Layoffs will be needed to balance the Riverside County budget for fiscal year 2012-13, which starts July 1. Interim County Executive Larry Parish presented preliminary budget information to the board in two days of hearings last week.
During the sessions, the board of supervisors heard from public safety department heads, including Sheriff Stan Sniff, District Attorney Paul Zellerbach and County Fire Chief John Hawkins.
Parish was blunt and grim. “While it appears that the economy is improving, the revenue needed to sustain a full fiscal recovery of our county’s budget is not expected for several years,” he said in his letter to the supervisors.
County departments have already been ordered to prepare for the next fiscal year and to plan for cuts, especially in nonpublic safety agencies. To adjust for lower revenue, Parish said he already expects at least 196 employees will need to be let go. More than half will be in departments such as facilities management, which serve operational units. Code Enforcement is considering consolidating its seven offices into five.
But Third District Supervisor Jeff Stone expressed concern that the county continues to push its budget problems into the future. He asked Parish and his staff to consider further staff reductions in order to begin rebuilding the county’s reserves, which have collapsed in the past few years as more of these funds are used to sustain operations.
“While none of us on the dais like to talk about layoffs, personnel is the largest expense we have,” Stone said. “Keeping employees translates into maintaining serious struggles with the budget that ... allow public safety levels to dwindle.
“Our reserves are at a very dangerous level, we live in an area with natural disaster,” he continued. “We have a very small security blanket if we want cash fast.”
Stone mentioned the decline in the deputy sheriff ratio in the unincorporated areas as well as the potential termination by Idyllwild Fire of its ambulance service to Pine Cove and beyond as examples of demands on the county’s public safety network.
“Our expenditures cannot exceed revenues,” Stone stressed. “We’re still in the middle of economic crisis and we require bold decisions.” Parish is estimating that county revenues will decline to $572 million, $12 million less than 2011-12.
Sheriff Stan Sniff appeared before the Board on Thursday, March 29. His good news was that the projected $5.5 million deficit for his department this fiscal year has been eliminated and the department may end the year with a surplus.
A significant part of this savings was reducing the number of deputies in the unincorporated areas. As of March 30, Sniff said the current deputy ratio per 1,000 residents had fallen to 0.9 and would likely achieve the 0.75 deputies per 1,000 goal by July.
He noted 2011 crime statistics showed significant increases throughout the county, and especially in Indio and Hemet areas. Crime at the Hemet Station was up 24 percent in 2011, second to Palm Desert. Rape, gun-related crimes and grand theft auto were all up substantially. Sniff warned the board that response times are also increasing.
Community policing, being seen and available in local communities, is disappearing, Sniff said.
“Our ability to be proactive is quite literally going backward,” he told the board. By summer, basically all we can do is respond to calls.”
Consequently, Sniff is recommending rebuilding deputy staffing for the unincorporated areas beginning next year. He said it was important for the public and the communities the Sheriff’s Department serves to reverse this direction. He recommended one hundred new deputies be hired for fiscal 2013-14.
“Unincorporated staffing must regain its prior footing and re-institute [community policing],” he told the board. “We’ll hit bottom this summer. If we’re going to go back [to greater staffing], it’ll take 12 to 18 months.”
Because of time and intensity of requirements, Sniff advised the board that it would take about a year to begin replacing staff. So he recommended an additional $4 million for 2012-13 and then $11 million in future years.
But the future continues to be bleak for the Sheriff’s Department. The state’s realignment of prisoners to county jails continues to demand resources, although Probation Chief Alan Crogan estimated Riverside County would receive $53 million in 2012-13 for this work, compared to $21.4 this year for the first nine months of the fiscal year after realignment began.
Shifting initial responsibility for cellular 911 calls from the California Highway Patrol directly to the Sheriff’s dispatch is also being considered. Riverside County is the only large Southern California county that does not directly receive cellular 911 calls. Nearly three-quarters of these calls get rerouted to the county sheriff, according to Sniff.
Sniff proposed a three-year plan to the board to assume this function. Phased over three years, its total cost will be about $1.2 million.
County Fire Department Budget
County Fire Chief John Hawkins presented his proposed 2012-13 budget to the board on Wednesday, March 28. Currently he needs $10.2 million to be in balance and he presented a plan that would save $3.7 million.
While Hawkins did recommend closing two county fire stations, neither is on the Hill. He also recommended eliminating administrative positions including the Health and Safety Battalion Chief and several captains.