LA County Board Reviews 2.5 Billion Recommended Budget

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors began its formal review of a proposed $32.5 billion county budget this week that increases spending to fight homelessness and mental illness, among other priorities.

The budget presented by county Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai is the result of input from individual supervisors and their deputies, as well as county department heads, and Hamai told the board she believes the spending proposal “reflects the county’s values and vision.”

Each of the five supervisors praised the process and the outcome, with some also making early bids for additional dollars for particular programs.

Supervisor Janice Hahn noted that the budget has grown more than eight-fold in 40 years, from the time when her father, Kenneth Hahn, was on the board.

“This year’s budget is a progressive one,” Hahn said. “Our county is an economic powerhouse.”

In fact, the budget has more than doubled even in the last 20 years.

Hamai said that while the “big three” categories of spending remain health, public safety and public assistance, health costs have nearly tripled during that time period and now represent nearly one-third of all spending.

Hahn highlighted additional funding in the proposal for mental health needs.

“We are dedicating resources to the district attorney’s new Mental Health Division to expand alternative sentencing and keep individuals with serious mental illness out of jail and into treatment,” Hahn said in a statement. “We are being proactive in preventing school shootings by intervening at the first sign of trouble by expanding the School Threat Assessment Response Team. We are recognizing that jail and effective mental health care do not mix — and we are moving forward with our bold plan to replace the decrepit Men’s Central Jail with a Mental Health Treatment Center.”

More than 180 new positions are budgeted to help support mental health services, representing the vast majority of new jobs countywide.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that makes sense given the issues facing the county and additional money available under the state’s Mental Health Services Act.

“Every time we identify some social issue or problem, the answer is mental health,” Kuehl said. “People have to get their heads right, we have to help them get their heads right and then they will be able to get a job, be well, not be homeless.”

The budget includes $424 million to combat and prevent homelessness — made possible by the quarter-cent sales tax imposed by Measure H.

“We are doing more than we have ever done,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said.

The year-over-year increase in spending directly attributed to homelessness is less than 5 percent. However, it is not yet clear whether all of last year’s funding was put to work, as the majority of services are provided by third parties who then bill the county for reimbursement.

Other spending priorities for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which begins July 1, include a focus on arts and recreation.

“Because voters approved Measure A, the park measure, back in 2016, we’ll now have $74 million to go toward improving our neighborhood parks and areas that we consider parks poor,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis.

The county also plans to introduce a Department of Arts and Culture July 1.

The budget is presented in two one-inch-thick bound books and the line items range from spending on nuts-and-bolts services like road maintenance and repair — $58 million — to programming designed to transform children’s lives — like $50 million in spending to support adoption and foster families.

A youth jobs program that aims to help 10,000 kids next year is budgeted at $17.9 million.

As the county phases out the use of pepper spray in juvenile detention facilities, the budget also covers the installation of cameras in Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall and the Dorothy Kirby Center. Body-worn cameras for sheriff’s deputies and spending to improve patient care for jail inmates are also included.

A total of $28 million is set aside for a new voting system, set to be rolled out for the 2020 general election.

Roughly $1 billion is earmarked for capital projects, including at least $40 million for the Men’s Central Jail replacement project, which has been approved at $2.2 billion.

There are still big, multi-year projects deferred to future years, including upgrades to technology systems and stormwater runoff projects.

The economic outlook remains strong for the county, with preliminary estimates calling for increases in property tax rolls of more than 5.7 percent and statewide sales tax of 2 percent. However, threats to the county’s balanced budget include slower future growth and $2.8 trillion in cuts to federal programs over 10 years proposed by the Trump administration.

Roughly 17 percent of the total budget is federally funded and another 23 percent comes from the state.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger highlighted the reliance on federal dollars in talking about the increased commitment to pay out county welfare dollars.

“We have to be aggressive from a humane standpoint but also from a fiscal standpoint,” Barger said, reminding staffers they should be pushing to convert residents on county general relief to federal welfare benefits.

Other risks to the county’s ability to maintain a balanced budget include the cost of retirement benefits. The county’s retirement costs could increase significantly in future years because of lower rates of return on investment and the need to pre-fund some benefits.

To prepare for future challenges, Hamai recommended adding $117 million to the county’s Rainy Day Fund over the next three years.

Public hearings on the budget — which typically draw hundreds of residents, union members and community organizations lobbying for particular causes — will be held May 15.