Add funding for Sheriff and DA

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors last week approved a tentative budget for fiscal year 2018-19, which starts July 1. With some debate, no acrimony and a spirit of optimism, the board unanimously approved, with slight changes, the budget, which County Executive Officer George Johnson presented.

Expenses still exceeded the projected revenue, but Johnson expects this condition to turn around within two years.

The total Riverside County budget for next fiscal year is about $5.4 billion, but nearly 80 percent is earmarked for specific purposes, such as public assistance or health programs.

The supervisors only have full discretion over about $800 million. Supervisor Marion Ashley (5th District) was pleased to note that a decade has passed since the county’s expenditures were last at this level.

While Johnson expressed his optimism presenting the budget, he quickly noted, “the mounting external costs pressures” — existing and new — on future budgets. These included the county’s need to begin staffing the newly constructed John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, labor costs and pension costs, whose growth rate exceeds the estimated growth of revenue.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s budget ensures that reserve levels will meet the board’s goal of at least 25 percent of the budget.

A hiring freeze, imposed in January, is one of the reasons the current budget is ending the year without major overdraws. County Financial Officer Don Kent told the board that the freeze resulted in a net reduction of more than 750 positions countywide.

The breadth of the hiring freeze affected public safety. Two department heads — Sheriff Stan Sniff and District Attorney Michael Hestrin — both spoke to the board about their budget proposals and received some sympathetic responses.

Sniff began expressing his overall satisfaction with the proposed budget. “The best budget I’ve seen … I’m very comfortable with the budget,” he told the supervisors.

Nevertheless, Sniff told the board that the $10 million in savings, which his department achieved this year, came as a result of 179 fewer positions that were not filled. “This is the smallest department overall in staff than when I first took office a decade ago,” he stated.

When the board authorizes additional hiring, Sniff explained the time needed to train and prepare deputies for duty. This normally requires about a year before the new staff is ready to be deployed.

Not only are more deputies needed to begin operations at the JJB Detention Center, but Sniff frequently mentioned the need for more staffing in the unincorporated areas of the county.

These comments were positively received. While supervisors Chuck Washington (3rd District) and Kevin Jeffries (1st district) were the first to offer support, none of the supervisors suggested any further reduction in the Sheriff’s budget.

When Washington mentioned the number of calls his office receives about illegal cannabis growth in the Anza area, Sniff replied, “There is no easy answer. We can’t cover everything; there’s not enough staff. We do not have deputy sheriffs on the wall.”

Washington concurred, “I agree with Supervisor Ashley [who had recommended lifting the hiring freeze for the Sheriff’s Department]. It was never our intent to allow staffing to decline. The hiring freeze was interpreted to mean no new hiring, but you’re experiencing attrition.”

Hestrin also made a presentation in which he discussed several new initiatives affecting his workload, including the proposed new cannabis task force and an expanded number of court cases involving misdemeanor charges.

After he finished, Washington recommended adding $1.5 million to the DA’s new budget. Then the supervisors discussed how much to add to the Sheriff’s for restoring staff.

Before the final vote, one citizen from District 1 spoke to the board about her concerns about insufficient sheriff’s staffing in the unincorporated areas.

“People don’t call for help anymore because they know no one will come because no one can come,” she lamented.

In approving the proposed budget, the supervisors unanimously approved the additional $1.5 million for the DA and another $2.5 to $4 million for the Sheriff.

“We want our communities safe,” Washington said. “We want people who commit crimes to face the consequences.”