By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Waiting to hear how the state's budget crisis will affect Del Norte County is not as nerve-racking for county Auditor Christie Babich as one may think.

andquot;We took the drastic steps last year,andquot; said Babich.

County Administrator Jeannine Galatioto added: andquot;Other counties are in a panic right now. Actually, I'm thankful we did all that last year, so now additional cuts will be program cuts.andquot;

The two are referring to a hiring freeze of 27 positions and a bare-bones scraping of budgets in every county department to balance what was a $3 million deficit.

There are two possible threats to the county's budget that could send officials reeling, however.

The first threat is that Gov. Gray Davis will not continue to pay counties the promised vehicle license fees each year.

Those fees amount to about $1.5 million for next year's budget alone, a hit Galatioto said she doesn't want to contemplate.

A second threat is a proposed realignment of social services that would shift much more of the costs of running social-service programs to counties.

The state justifies the shift of costs by saying it will make up the money by raising the state sales tax and giving each county a portion of the new proceeds.

Galatioto, who just returned from a conference of counties and budget analysts, said she doesn't believe either threat will come to fruition.

andquot;I just can't believe they (the governor and the legislature) will take away the vehicle-license-fees money. Cities and counties are pressuring the Legislature to make sure we get that.

andquot;Cities will be hurt by that, too. Some cities are 60 percent funded by the VLF funds,andquot; said Galatioto.

Unlike the Del Norte County Unified School District, the county is not painting pictures of all the possible effects of Davis' budget battles with the Legislature.

andquot;We're different from the school district because we don't have yearly contracts with employees. They have to send out layoff notices by a certain date and we don't, so we're not going to panic people for no reason.

andquot;We have discussed strategies if the worst comes, but it's not something we want to panic people about,andquot; said Babich.

A state budget for the 2003-2004 fiscal year is due by law by Sept. 1, yet Babich said it is unlikely the governor and the Legislature will agree on one by then.

Galatioto estimated it will be Thanksgiving before the next budget is revealed.

Until then, she said the county can deal with the current state problems through attrition.

All department heads have also been put on notice to spend only what is absolutely necessary and save in case the bottom falls out.

andquot;I think if we lose the $1.5 million in VLF funds, that's so drastic, it's too hard to contemplate,andquot; said Galatioto.

But if the worst does happen, any programs the state holds back money from will be the first in the county to be diminished.

Namely, the Victim Witness Program, automated child support system, basic training for police officers and money to prosecute statutory-rape cases are currently threatened.

No matter how the state budget crisis trickles down to Del Norte County, it will hurt, Galatioto said.

andquot;We will be leaner,andquot; she said.

The best-case scenario will prevent new hires when other employees leave, causing duties to stack up for those who stay.

andquot;Whenever you have a reduction of employees, you have a reduction in services, because there aren't as many people to deliver the services,andquot; said Galatioto.

She noted, too, that if specific programs suffer income cuts, those programs will lose employees.

Yet, programs or departments that bring in revenue, such as through the sale of building permits or tax collection, will be protected from loss of employees.

Both Babich and Galatioto warned the budget storm will likely last into the next decade.