Next year’s county budget will grow and much of the increase will be for public safety programs. However, supervisors are beginning to raise questions and consider the effect of public safety spending on other programs.

On Monday, the board approved the county executive officer’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015-16, which begins July 1. But the continuing growth of public safety programs was debated at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday. A final budget will be approved in September.

During Tuesday’s session, County Executive Officer Jay Orr recommended an independent audit of the budgets of the Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s Office and the Probation Department. Orr acknowledged that many of the demands on these agencies were external, such as realignment and AB 47, while others were directly from the board, such as expansion of the Indio Jail, but he recommended a review of these agencies’ budgets.

“The public safety review is an audit, not a criticism,” he stressed to the supervisors. They were already sensitive to the issue after hearing from many contract cities about the escalating costs.

“The budget is driven by payroll,” stated Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff. While he was supportive of a review of costs and expenditures, he was opposed to a fully independent audit that might expose information that should not be public.

He suggested that the state attorney general or the federal Department of Justice do this analysis.

But the board voted 4-1 to pursue the audit. 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington was the sole negative vote. He also shared the other elected officials’ concerns about the sensitivity of using outside sources.

In his budget letter to the board earlier this month, Orr recommended a $3.04 billion General Fund budget. “Included in that is $738.3 million in discretionary General Fund spending, of which public protection receives 67.7 percent.”

County revenues peaked in 2006, according to Orr. Since then, during the economic recession, many county agencies have seen their budgets reduced substantially while nearly all the discretionary revenue has gone to public safety. While many uncontrollable reasons have necessitated these decisions, such as Proposition 47, jail realignment and now the upcoming expansion of the Indio Jail, Orr wrote, “I am concerned that staying on such a path long-term will perpetuate an imbalance in essential county services that will place the county at a disadvantage … It is now time to look at the wider sphere of county responsibilities and rebalance our efforts.”

Departmental budget requests are nearly $136 million more than the available General Fund monies, Orr stated, and half of this amount is from the Sheriff’s Department.

At Monday’s budget workshop, several agencies said layoffs may result from the current budget recommendations. District Attorney Michael Hestrin said 114 employees of his office might be in jeopardy, and more than 50 employees in the Animal Services Department might be let go without additional funds, according to its director, Robert Miller.

Understanding these costs and their future growth is important, not only because of their effect on other county services in the past, but also continuing forward. Despite optimism about growing revenues, Orr cautioned, “Discretionary revenues are not projected to keep pace with the costs of the board’s long-term commitments and mandates imposed on the county.”