Sheriff Stan Sniff. Photo by J.P. Crumrine
In a visit to Idyllwild on Wednesday, May 2, Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff talked about budget constraints and the need to return staffing in Riverside County’s unincorporated areas to a minimum of 1 deputy per 1,000 residents.

“The strain marks [of current staffing at .9 deputies per 1,000 residents, on the way to .75] are all over the county,” said Sniff. “We’re down to response only. And even if additional budget is approved [by the board of supervisors], it will take 12 to 18 months to staff back up.” Staffing is being reduced through normal attrition said Sniff. “We’re losing [deputies] at a good rate this year,” he said.

Sniff also worried that changes in retirement benefits for newly hired deputies will make it harder to retain and expand staff.

Sniff said recently adopted changes in employee retirement benefits may make it more difficult to remain competitive with city departments in the county and departments in surrounding counties in vying for qualified personnel. Sniff called the combination of deputy attrition, potential lack of competitiveness in new hiring, and escalation of crime that is partly a factor of reduced staffing, a “perfect storm.”

But he noted it is a primary function of law enforcement to “create order out of chaos,” and that his department is still getting the job done even given present exigencies. “We shift resources to where the threat is,” he said. “All deputies are now part of patrol staffing,” a change from when some deputies had specialized functions that did not regularly put them on patrol.

The sheriff’s department has suffered a disproportionate amount of the staffing reductions in the county, Sniff believes. He said this is especially true because of how much investment of county money it takes to prepare a deputy to be fully in service. His issue with staffing in other county departments, specifically growth of staffing in some departments such as code enforcement, is based on their diminished workload as a result of the economy’s meltdown and that their recently expanded ranks were not reduced as the economy changed.

“There’s been no reengineering of the county [numbers of employees], no choices made to combine departments,” he observed. “Why haven’t there been some programs shut down? Jeff [Stone, 3rd District supervisor] is right, there’ve been too few layoffs [in county bureaucracy] with a 20 percent loss of revenue and only a 9 percent reduction in county staffing?”

AB 109, the state legislation that is putting more state prisoners into county jails not designed to accommodate inmates for extended sentences, is placing another stress on Sniff’s limited budget. Ultimately AB 109 will also affect staffing in unincorporated areas because of expanding jail staffing needs at the expense of unincorporated staffing. “County jails are already at capacity and the expansion of the Indio jail won’t make new beds available until 2017,” he said. “And we’re seeing prisoners coming in that are required to serve out nine-year sentences in our jails, jails without the facilities, like exercise yards, that state prisons have. We had one sentenced to 14 years.”

In a report given to the board of supervisors in March, Sniff showed that if the county’s jail expansion could produce the estimated necessary 4,000 additional beds by 2020, that would bring the county to a level that San Bernardino, a smaller county, will meet in 2014.

When asked how the ongoing need to increase jail staffing would affect deputy staffing and response in the unincorporated areas, Sniff was realistic, saying it would, and there was no way around that. He noted it is not possible to make further reductions in staffing in the unincorporated areas. “Any savings we got in the unincorporated areas [from staff attrition] are gone, there’s no place to go, overtime will be the only way to maintain minimum staffing and that will increase overall costs. Some decisions the board of supervisors are making are contributing to the overall cost problem.”

What does all this mean for the Idyllwild area and what can residents do to help ensure public safety? “Support Stone in prioritizing staffing up in the unincorporated,” said Sniff. “That would be helpful. Also, form community and neighborhood watch groups. Volunteer for the Mountain Community Patrol.” He suggested talking to Supervisor Stone about using some discretionary money to install public surveillance cameras in the business core. “Jeff could probably do something about this.”