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Budgetary Beguilement

For nearly a decade, Los Angeles County’s major annual ritual was the week of daylong sessions that comprised the Hall of Administration budget hearings. We all had to plan our lives around them.

And then this year, the unimaginable happened: This year, the hearings somehow slipped past almost unnoticed. It felt as though the local course of history had suddenly changed. Ever since the regional economy tilted in 1991, the county hearings, with their testimony of slashed services and affected clienteles, were like an open-mike night at the Tragedy Club. This, of course, was because for five years, all the news about county finances that wasn’t bad was worse. Assessments and revenues fell, libraries were closed, services were cut, health and welfare programs were slashed. Stopgap remedies failed, employees were laid off, jobs went unfilled. Busloads of demonstrators disembarked at the Hall of Administration and filled its 680-seat hearing room every day. All had come to beg that their jobs or their programs be saved. You couldn’t ignore the annual hearing drama even if you wanted to. The media got plenty of advance warning, and there were further reminders once the hearings started. News releases were stuffed under our county press-office doors. Messages from human-service providers (I guess those are what our parents once called "charities") filled our answering-machine tapes. Beseeching letters and petitions crammed our mailboxes. Rising poverty and declining service levels intersected right there in the boardroom, as the five distinctly overwhelmed supervisors struggled with the consequences of Proposition 13, as deferred by a dozen years of Southland prosperity and intensified by the board’s myopic generosity toward high-level county pensions and salaries. The county then nearly went bankrupt, pulled back from the brink, and under the board’s first liberal majority in years, staggered aimlessly from the edge. For another half-decade, however, the sounds of crumbling infrastructure and threnodies of woe still filled the air at budget time. But this year the blare of protest was scarcely heard. There were wage increases for most county employees instead of cutbacks. The overall budget seemed actually sound (although there’ve been rumblings of deficit problems by the year 2000. But heck, that’s practically in the next millennium). And all the usual demonstrations on Temple Street, the boardroom crowds, the processions of speakers and the desperate calls and faxes, the papers shoved under the door, the mailings, just didn’t happen. So I for one was blindsided. When I mumbled something to a countyside friend in the middle of last week about it probably being about time to wander down to the boardroom and sit through the year’s remaining budget agony, he told me that I was already too late. The budget had all been presented and passed the previous day, he said. The entire process had been wrapped in about two hours. I scoffed. This was like hearing someone say he’d read all of War and Peace in the bathtub that morning. But this, it turned out, was exactly what had happened with the 1998-99 $13.3 billion county spending packet. It had virtually passed on consent. Unbelievably. Why? Where were all the lingering problems? A lot of the difference was the rising local economy. Then there was the county’s new, shrewd, low-profile chief administrative officer, David Janssen, who crafted the spending package and cemented the in-house politics. But then there were no layoffs, for once. And there were those long-deferred raises. All this was in contrast to last year, when the threat of a county employee strike loomed until fall. But one phantom of the past did make it to this year’s budget banquet: Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the L.A. Coalition To End Hunger and Homelessness. He came to tell the board that, as far as reaching his organization’s goals was concerned, the county was still in reverse gear. He pointed out that the county was being particularly retrograde when it came to its budgeted plan to put a five-month limit on general-relief payments to the extremely indigent. This parsimonious proposal, made in the face of the healthiest county budget in more than a decade, will deprive 12,000 people of their $221-a-month payments in the month of July. By the end of the year, it will have ridded the rolls of a full 48,000 people, Erlenbusch said. This is supposed to save the county about $60 million in annual G.R. costs. Watch that number. The problem that created this measure is the county’s very own fault. The 1998-99 plan to lop the needy is the consequence of an attempt to afflict the same county clientele three years ago. As you may remember, that’s when the county tried to patch its budget by cutting G.R. from $285 to $212 a month. I’m still not sure what that $73-per-person-per-month was supposed to do for the county. For many homeless people, however, the deviation between the two sums was the difference between a room in a Skid Row hotel and just enough cash to bait a mugger or armed robber as you slept on the street. The state court of appeals finally called a halt to this sleazoid impost in 1996, and decreed that the county had to pay the previously shortchanged recipients their lost emoluments. These arrears amounted to $60 million. Get the picture? The analogy of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" has rarely been so literally embodied. Except in this case, it might be said the county’s robbing Paul to pay Paul. That’s why, Erlenbusch said, "I was there to tell those guys to do the right thing." What’s that right thing? Well, to let the recipients’ G.R. run a full year — just as it does now — so they can have a bit more time to get on their feet, for one. Erlenbusch cited a recent Alameda County experiment that cut G.R. recipients’ time on the dole to three months. "They had to reverse the plan in nine months, due to the impact on volunteer agencies," which had to help the former recipients, who now had no personal resources. Erlenbusch says the county could get some help for its G.R. shortfall without even tapping its own newly enhanced solvency. Democratic Assemblyman Gil Cedillo has a bill — AB 2373 — that would use a small part of the state’s $4.4 billion current surplus to offset the costs of general relief. Erlenbusch urged the supervisors to offer their support for the legislation. This does not seem likely, however. If the board were to do so, it would be countering its present ideology of trying to get recipients off the G.R. rolls as fast as possible, by whatever means necessary. The ostensible object is, of course, to benefit the G.R. recipients by pushing them into gainful employment in this freshly booming economy of ours. But veteran social-outreach experts ridicule the notion that everyone on G.R. can find full employment in just 120 days. "We are talking mostly about addicted, disabled and mentally ill people here," said one expert. "You can’t often get such people to the point where they can hold jobs in just five months. Or possibly ever." Whether or not they can find work, our Board of Supervisors has convinced itself that it’s only appropriate that the individuals currently occupying the G.R. social stratum should pay out of their potential benefits for the $60 million owed to past G.R. recipients. Assuming, of course, that those past recipients can somehow be found. Erlenbusch fails to see the justice of the county’s ways, just as he doesn’t see full employment as an option for all G.R. recipients (most of whom already do some form of county service). That’s why he’s reverting to the venerable practice of staging a major rally to protest the July cutbacks. It’ll take place Tuesday, June 16, at 10 a.m., in front of the Hall of Administration. Maybe it will serve to remind us that for some people, those hardscrabble days of the mid-1990s aren’t as far away as county officials would like us to think.