The problems presented in the approval of the fiscal year 2017-18 Riverside County budget were not unexpected. In October 2015, the Board of Supervisors recognized that revenue was growing at a much slower pace than expected costs for county services, especially public safety.

Nearly two years ago, former Executive Officer Jay Orr recommended that the county hire a consultant to review public-safety costs, which were already pressuring the overall budget.

Reserves were needed to balance the budget and the non-public safety agencies continued to absorb much of the budget reductions. At that time, Orr advised the board about increasing costs to implement the terms of a settlement from a prisoner class-action lawsuit regarding inmate health and mental health care, propositions, budget concerns from contract cities and the advent of the new Indio jail.

Within months, the county added another $15.7 million to the contract to implement the recommendations for public safety. At that time, KPMG was still working with the Sheriff’s Department, and the District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices to determine cost-effective savings.

At an earlier board meeting, Supervisor John Tavaglione (2nd District) criticized Sheriff Stan Sniff for being uncooperative with the consulting team. The supervisor alleged that information from the sheriff’s office was slow to be delivered.

“I hope the sheriff will play by the rules and make sure we get the information we need,” Tavaglioine added as he finished his comments at the February 2016 board meeting.

Despite adding money to the public safety budgets for FY 2017-18 at last week’s board meeting, the discussion around the dais was almost a repeat of two years ago.

The board is worried about the level of reserves, the slow growth of revenue, the burden of cuts on non-public safety agencies and the level of staffing for sheriff’s deputies in the unincorporated areas.

For several months, Sniff has argued that KPMG has not been able to identify major savings within his department. Staffing has been substantially reduced to adjust to the current budget conditions. For example, the ratio of deputies per 1,000 residents in the county’s unincorporated areas has fallen from 1 to 0.75 in two years.

“You’re popping champagne corks prematurely,” he told the board.

Citizens are concerned. A Sage resident spoke out stridently about the lack of coverage in her area at the July 25 session.

Nevertheless, Tavaglione repeated his view about the sheriff’s cooperation, “Quit fighting us. You’re being defensive … all we’ve been doing in the past 10 years is supporting you and your agency.”

While Sniff agreed that the board has been supportive, as a result of the staffing reductions, he pointed out that response times were increasing for most calls, other than Priority 1 calls. For example, the response time for Priority 2 calls in the unincorporated area for the Hemet Station increased from 37 minutes in June to more than 80 minutes in July, according to Sniff’s data.

Both supervisors Kevin Jeffries (1st District) and Marion Ashley (5th District) argued that public safety was critical and the board’s top priority. Jeffries voted against the package because of the additional funding for KPMG at the expense of public safety.

“There should be no room for error when it comes to delivering of public safety,” Jeffries said. While he said he disagrees with Sniff on several other issues, such as administrative staffing, “Nothing is more important than delivering public safety.”

After the meeting, when the board added $17.9 million to the department’s budget, Sniff said that would stem the cuts, but returning deputies to the street and preparing for the Indio jail opening would take more time to train new staff.

Meanwhile, the board authorized another $20.3 million for KPMG to continue to find savings, for a total of more than $40 million for the contract. The added funds were for projects such as trimming the human resources staff, vehicle fleet management, creating a county performance unit and continuing work with the public safety agencies.

The current pilot study at the sheriff’s Hemet Station was successful, according to KPMG, but the station’s staffing was already below the consultant’s recommended level, implying that implementing their recommended ideas would require more staff and costs.