The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors began to grapple in public Wednesday with what cuts to programs and services will be necessary to close a two-year budget gap currently projected at $2.5 billion between now and June 30, 2021.
At the board’s first public hearing on the recommended $35.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2020-21 — held virtually due to the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic — fewer than a dozen members of the public offered comments by phone and roughly three dozen more submitted written comments in advance. This stands in sharp contrast to meetings in years past when hundreds of advocates representing labor unions, business, trade organizations, community organizations and other stakeholders turned out to try and influence the board.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who chairs the board, said the county will accept written comments on the budget through May 22. Deliberations will resume on June 29, after Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai finishes her analysis of individual department budgets and presents her revisions to the board.
“The county is facing a sharp decrease in anticipated revenue … along with an increase in costs needed to fund the county’s wide-ranging response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Hamai told the board.
California is facing a $54.3 billion deficit of its own over the next two years, the CEO said.
In April, the county received $1.057 billion in federal relief dollars that are restricted to coronavirus health-related expenditures and cannot be used to backfill revenues lost from the resulting economic crisis. The federal funds must be spent in full by Dec. 30.
Hamai said she was hopeful that more “urgently needed” funding would come via the next round of the federal coronavirus relief bill, but implied that even more federal aid won’t save the county from making hard choices.
“Our county and others nationwide are on the frontlines … of this unprecedented pandemic while also preparing for the challenges of recovery and reopening. This is a job that is likely to become even more challenging in the year ahead as the public turns to us as the safety net when times get tough,” Hamai said.
In a letter to the board, Hamai said solutions to the budget deficit could include suspending county matching contributions for employees’ 401(k) plans, negotiating new contracts with labor unions, drawing down reserves and trust funds and specifically cutting programs that rely on state sales tax dollars, such as probation programs tied to AB109 funds.
In addition to hearing from the public, the budget hearings are often opportunities for the supervisors to highlight their own priorities. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas began by asking Hamai about Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s claim that the board is failing to fully fund his department’s needs.
“All departments put in their aspirational requests,” Hamai replied. “We are only able to fund the amounts up to the revenue sources … at this point in time, I don’t know where the sheriff believes we have another $400 million.”
Giving the sheriff another $400 million would require all other county department to cut their budgets by more than 15%, according to Hamai. When asked to submit recommended cuts, department heads have offered cuts of up to 20%, she said.
Barger said department heads were invited to the hearing, but none chose to address the board.
However, Villanueva held his own news conference Wednesday. He told reporters that the county has long failed to deal with a structural deficit due to rising costs that predated him and that it previously chose to use discretionary funds to cover the gap.
“Why was it OK to use provisional funds, or services and supplies, to cover deficits in previous administrations but not in my administration? Why?” he asked.
He said he would do whatever it takes to protect residents, including going out on patrol himself.
“This department is prepared to do anything to make sure we keep everyone safe. If that means I’m going to don a suit and go out 10-8 and hit the road answering calls for service in Altadena, I will be the one doing that, if it comes to that,” Villanueva said.
After warning reporters last week about drastic cuts, including closing the Altadena and Marina del Rey patrol stations, the sheriff said he hadn’t made any final decisions, but that the board doesn’t have the power to tell him how to manage his spending.
“They don’t have the authority to tell me exactly how to spend my budget,” Villanueva said. “They can set the overall amount.”
In any event, the sheriff says he does not intend to pull patrol deputies off the street in Altadena and Marina del Rey, but to potentially consolidate the overhead of those stations.
He also underlined a point he has seemed to be making in various ways for months.
“I should remind you that I don’t work for the Board of Supervisors, I work for the public, the people,” the sheriff said. “I work with the Board of Supervisors. When they understand that difference, then all of sudden collaboration becomes a lot easier.”
Told by a reporter of Hamai’s comments at the county hearing and asked where he would expect the CEO to find another $400 million in funding, the sheriff stopped short of identifying specific cuts.
“All 36 departments, this may come as a shock, are not all the same,” Villanueva said. “They need to start making some hard choices themselves.”
Both the sheriff and the CEO said they wanted to sit down together to discuss appropriate cuts.
During the county session, Ridley-Thomas said public safety includes not just the sheriff’s department, but the fire and probation departments, the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices and others.
“We have a pretty extensive public safety, criminal justice-related agenda,” Ridley-Thomas said, before pointing to the many other vital safety net services — including health care, child welfare and social services — that the county provides.
Barger, who worked for the county for decades before being elected to the board, said she has never seen so much need and emphasized that the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic is still not clear.
“Demands for food, housing, health services, homelessness services and many others are increasing at rates that I personally have never seen during my 30 years with the county,” Barger said. “Our decisions are going to have a significant impact on the lives of our 10 million residents.”
After assuring the public that the board reads and considers all of the written comments submitted by the public, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl highlighted the board’s commitment to county workers who have stepped up to meet the demands of the crisis.
“In these emergent situations, suddenly it is government that is called on to step up and to provide the care that is needed,” Kuehl said.
She also made a bid for continuing to support new initiatives undertaken in recent years.
“I think it is important to continue to build … on the strides that we’ve made in affordable housing … the alternatives to incarceration group … as well as our commitment to the environment,” Kuehl said.
Hahn said some earlier priorities may need to be abandoned as the county focuses on its role in providing a safety net for residents.
“When we’re flush with money things become maybe a priority that this time around we can’t afford … anymore,” Hahn said. “We’re going to have to be really diligent and tough about making those decisions.”
However, Hahn said she would like to avoid laying off county workers.
“I hope we can do everything in the county to avoid layoffs and furloughs during this crisis. Our people, our workforce, they’re definitely the greatest asset we have in the county.”
Hahn mentioned that she had also received many requests not to neglect funding for the arts community, telling colleagues that advocates made a good case for why the arts remain essential during difficult times.
Supervisor Hilda Solis said the board should not lose sight of the opportunity to create local jobs.
“I want to strongly advocate to invest in major capital projects that will help create good-paying, union jobs to stimulate the region’s economy, including for local hires,” Solis said.
Solis specifically cited a planned “restorative village” at LAC+USC for more mental health treatment and supportive services as a project she’d like to see completed.
Solis also called for increased funding to serve immigrant communities, including the L.A. Justice Fund.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is set to submit his budget revision on Thursday, which Hamai said will give the county more insight into the cuts it will be facing.
The board’s next regular meeting is set for May 26, with additional budget deliberations scheduled for June 29.