Counties Bear the Brunt Of State's Austerity Budget

CALIFORNIA PROTEST

INSIDE the cavernous chamber, around an oak half-moon desk, Los Angeles County supervisors were playing what has become a painfully familiar game - swing the scythe at the county budget.

The target on this day: lifeguards. Supervisors want to stop providing lifeguard service at all state beaches in the county. Before taking any definitive steps, though, one supervisor had a question:

If someone drowns because we don't have any lifeguards out there, who is liable?

The exchange typifies the kinds of decisions local governments up and down California may have to make in the wake of a state budget cobbled together this week in Sacramento.

While the proposed $52 billion spending plan exacts pain from almost everyone, its impact is expected to fall hardest on local governments - particularly counties.

Indeed, the document is threatening to spawn a California Tea Party: Many counties are vowing, as a protest, not to send their property taxes in to the state.

The whole process provides a case study of the difficulty of fashioning a budget in the face of an incessant recession.

"This is a super-austerity budget," says Bud Lembke, editor of Political Pulse, a Sacramento newsletter.

The good news for California is that there may be a budget at all before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. Last year, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the Democratic-controlled Legislature quarreled over a spending plan into September - a 63-day delay that plunged the state into its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and left the public even less enamored with its representatives than usual.

Both sides have been determined not to repeat the same debacle this year. The state Assembly and Senate have signed off on the general outlines of the spending plan. Lawmakers were still haggling over the details yesterday.

Governor Wilson doesn't want to affix his signature to the measure until all the decimals are in place. If another impasse doesn't occur, the state will have a budget before July 1 for the first time since 1986.

"It would be Sacramento's first step toward erasing the perception of gridlock," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif. "If it turns out to be the last step, they won't have gained anything."

The budget is lean and, in the eyes of some, mean. It calls for a cut of 11 percent in state spending over this year. Though it increases funding for prisons and protects public-school spending, it reduces welfare grants and aid to the aged, blind, and disabled. Tuition fees for higher education would go up. The most controversial pillar is the transfer of $2.6 billion in property revenues from local governments - mostly counties, but also cities and special jurisdictions - to the public schools. The tra nsfer was a key demand of Wilson, who wanted to keep a commitment to maintain per-pupil education funding at current levels.

To help offset the loss, the budget would extend a temporary state sales-tax surcharge for six months and give the revenue - about $700 million - to local government. In November, state voters would be asked to make the surcharge permanent, thus giving localities more revenue. But money could be used only for police, fire, and other public-safety services.

The plan puts local governments in the uncomfortable position of having to rely on the voters to approve a tax, something Californians have been reluctant to do. Even if they were to, counties would still likely take a sizable drop in funding - on top of a $525 million cut in state aid last year. In the meantime, they have to fashion budgets of their own not knowing if they will have the added sales-tax revenue this fall or not.

"It is a disaster for Los Angeles County," says Ed Edelman, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

In anticipation of the parsimony in Sacramento, 46 out of 58 counties had passed resolutions refusing to turn over locally collected property tax revenues if the state went ahead with the transfer of funds to the schools. Now some are following through.

Los Angeles County supervisors this week moved to eliminate cooperative programs with the state, such as the lifeguard services, and to withhold the disputed taxes - a move that will likely end up in court. In Los Angeles, the cuts could mean laying off 9,500 workers and closing one hospital, four jails, and eight sheriff's stations.

Though local governments could still end up with some relief in the last-minute details of the budget being worked out, most counties have already been preparing to make tough choices:

* Northern California's Lassen County is planning to lay off one-third of its 90-member work force. That would leave, among other things, only eight sheriff's deputies to patrol an area the size of Connecticut.

* Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, finished a $24 million, 535-inmate jail near Temecula last December. But local officials cannot come up with the $12 million it would take to run it. It sits empty.

* San Benito County, on the edge of Silicon Valley, is scheduled to close its last library Sept. 1. "We are in a depression as great, if not greater, than the depression of the 1930s," says county administrative officer David Edge.

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