The District Attorney's Office will be operating in the black, and the sheriff's and fire departments will have much smaller deficits going into the next fiscal year, under budget plans tentatively approved today by Riverside County supervisors.
In the final budget impact hearing before the start of the 2011-12 fiscal cycle, the board agreed to supply additional funds to bolster each public safety agency, reducing the likelihood of major job cuts.
"I think we can skate through without doing layoffs,'' said Sheriff Stan Sniff. "We're going to be on the margin. But we see a patch of blue out there we can work through.''
The county's deficit-reduction plan calls for across-the-board spending cuts, with some departments' general fund appropriations shrinking 25 percent to plug a drain on county reserves.
The Executive Office is holding the Sheriff's Department to a $224.7 million spending threshold in 2011-12. That's roughly $11.4 million -- or 5 percent -- below the current-year allocation of discretionary revenue.
In April, Sniff estimated the effect of the county cut, plus higher operational costs in the jails and increased personnel costs would put him $60 million in the red.
However, that amount was chopped to $17 million after accounting for savings from the county's imposition of a new contract on the deputies' union, attrition, the new city of Jurupa Valley's law enforcement contract and other changes.
To further trim the sheriff's overage, the board indicated today it would appropriate $13.5 million in Proposition 172 safety sales tax revenue.
The funds come from a total $22 million the county anticipates receiving this year and next.
The sheriff doubted any of the 500 planned layoffs would be necessary as a result, though he did say attrition would continue, with positions not being filled and patrols decreasing in the unincorporated communities.
Counting this year's lingering shortfall, the Sheriff's Department will be operating about $7 million in the red in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
District Attorney Paul Zellerbach told the board he would have to initiate layoffs and end his office's participation in anti-gang and sexual predator task forces without increased funding.
Zellerbach blamed his $5.1 million in current-year cost overruns -- which will have to be carried over -- on his predecessor, whom the former judge said hired staff without the funds to pay for it.
The $58.6 million in general fund appropriations proposed for the agency in the next fiscal year is about $4 million lower than the current one.
Zellerbach argued that the county was facing "a perfect storm'' of negative impacts from the state, with the governor's push for "realignment'' translating to a major commitment of local public safety resources.
Under the realignment plan, the county will be responsible for imprisoning any felon sentenced to less than three years, and all parole violators will be prosecuted at the local level, without any involvement by the state Board of Parole.
"All of this has a ripple effect,'' the county's top prosecutor said. "It scares and concerns me.''
The board indicated it would drop the 6 percent cut intended for the D.A.'s office and allocate roughly $3.8 million in Proposition 172 funds for operations there. With another $1.36 million in savings from county-imposed benefits cuts on D.A.'s office investigators, the agency should begin the next fiscal year with a balanced budget.
Fire Chief John Hawkins did not anticipate significant layoffs to meet his department's budget target, though he couldn't rule them out.
The agency was originally girding for a $9.9 million loss based on a 5 percent cut in general fund appropriations. But with the board's tentative approval of a $1.1 million Proposition 172 distribution, a $2.4 million commitment of reserves and pension benefits concessions by the firefighters' union, the deficit is now closer to $3 million.
Hawkins said staffing levels at fire stations in 15 unincorporated communities, including Glen Oaks, French Valley, Lake Riverside and Nuevo, would be lower to stay within budget. However, plans to shutter fire stations in Blythe, El Cariso, Oasis and Poppet Flats were no longer on the table.
"These are tough times,'' the chief said. "But I think we can find success and continue to balance the public safety needs of Riverside County with funding needs.''
According to the Executive Office, the aggregate 2011-12 county budget will be around $4.78 billion, compared to $4.73 billion in the current year.
Discretionary revenue -- more than half of which comes from property tax receipts -- is expected to slip about $10 million year-over-year to $582 million.
Budget documents indicated $32 million in reserves would be tapped to meet some funding needs, compressing the reserve pool to $148.2 million.
The county's reserves have been sliced in half over the last three years to cover shortfalls triggered by the downward spiraling economy. The Inland Empire ranks among the top 10 regions nationally in foreclosure activity.
The fiscal blueprint pieced together today will remain a working product through Sept. 13, when the budget will be formally adopted, according to the Executive Office. --City News Service