Today is among the most important days of the year for Orange County’s county government.
Starting this morning, the five county supervisors and more than two dozen county executives will get together to hash out possible changes to a massive $5.8 billion spending plan that, directly or indirectly, affects each of Orange County’s 3.1 million residents.
Those who want to have input will have an opportunity to speak during the hearing, which starts at 9:30 a.m. at the county Hall of Administration (map). At the meeting, members of the public will have three minutes each to let the supervisors know their thoughts on the budget, and whether anything should be changed.
Most of the discussion is expected to center on how to divvy up the more than $60 million in extra discretionary funding expected in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The bulk of it – about $30 million – is proposed to go to two departments: the sheriff and district attorney, amid salary and benefit increases for their staff.
And while many of the other departments’ $44 million in discretionary funding requests – beyond the 3-percent bump in discretionary funding each department receives – are recommended for approval, some aren’t.
Here are the top requests that are not recommended for full funding under the county’s proposed budget.
(For a complete list of the extra funding requests, known as “augmentations,” click here.)
1. Maintaining the Social Services Agency’s “general relief” program ($6.9 million requested, no funding recommended by CEO).
Executives at the county’s largest agency say the money is needed to meet growing demand for a program that provides emergency loans to low-income residents who don’t have children and don’t otherwise qualify for federal or state welfare programs.
The state-mandated program, known as “general relief,” has seen sharp rises in demand in recent years, including a nearly 50-percent increase last fiscal year and another almost 26 percent this year.
Those increases were largely able to be absorbed into existing budgets, officials say, but that’s no longer expected to be the case in the coming fiscal year, with a further increase of 23 percent projected.
“Despite overall declines in unemployment rates, the unemployment rate remains high for this vulnerable population who have intermittent work histories, low levels of education, and minimal job skills,” the agency’s funding request states.
Much of the increase in caseloads is also attributed to changes that were made to the program in fiscal year 2013.
Those changes include “allowing phone interviews or interviews at alternate office locations for individuals requiring accommodations due to a disability or undue hardship” and offering “immediate need” benefits to homeless residents, according to department spokeswoman Elizabeth DenBleyker.
Just over 4,000 residents participated in the general relief program during the current fiscal year, according to the agency.
If, as the CEO’s office recommends, the funding isn’t approved, social services officials will closely monitor expenses and return to the board during the 1st quarter budget update in October if funding is still expected to fall short for the year, according to DenBleyker.
At that point, it will be up to county supervisors to figure out what to do.
2. Jail overtime at the Sheriff’s Department ($2.8 million requested, no funding recommended by CEO).
Sheriff’s officials asked for the funds to cover overtime at county jails, saying the services are needed to maintain current service levels.
“The overtime budget provides the Department with the ability to maintain the minimal level of staffing required to address impacts of rising jail populations and attrition including projected retirements,” the request states.
However, the jail population has declined due to, among other factors, Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for most nonviolent property and drug crimes. So the funding is no longer believed to be required, according to sheriff’s officials.
“Our expectation is that overtime is going to reduce in the jail,” and combined with managing overtime, sheriff’s staff “expect to close that gap,” said the department’s spokesman, Lt. Jeff Hallock.
Since last year, the jail population has dropped by roughly 1,000 to 1,500 inmates on average, Hallock said, to a current level of about 5,000 to 5,500. Some housing units at the Musick jail facility have been closed.
No major impacts are expected from the overtime request not being funded, he added.
Additionally, the sheriff’s request for $3.7 million to buy four new inmate transportation buses and a mobile command center is not recommended by the CEO for funding, which sheriff’s officials are in agreement with.
Sheriff’s officials are optimistic that an outside grant, which would pay for 80 percent of the cost, is likely to come through. Once the grant is awarded, the sheriff would request the county’s 20-percent match from discretionary funds during the 1st quarter budget update in October.
3. Maintaining services at the District Attorney’s Office ($6.9 million requested, $5.8 million recommended by CEO).
DA officials say they need the full amount to pay for 51 positions that are key to prosecuting crime, including lawyers, investigators and paralegals.
The CEO’s office, meanwhile, is recommending $1.1 million less in funding, with all 51 positions in place.
It remains to be seen how the DA will make up the difference, or whether services will be impacted. DA spokeswoman Roxi Fyad declined to comment on the issue.
County budget officials have said the DA’s office would have extra cash available if it wasn’t for a settlement with their attorneys’ union and a $4 million court-ordered payment to the ACLU over constitutional violations in the DA’s gang injunction program.
4. Maintaining service levels at the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office ($949,000 requested; $749,000 recommended by CEO).
Treasurer-Tax Collector Shari Freidenrich says her ongoing expenses were recommended for approval, and that the $150,000 funding gap will mean further delays in some maintenance efforts and one-time purchases until the following fiscal year.
“We will also continue to look for ways to streamline our [operating] costs to assist us in meeting the [discretionary funding] limits,” Freidenrich added in an email.
Specifically, delays could impact projects like up-grading the office’s phone system for automated bill information and payments, known as interactive voice response or IVR, as well as its investment accounting system.
5. Maintaining service levels at the Internal Audit Department ($130,000 requested; no funding recommended by CEO).
Internal Audit Director Peter Hughes says he needs the funds to fill a vacant administrative manager position so his office can keep up with demand.
“Internal Audit has recently experienced a need for additional resources for special request audits, fraud hotline investigations, and Audit Oversight Committee activity. Restoration of funding and [filling] the vacant position will help meet additional workload demands in a timely manner,” states his department’s request.
“Restoration of funding will reinstate the level of staffing required to meet the department’s core audit responsibilities of internal control audits which help identify business risks and help management maintain the integrity of the County’s key financial processes and systems.”
The CEO’s office, meanwhile, is recommending that the funding be deferred, pending the county Audit Oversight Committee’s “evaluation of [the] internal audit function.”
Asked what the impact would be of leaving the position unfunded, Hughes said his budget chief, Winnie Keung, would respond. Keung hadn’t responded as of 8 p.m. Monday.
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