Although Riverside County Executive Jay Orr added $6 million to the 2016-17 budget for the District Attorney’s office, DA Mike Hestrin, told the Board of Supervisors that was not enough funding. While he recommended another $12 million, half of that —$6 million— would enable him to avoid service reductions and staff layoffs.
He argued that he has limited options to meet the budget restrictions being set for his office. Consequently, the longer he waits to initiate layoffs, the more money will be needed to still meet his budget limits.
Except for 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington, Hestrin encountered little sympathy from the dais. And several supervisors urged him to be more patient before laying off any staff.
County Finance Director Paul McDonnell told the board he thought the shortfall might be addressed over time with little or no layoffs, and less than the $12 million Hestrin was requesting.
Affecting the discussion with the DA’s office has been the issue of how public-safety funding has fared compared to other county-program funding during the past several years.
This year, both Orr and the board were less supportive of public-safety program increases. Orr stressed that since the recession started, general government programs had incurred funding reductions of 17.5 percent and health and human service programs have been reduced 39.4 percent. During the same period, public-safety programs have grown 30 percent.
“It’s time for everyone to pull together,” Orr said.
Hestrin argued that his budget problems began with how his predecessor handled the budget. “The issue of the DA’s budget is … I inherited a structural deficit of $18.7 million. I can’t remedy it by belt tightening or other discretionary spending cuts.” Further, Hestrin told the board that salary costs were growing because of its decisions on retirement costs versus salaries.
Since he was elected DA in 2014, Hestrin has reduced the office’s staffing from more than 800 to 705, including a 27-position decrease last year.
“With no additional funding and not beginning layoffs is a position [that is] untenable and unsustainable,” he stated.
Both Chair John Benoit (4th District) and Supv. John Tavaglione (2nd District) questioned Hestrin’s hiring staff this spring if he knew potential layoffs were on the horizon.
“I don’t believe there is support on the board at this time,” Benoit advised the DA, who replied, “If you don’t find additional money, we bust our appropriations.”
Washington urged his colleagues to specifically address Hestrin’s request for an answer rather than delaying it until the options were limited and harsher. While Supv. Marion Ashley (5th District) also urged a rapid resolution, he stressed that “… we’re not going into reserves for anyone.”
Eventually, the officials agreed to have a meeting with Orr, Benoit and Hestrin before Labor Day.
Tavaglione was more direct about the specific issue and its relationship to the overall financial situation. “Public safety has not been getting what it has gotten in the past. … That’s unfortunate, but damn it, we’ve been really good to public safety for 22 years. Unfortunately, we can’t do it this time.
“It is time for people to tighten the belt,” he emphasized. “The sheriff thankfully has done that. Mr. Hestrin, it is time for you to do that. I will not support more than the $6 million we’ve given you.”
Tuesday’s board meeting ended with the board approving the budget recommendations from Orr and agreeing to future meetings with the DA and his staff. However, the issue was not put to rest.
On Wednesday, Hestrin notified local police agencies that his office would no longer review search-warrant requests after hours.
On Thursday, the county issued a press release in which Benoit said, “It is not an unexpected move from a first-term DA who hasn’t managed through financial adversity before and had to look for efficiencies. I hope he will take a breath, and that this challenge helps him become a strong manager.”
Later, he described Hestrin’s actions as similar to the National Park Service threatening to close the Washington Monument.
Hestrin responded, “The news release issued on July 28, 2016, by the county once again highlights the lack of communication between the Executive Office and the Board of Supervisors, as well as a misunderstanding of what our office does.”
With projected costs exceeding his budget allocation, Hestrin defended his action. “To contain overtime costs which will help stave off layoffs, the District Attorney’s office restricted search-warrant reviews to office hours … These cuts are projected to save more than $500,000. When we are looking at not being able to make payroll, we cannot justify providing courtesy prosecution services. Search-warrant reviews are not legally mandated and are not provided by all county DA’s offices.”
“It appears he prefers political pressure but I hope he will reconsider his announcement and work with the county to find more appropriate, long-term savings that won’t harm his mission or the community,” Benoit said in the press release.