Board to Consider $8.6 Billion Budget for 2023-24

City News Service Pristine Villarreal

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – The Board of Supervisors will begin hearings Monday on a proposed $8.6 billion budget for the next fiscal year, which projects Riverside County government will remain on sound financial footing over the next 12 months, assuring a structurally balanced budget and a larger reserve pool.

“This budget creates the opportunity to enhance the efforts of our departments providing vital programs for our constituents countywide by increasing spending for health services, public safety, social services, public works and community services,” county CEO Jeff Van Wagenen said in an introduction to the proposed 2023-24 budget.

“While we hold optimism for what lies ahead, it is crucial to acknowledge the ongoing challenges that persist in our path,” he cautioned. “The long-term economic forecast remains unclear, and we are beginning to see local revenue growth slow and flatten. We are keenly aware of the potential ramifications stemming from the state’s projected budget deficit ($32 billion), recognizing the significant implications it may have.”

The proposed budget, which will be the subject of hearings Monday and Tuesday, is roughly 15% larger than the current year’s budget of $7.45 billion. Close to half of the appropriations are comprised of state and federal “pass- through” funds, over which the board has little to no control.

One of the standout highlights in the roughly 1,000-page budget report was the projection for reserve funds to reach $555 million by the end of 2023-24, compared to an estimated $537 million reserve pool at the close of the current fiscal year on June 30.

The build-up is owing to a policy of gradually swelling set-aside accounts as part of a “best practices” effort adopted by the board when the Great Recession hit in 2008-09. The county nearly ran out of cash at the deepest point of the trough.

Discretionary revenue is expected to top out at $1.14 billion in 2023- 24, compared to $1.01 billion estimated at the start of 2022-23, a difference of $130 million.

Public safety continues to consume the biggest share of the General Fund appropriations pie at 37%, while human services — mainly social welfare administration — follows close behind at 32%.

The board will open the hearings Monday with public safety agencies’ requests.

For the first time, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is expected to receive approval for an appropriations plan in excess of $1 billion.

Sheriff Chad Bianco is seeking $1.02 billion, though the Executive Office is recommending that the board limit the sheriff to $1.01 billion in expenditures over the course of 2023-24. The current fiscal year budget, adopted last June, totaled $942 million.

The sheriff has argued consistently for increased amounts to enable a full opening of the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, where only one- third of the available correctional space has been utilized in the last five years. He has also advocated for increased funding for law enforcement in unincorporated communities.

He recently received approval to spend over $18 million on new aircraft, including a turboprop airplane customarily used in charter flight operations. It was unclear whether consideration had been given to allocating the funds to correctional systems, in light of the sheriff’s acknowledgement that all of the county’s five jails are consistently maxed out.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin is seeking approval for a $191.1 million operating budget, but the Executive Office is recommending $188.5 million. The current fiscal year budget is $174.2 million.

The D.A.’s office has been shouldering a heavy burden, contending with multiple changes in state law that favor reducing offenses and re- sentencing some offenders, tying up prosecutors, whose caseloads currently average 100 per attorney, according to the budget report. The goal is to reduce that to 50.

Fire Chief Bill Weiser is seeking $537 million in appropriations, but the EO is recommending $457.3 million. The current year budget is $443.4 million.

Weiser said that greater expenses for personnel and an increase in demand for services have driven expenditures higher.

The proposed 2023-24 budget projects revenue growth almost across the board, including a $46 million increase in property tax receipts.

Interest earnings within the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s investment pool, containing a range of fixed instrument products, are expected to be $45 million more than earlier estimated, officials said. The returns stem directly from the Federal Reserve Bank’s ongoing hikes to the benchmark short-term lending rate — pushing interest rates higher on the county’s investments — a process that began a year ago as part of a liquidity pullback strategy to attack 40-year high inflation.

The county received almost $500 million in 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act allocations and another $480 million in 2021 American Rescue Plan Act money, and Van Wagenen acknowledged last June that just under 10% of the federal infusions were applied to “budget stabilization” in 2022-23.

The funds have been used for homeless and rental assistance programs, along with other social welfare efforts, but they’ve also been appropriated for capital improvement projects, and the CEO said the proposed budget incorporates similar applications for 2023-24.

The budget is expected to be tentatively adopted by the board before the end of the month, with formal adoption in September.

Copyright 2023, City News Service, Inc.

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