget, arguing that the county’s approach to providing indigent health care is triggering financial strain on the private sector.
Julie Puentes, a vice president at the Hospital Association of Southern California, thanked supervisors for supporting augmentation of the Medical Services Initiative, a program of medical care for the indigent, but she said changes are needed.
“Hospitals are now losing over $200 million in one year,” Puentes said. Local executives had “extreme frustration … probably a little bit of anger,” she said.
“We really need to look at a new business model,” Puentes said.
Supervisors also voted to defer decisions on more than $4 million in homeless shelter funding, arguing they would wait to see the fate of efforts in Fullerton and Santa Ana to locate permanent shelters.
They did, however, vote 3-2 to provide $25,000 in permanent annual funding to the Association of California Cities —Orange County in response to hard lobbying by Spitzer, who argued that the group could be helpful to the county in expanding cooperative regional efforts with local cities.
Nelson and Moorlach voted against the allocation, saying that they agreed with participating with group but not with giving it tax dollars.
“You get what you pay for,” Spitzer replied.
Final adoption of the 2013-2014 budget is expected at the supervisors’ meeting June 25.