Is public safety a no. 1 priority, and does the county budget reflect that theme?

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Sheriff Stan Sniff presented to the Board of Supervisors this graph depicting the decline, rise and subsequent decline in the ratio of patrol staff in the unincorporated areas of Riverside County. By the end of summer 2017, the ratio will be 0.75 patrol deputies per 1,000 residents in the county unincorporated areas, the lowest it has been in years. Graph courtesy Riverside County Sheriff’s Department

Last week, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors adopted a preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017-18, which begins July 1. The major unresolved issue is the level of funding for the Sheriff’s Department.

During the discussion about the 2017-18 budget, Supervisor Marion Ashley, 5th District, stated, “Public safety is still the number one priority of the board, but we need to be in a position to maintain and sustain our financial position.”

At last week’s budget workshop, Sheriff Stan Sniff argued that the funding for his department is at an extreme position because he has done his best to contain spending.

“… [W]e have serious problems to face throughout our operations and difficult forced choices,” Sniff wrote the county executive officer in April. The sheriff’s share of the county’s discretionary funds has remained about level for six years, he noted.

For example, a year ago, the supervisors approved a budget for the sheriff that had costs exceeding expected funding by almost $40 million. The Sheriff’s Department will end fiscal year 2016-17 on target.

These savings have created a substantial effect on the department’s operations. Through the end of May, nearly 230 positions have been unfilled as officers have retired or left.

The consequence is that staffing in the unincorporated areas has suffered. Most cities within the county contract for sheriff’s services. Since they pay for the services, the staffing must be provided. If the sheriff must make reductions, these come from the areas where he has control, such as jails and unincorporated areas.

In 2008-09, the sheriff had 1.2 patrol deputies per 1,000 people in the unincorporated areas. After declining to 0.75 patrol staffing in 2012, this ratio began to increase. Early in fiscal year 2016-17, the ratio was 1.04 deputies per 1,000 residents but is now re-approaching the 0.75 level.

Sniff told the supervisors that in some stations, staffing is already at the minimum of two deputies per shift. It is unsafe to reduce this level. He recommended that the supervisors add $50 million to his budget. CEO George Johnson has recommended a $10 million addition.

The executive’s office is working with KPMG, a consulting firm, to find areas where budget savings can be made and customer service improved. Currently, KPMG and the sheriff are pilot testing some ideas at the Hemet station.

While KPMG is optimistic about the potential results, the Sheriff’s Department is puzzled. Since it is already operating a “barebones” level, the savings potential is minimal.

For example, while discussing the pilot before testing it, KPMG assumed the Hemet station had 27 deputies and KPMG was hoping the test would demonstrate that 23 could accomplish the same level of service. However, the current reductions have already cut the station’s staffing to 18.

“We have saved all that money already,” Sniff explained to the board. The department has already cut or withdrawn staffing from several task forces, such as the Gang Task Force and Narcotics.

The District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices will soon start some pilot tests where work assignments will be moved from attorneys to paralegals and some of their work assigned to clerical staff.

“It’s an opportunity to lower costs by staffing workload to legal investigators and support staff,” Chief Financial Officer Paul McDonald said.

Ashley stressed that the county could not afford to restore the full $50 million that Sniff argued was needed. He did recommend that at the July 25 budget review the board restore the 6.5-percent cut, which was $17.9 million, and review the progress of the pilot test and the new jail staffing requirement the end of the first quarter.

“If we need it, we’ve got to restore it, we’ve got to keep the county safe and can’t allow ourselves to backslide,” he urged his colleagues.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries concurred: “We cannot jeopardize the first mission of government, which is public safety. We have to prepare to re-consider these funds.”

Although there was some concern that the Sheriff’s Department was not completely supporting KPMG’s proposals, Sniff concluded with his promise that “in the end, whatever the board decides we will execute smoothly.”

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