By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO, City News Service
Los Angeles County's enviable revenue gains boosted its credit rating and funded pay increases for county workers for the first time in nearly five years in 2013, but the county came under harsh criticism over violence in county jails and dealt with a late-year strike by social workers.
After five years of deficits -- reaching nearly a half-billion dollars in 2010-11 -- and cuts averaging 15 percent across all departments, Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka presented a $25.3 billion balanced budget. Increasing property and sales tax revenues allowed the county to begin to restore its "rainy day" and other reserve funds, even as other municipalities faced bankruptcy.
"In some cities, they can't even fill the potholes and pave the streets," Supervisor Don Knabe said.
Rating agency Standard & Poor's upgraded Los Angeles County's long-term credit rating from AA to AA-plus, the highest rating it has ever assigned to the county.
Employees were given a 6 percent raise, phased in between contract signing and April 2015. But the financial bounty did not prevent one union, Service Employees International Union Local 721, from calling a strike that lasted six days before officials returned to the bargaining table to hammer out a deal.
Negotiations included such non-economic issues as social worker caseloads, cited as too high for employees to effectively juggle.
The widely reported fatal beating of Gabriel Fernandez -- an 8-year-old Palmdale boy allegedly tortured by his mother's boyfriend despite multiple reports of abuse to the county Department of Children and Family Services -- was a stark example of the need for changes. The county moved to fire four employees in the wake of the boy's death.
DCFS Director Philip Browning said new hires would result in lower caseloads come January and pointed to more intensive training and streamlined policies as critical changes. But a commission on child welfare appointed by the board has yet to publish its findings.
DCFS hardly stood alone in its troubles. Eighteen current and former sheriff's deputies were indicted in a federal probe of alleged abuse of jail inmates and visitors. The charges include allegations that deputies altered records in an attempt to hide a jailed FBI informant from his federal contacts.
Those indictments followed a raft of reforms recommended by the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, millions of dollars in legal settlements paid on behalf of the Sheriff's Department and the establishment of an Office of Inspector General to provide a check on the department.
Sheriff Lee Baca hired Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald to oversee the jail system, and several senior leaders, including Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, retired, resigned or otherwise left the department.
Jail overcrowding was another issue dogging the department, due, in part, to state law that shifts responsibility for thousands of non-violent, non- serious, non-sexual offenders to county jails rather than state prisons.
The board is working with an outside consultant to develop a plan for construction and modernization of county jail space that could cost up to $1.6 billion, while civil rights advocates urged the supervisors to consider alternatives to more cells, like pretrial release, electronic monitoring and more community resources to reduce recidivism.
Health-care reform offered a win for the county this year, as its Department of Health Services enrolled roughly 290,000 of the county's neediest residents in an expanded Medi-Cal program taking effect Jan. 1.
DHS Director Dr. Mitchell Katz also announced that he expects the department to run a surplus of $11.5 million for the year ending June 30, 2014, and more than $150 million for the following year.
As a new year dawns, the Board of Supervisors is preparing for dramatic change. Gloria Molina, the first Latino member of the board, and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will both give up their seats due to term limits. It will be the first significant turnover of the board in years, as incumbents are rarely challenged. Molina was first elected in 1991 and Yaroslavsky will have represented the 3rd District for 20 years when he cedes his spot.
Both races have already attracted political heavyweights. Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has garnered the backing of SEIU Local 721 and seems to have little competition in her bid to succeed Molina.
The race for Yaroslavsky's seat is likely to be much more competitive. Former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl and West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran have declared their candidacy, while former Los Angeles Controller and failed mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel and former Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver are each mulling a run.
Another two board seats will turn over in 2016, when Knabe and the board's longest-serving member, Supervisor Michael Antonovich, are termed out.
That will leave only one member of this year's board, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, still in office, assuming he wins re-election in 2016.