Supervisors tentatively approve $4.7 billion budget for next fiscal year


Riverside County supervisors today tentatively approved a "fragile" $4.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2013-14, holding off on full implementation of the financial blueprint until the county's yearend balance sheet is clearer.

The Board of Supervisors is slated to formally adopt the budget on Sept. 10.

"We're using one-time money where appropriate (to balance the budget)," county Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser told the board during a public hearing at the County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside. "We've protected our reserves. The budget is balanced today. But it may not be where we are tomorrow."

Corser noted that the budget was 6 percent smaller than in 2012-13, mostly because of the loss of redevelopment revenue. A bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown ended counties' redevelopment programs in 2011, with Brown arguing that the share of property taxes dedicated for revitalization projects should be available to other entities, including school districts and special districts.

County discretionary revenue is projected to increase 3 percent, or around $17 million, in 2013-14, Corser said. Despite the growth, the county will have to draw down several general fund accounts to meet its financial obligations.

The discretionary funding gap -- the difference between $630 million in projected expenditures and $586 million in revenue -- will be covered using a "budget stabilization set-aside" and cash on hand, according to the Executive Office.

"This structural balance is fragile," county CEO Jay Orr said. "We must still determine if general funds will be needed to address the hospital's fiscal challenges, public safety departments' (shortfalls) and the unforeseen impacts of Assembly Bill 109, among other issues."

The Riverside County Regional Medical Center is projected to have a $35 million deficit in 2013-14. However, county officials are counting on "receivables," or ongoing patient payments for services, to erase some of the red ink.

Sheriff Stan Sniff told the board in April that the Executive Office's budget target for him to meet next year was a "bridge too far."

The sheriff's department is facing expenses totaling $600 million and needs an additional $55 million in board-approved general fund support. Corser indicated today that the Executive Office understood Sniff's dilemma and was prepared to assist, at the board's direction.

The sheriff's department is engaged in a recruitment drive to fill 500 positions to have sufficient personnel to expand the number of deputies on patrol in unincorporated communities and to adequately staff the jails.

The supervisors spent the last part of the budget hearing on AB 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011, which most of them disdain. Sniff and other officials blame the legislation for exacerbating jail overcrowding and contributing to an increase in localized crime.

"Our jails are congested," said Supervisor Jeff Stone. "One inmate goes out and another goes in. Violent crime is up. In Hemet and San Jacinto, there's increasing crime. Why? Because we have more felons congesting our jails."

Under AB 109, so-called "non-serious, non-violent" offenders convicted of felonies that do not stem from a sex crime are to serve their sentences in local detention facilities. Proponents of realignment suggested that jail sentences would be capped at three years, but that has not held true. Some convicts in local facilities are serving terms in excess of 10 years.

AB 109 also made counties responsible for prosecuting and, often, incarcerating parole violators.

In 2012, Sniff released nearly 7,000 "low-level" inmates early for lack of space. Under a two-decade-old federal court order, the county must have a bed for each detainee or let some of them go.

The county has just under 4,000 beds available.

Stone said the need for a Mid-County Detention Center, or "Hub Jail," remains strong, even if the funds aren't readily available.

A 200-acre site just off Interstate 10 in Whitewater should be made "shelf-ready" if a federal grant or other funding source makes the project affordable, Stone said.

"We have to plan for today and the future," Stone said. "If we're not going to build on the site, let's sell the ($23-million) property."

The Hub Jail, which was knocked off the county's list of capital improvement priorities in 2011, would cost at least $300 million to build and make operational, according to estimates.

Coachella Valley tourism and hospitality interests widely oppose the concept, saying it would severely degrade the area's appeal.

A county Jail Committee will hold its first meeting next week to begin strategizing how best to address the county's jail space deficit.

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