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Public safety agencies facing budget shortfall in Riverside County

Published On: Feb 26 2013 08:30:16 AM CST
Riverside County Sheriffs Department helicopter file photo

File photo

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -

Costs to operate the county hospital are exceeding  revenues by tens of millions of dollars, while higher labor and service  expenses are certain to leave the sheriff's and fire departments' budgets in  the red at the end of the current fiscal year, according to a report Riverside  County supervisors will review today.

      The Executive Office's midyear 2012-13 budget report identifies  positives and negatives, detailing how county finances are shaping up, agency  by agency.   

      The report begins by spotlighting a projected $30 million year-end  deficit for the Riverside County Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley. The  hospital, which serves a large number of indigent, uninsured patients, is  expected to cover almost $20 million of the red ink, leaving a budget gap of  roughly $11 million by June.

      Its long-term financial stability remains a growing concern, county CEO  Jay Orr noted. He underscored the risks to the medical center with the  implementation in January of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,  otherwise known as "Obama Care." Demands on the hospital's resources are  expected to increase, and thus its expenses, too.

      "I am commissioning a specialized consultant to explore opportunities  to increase RCRMC's efficiency and effectiveness, develop a strategy for  implementing the Affordable Care Act and strengthen the medical center's  financial footing," Orr wrote.

      The sheriff's department is expected to end 2012-13 with a $6.2 million  shortfall, down from the $9 million projected a few months ago. According to  county officials, the sheriff's shortfall stems in part from the hiring of 50  deputies in a board-authorized effort to swell county law enforcement  personnel.

      Higher jail expenses and costs tied to the new Public Safety Enterprise  Communication system were also to blame. The system -- the focus of a six-year  effort to move county public safety agencies away from decades-old analog  communications to a digital network -- is slated to come online next month.

      The fire department's PSEC costs, along with higher expenditures tied to  servicing the relatively new city of Jurupa Valley, will result in a $5.7  million deficit for that agency, according to the budget report.

      Orr said savings wrung out of other departments in the current fiscal  year could help offset the budget gaps, but he warned against tapping the  county's $155 million reserve pool.

      According to the budget report, the county is bracing for a $64 million  increase in general labor costs in 2013-14 due to collective bargaining  agreements that established across-the-board cost-of-living and merit pay  increases. Because of underperforming investments managed by the California  Public Employees Retirement System, the county will also be on the hook for  higher pension obligations, officials said.

      Costs associated with the new East County Detention Center in Indio,  scheduled for completion in October 2016, will add $50 million a year to the  county's expense column.

      Orr did not rule out the possibility of layoffs or other cost- containment measures as part of the 2013-14 budget, which must be enacted by  June 30.

      According to the CEO, the board should entertain re-instituting a 9/80  work schedule throughout local government in order to boost service to the  public and make the county more responsive to businesses. In 2008, the board  shifted to a 4/10 schedule, under which the vast majority of employees work 10- hour days, four days a week.

      The 9/80 schedule would require employees to work nine hours a day for  nine business days, then take a three-day weekend twice a month, in addition to  the customary two-day weekends. Under the 4/10 schedule, most county buildings  are closed on Fridays. Changing to 9/80 schedules would mean business-as-usual  on all weekdays.

      The budget report pointed to signs of economic recovery regionally and  statewide. According to figures, applications for building permits were up in  the last six months, along with sales and use tax receipts.

      The county Assessor-Clerk-Recorder anticipated applying the full 2  percent inflation-based increase on property owners' tax bills this year, and  property tax receipts were expected to steadily grow over the next four years,  the report stated.

      County officials were cautiously optimistic about long-term economic  expansion but worry that international crises and a lack of visionary national  policies could dampen or derail growth.