Orange County budget officials today unveiled a $5.4 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year, about a 1 percent increase over last year.
Officials do not envision any major service cuts or layoffs despite owing the state about $148 million from a past tax dispute. The county has six years to pay off the tax debt with the bill only being $5 million in the coming fiscal year. The county's budget officials, however, set aside the money in dispute before it was resolved so they are confident it can be paid off without putting a dent into services.
This fiscal year's budget projects spending $60.8 million more than the current fiscal year.
"To me, the news in the budget is the county being able to spend money and invest in programs such as Laura's Law," said Orange County Chief Financial Officer Frank Kim. "Laura's Law" is a state law that enables judges to order mentally ill people to get outpatient treatment.
Since the economic collapse of 2008, most of the budget discussions have revolved around how many layoffs and service cuts would be needed to get by as well as how much the county would have to dip into its reserves to keep necessary programs running.
By contrast, the coming fiscal year's budget has set aside $3.6 million for the operation of potential year-round emergency homeless shelters.
"It's the county getting back to what it normally does, which is take care of its facilities, take care of its citizens, and on a small programs basis be able to invest in some new initiatives that might help," Kim said.
County officials expect a 2 percent growth in property taxes and a 3 percent increase in public safety sales tax revenue from Prop. 172. The sheriff receives 80 percent of the Prop. 172 money with the District Attorney getting the rest.
The Affordable Care Act has even led the county to add 144 new positions, according to Orange County Budget Director Michelle Aguirre.
The county expects to maintain the 18,035 positions in this fiscal year, while adding nine more. Three are for a new District Attorney-led social services fraud unit and five positions to implement Laura's Law.
Supervisor John Moorlach requested a discussion on Laura's Law at Tuesday's board meeting. The in-custody death of transient Kelly Thomas in Fullerton led to a push for the program with some proponents arguing it may have saved the homeless man's life.
The obstacle in the past to implementing a local version of Laura's Law was funding, Moorlach said. The state, however, has come up with some funding for it.
"Now we have the revenues to at least cover the healthcare costs," Moorlach said.
Opponents argue that the law could force some unwilling commitments to mental health institutions.
"There are strong arguments on both ides whether or not Laura's Law will work," Moorlach said. "These parents (of the mentally ill) are looking for another tool in the tool box."
There's still due process and a mental health professional would have to testify in court that a patient needs to be committed, but the individual in question can still refuse the treatment, Moorlach said.
"But it provides a 72-hour hold," Moorlach said. "They want to use that time to in a sense persuade the person to go into the program."
--City News Service