Local News

Tuesday, Feb 04 2014 05:46 PM

County financial challenges leave departments in tough spot

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Kern Medical Center on Mt. Vernon Avenue.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County's department heads will be asked to slash spending for the coming fiscal year by as much as 5 percent, supervisors said Tuesday, in part to cover future losses from the ongoing financial crisis at Kern Medical Center.

While KMC's losses during the next five months are expected to reach $13 million, looming future cost increases to operate new jail space, build freeways and maintain pensions also are factors in the county's conservative budget plan.

KMC has disrupted the county's spending plan since September when a miscalculation of about $64 million in the county hospital's past revenue was revealed.

County budget officials have cut spending already and used reserve funds to patch portions of the hole for months.

And Tuesday, the bad news kept coming.

Supervisors learned that $6.5 million of the $100 million KMC owes the county's general fund -- Kern's core operational pool of money -- is "unspendable," or unlikely to come in before the end of the fiscal year. That means county reserves will be used to plug that financial gap, according to Assistant County Administrative Officer Nancy Lawson.

Lawson said there is hope that previously uninsured patients who have gotten insurance through the Affordable Care Act will blunt the expected $13 million loss by paying their hospital bills.

Supervisors voted to hire a company to repair KMC's troubled record keeping and billing cycle.

They also learned from Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood that the construction cost of a new 822-bed maximum/medium security wing at Lerdo Jail has been shrunk back to budget levels.

Youngblood said the cost of the jail -- of which the state of California will pay $100 million -- is now estimated at $127 million, down from $137 million.

Lawson said the design firm drawing up plans for the facility revised its work to control costs.

The long-term challenge of the new jail space, which must be opened by 2016, will be the $27 million initial operational cost, according to a report from Youngblood's office.

In the short term, some of the costs are hoped to be offset by using staff from other parts of the jail.

Supervisor Leticia Perez said that while the county's focus has been on building new rehabilitative programs that help people stay out of jail, new jail beds must be available.

Supervisors will get more detail about the county's preparations for next year's budget, and the rules department heads will need to follow in drafting it, at next Tuesday's meeting.

In other action Tuesday, supervisors appointed Shyanne Schull as the permanent Kern County Animal Services Director and directed Kern County Administrative Office staff to develop a detailed report about the operation of the four health insurance plans offered to county employees.

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