Ventura County Chief Executive Officer Michael Powers told a community audience at CSU Channel Islands on Friday that the county has saved about $8 million over three years by applying business and economic principles in support of critical public services.
Those savings have enabled the county to direct needed resources to the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s office, social services and health care during challenging economic times, Powers said at a “Meet the CEO” luncheon attended by about 200 on the CSUCI campus near Camarillo.
Powers gave numerous examples of cost savings and innovations achieved by paying attention to a triangle of leadership: applying economic and business principles; maintaining and improving quality of service; and providing the county work force with the resources to do its job and be innovative.
Powers was appointed as the county’s CEO in April. He oversees about 8,000 employees and a budget of nearly $1.7 billion. In June, supervisors approved without any changes a balanced budget Powers submitted that avoided significant layoffs and cuts in services.
“In these times, it has never been more of a challenge,” he said of the budgeting process.
Among the cost-saving initiatives he cited among about 400 different programs was an effort by the Sheriff’s Department to reduce the time to analyze drugs seized from crime suspects. The department and its crime lab cut the average time from 63 days to 17 days, resulting in less jail time and a smaller prison population.
The Public Works and General Services departments collaborated to share equipment that was not in continual use, saving $500,000 a year. Consulting with Watershed Protection District employees who clear debris from water basins, it was determined that they were removing far more rocks and other obstacles than was necessary. Adjustments were made for a savings of about $600,000 a year, Powers said.
Information technology overhead was reduced by 3 percent, and the Sheriff’s Department acquired technology that enables officers to fingerprint suspects and get back results and background screening from their squad cars.
Powers said public employees often do not get enough credit for their dedication and initiative. As an example of innovation, he cited a collaboration among departments to reduce recidivism of prison inmates suffering from mental illness. Personnel from the Sheriff’s Department, Behavioral Health and Social Services identified inmates being discharged who suffered from mental illness and connected them to county services right away.
“What we saw… was that these same individuals were recidivating back into prison 82 percent of the time,” Powers said. “After the program, it was down to 37 percent.”
He also cited a pilot program for people in the county without health insurance that has cut their visits to emergency rooms in half. He said about 12,000 uninsured are enrolled in the county’s Access Coverage Enrollment program, or ACE, which is partly funded by Medicare and Medicaid. The program serves those who earn too much money to qualify for Medi-Cal but cannot afford or qualify for other coverage.
Powers said the county used economies of scale to enable it to reopen Santa Paula Memorial Hospital in 2006 after it went bankrupt and was closed for about two and a half years. By making it part of the county system, only one executive position was added to administer the 50-bed rural hospital, he said.
During the question and answer session following his presentation, the Business Times asked Powers about the county’s negotiations with labor unions over the issue of pension spiking. In April, the county froze the ability of retiring employees to sell back their unused vacation days.
Powers said he has been meeting with union representatives to search for alternatives, and he expects to bring something to the Board of Supervisors in about six weeks. He noted that Ventura County is in better shape on funding its pensions than many others because of some previous steps that it has taken.
In 1979, supervisors adopted a pension tier for new employees that does not have cost-of-living adjustments attached to it. Powers said about 30 other counties have taken similar action, which has cut back on their pension liabilities.
About eight years ago, supervisors resisted pressure to adopt a 3 percent at age 50 retirement pay formula for public safety employees, Powers said. “There was a lot of pressure to do it and the board didn’t do it,” Powers said, “and that was huge.”
About a year ago, all county employees agreed to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the retirement system to help stabilize it, he said.
“Our retirement system is about 80 percent funded, right now, and considering the market we’re in, is doing pretty well,” Powers said.