Riverside County supervisors today formally approved a balanced 2012-13 fiscal year budget that includes spending cuts, layoffs and a new fee to be imposed on criminal defendants who request court-appointed attorneys.
"We've always balanced our budgets. But balance this time means we've put up enough ongoing money to cover ongoing expenses without the use of reserves," county Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser told the Board of Supervisors.
"We've haven't been able to say that for four years," he said. "We're in a good position. But there are difficulties as we move ahead."
In June, the board tentatively approved a blueprint that outlined a structurally balanced budget. As in previous years, the Executive Office recommended that the supervisors postpone formal ratification of the budget to September to give county analysts time to measure the impact of the state's budgetary plans and to adjust data in response to Assessor-Clerk-Recorder Larry Ward's release of the fiscal year property tax assessment roll.
The roll indicated residential and commercial property values countywide were relatively flat, assuring the county would not suffer a precipitous loss in property taxes.
According to the budget report, cuts aimed at closing the state's $16 billion deficit would affect court operations, but most county agencies were not facing any immediate impact from state deficit control plans.
Corser said that could change after November, if voters don't approve the governor's proposed tax increases.
"We need to be careful of where the state tries to go with taking county money," he said.
The county's structural balance in 2012-13 was achieved, in part, through agencies giving back unspent appropriations from the prior year and absorbing across-the-board cuts, according to the Executive Office.
The sheriff returned $7 million to the treasury, while the district attorney returned nearly $900,000 and the public defender around $2 million, according to the report. The Department of Public Health and Riverside County Regional Medical Center gave back sums in excess of $5 million.
Public Defender Gary Windom protested a provision in the 2012-13 budget calling for a $3.5 million reduction in his office's budget, saying the cuts amounted to "amputations."
"I'd have to cut a leg, an arm or both in order to meet the budget recommended here today," Windom told the board.
According to the attorney, the proposed reductions were based on false assumptions, including a lower number of death penalty cases that the Executive Office projected the public defender would handle in the current fiscal year, as well as revenue from a $50 per defendant fee the board approved today.
The "registration fee" will be charged to individuals facing criminal charges who claim financial hardship and request that the county appoint them an attorney because they cannot afford to pay for one.
According to the Executive Office, the fees are expected to generate around $1 million annually, creating a revenue stream that will benefit the Office of Public Defender. Windom, however, noted that defendants need only say they cannot pay the registration fee, and the court will refrain from assessing it until a case is adjudicated, deferring collection for months, if not indefinitely.
Windom complained that he hadn't been given an opportunity to discuss his concerns with Corser or county CEO Jay Orr, having only learned last week that his office faced a $3.5 million reduction. But Corser replied that the public defender had been notified of the plan two months ago.
Board members encouraged dialogue between the public defender's office and Executive Office but left the budget cut in place.
Supervisor Bob Buster said the 2012-13 spending plan is a reflection of lean economic times, adding that the "momentum starting here really carries us to ... the strategy the county should follow for the next five years."
"Some budgets are real honey, some are cotton candy. This budget is a castor oil budget," he said. "It's real honest and sets a good example across the county."
Documents showed the county would have about $40 million in cash in the first quarter of the fiscal year, which began July 1. County officials said planned reductions should move ahead, including a $100,000 spending cut in the Office of the Registrar of Voters that will result in two warehouse positions being slashed.
In the last fiscal year, 136 positions were cut. Over the last four years, just over 1,000 positions have been eliminated, according to Corser.
Appropriations for 2012-13 total $4.67 billion, compared to $5.1 billion in 2011-12, about a 9 percent drop. Those expenditures are covered through federal and state "pass-through" funds, county discretionary money and revenue from special districts.