Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff told the Board of Supervisors today that he needs to ramp up hiring in the next fiscal year to bring the number of deputies on patrol in unincorporated communities back to a level considered reasonably safe.
"By the end of summer, some stations will only have two deputy sheriffs covering 800 to 900 square miles ... We've hit rock bottom," Sniff said during a hearing on the 2012-13 budget today. "Deputies have vaporized ... in the Coachella Valley, Idyllwild and Lake Mathews area."
The sheriff said cuts to his budget, attrition and deputy transfers to other law enforcement agencies had combined to shrink his unincorporated workforce. Unlike in the 17 cities that contract with the sheriff's department for police services, unincorporated staffing can be reduced to meet county budget priorities. Lake Elsinore and Wildomar both contract with the department for their services.
Sniff said a net increase of 50 deputies would bring the ratio back closer to 1 per 1,000. The board signaled its approval of the hiring plan, made easier thanks to a $6 million surplus the sheriff's department will be returning to the general fund, after the agency began the current fiscal year nearly $6 million in the hole.
The sheriff also sounded warnings about the county's ever-compressing jail capacity, exacerbated by Assembly Bill 109, passed last year as part of the governor's effort to reduce the state's inmate population.
The legislation requires that individuals convicted of crimes that fall into the non-violent, non-serious, non-sexually oriented category -- so-called "N3s" -- are to be incarcerated in county jails and supervised by county probation officers. They're also prosecuted for parole violations at the county level. All those functions were previously handled by the state.
Because the county is under a federal court order to provide a bed to each inmate, whenever the jail system reaches maximum capacity, sheriff's officials resort to releasing low-level offenders from custody early.
Supervisor Jeff Stone said that all federal "kickouts" should be rounded up and bused to Sacramento, then dumped on the Capitol steps to send a message.
. But the augmentation isn't enough, Sniff insisted, stating that 4,000 beds will be needed over the next few years.
Stone and Supervisor Marion Ashley raised the prospect of putting the controversial Riverside County Regional Detention Center -- better known as the "hub jail" -- back on the county's capital improvement priorities list. The proposed $300 million facility -- staunchly opposed by Palm Springs business interests due to its proximity to the eastern approach to the city -- was tabled last year over funding concerns.
"Either we keep the Whitewater site, or we ... sell it and find another site," Stone said.
District Attorney Paul Zellerbach notified the board today that his office also would be ending the current fiscal year in the black, returning $1 million to the general fund.
"The DA's office, like most county agencies, is faced with doing more with less," Zellerbach said. "We've downsized dramatically, from upper management all the way down."
County public safety agencies -- which consume 75 percent of county discretionary funds -- are facing budget cuts averaging 5 percent. Other agencies will have to absorb cuts averaging 9 percent in 2012-13, according to the Executive Office.
Zellerbach said his office has reduced the number of criminal cases filed annually from roughly 1,000 to around 600, saving money and disburdening the courts. Statewide, the court system is bracing for a $500 million hit to its budget as the governor and Legislature seek ways to pare down a $16 billion deficit.
Zellerbach said he had been informed the Corona Courthouse may have to be shuttered.
County Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser told the supervisors that one of the big unknowns going into 2012-13 is how the state's cost-cutting plans will impact localities.
As it now stands, he said, the county will go into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, with a structurally balanced budget. Realizing that goal will require $22 million in reduced spending and the use of $13 million in contingency funds.
According to the Executive Office, upwards of 200 positions will have to be slashed from county payrolls to meet the budget target. Officials noted that some pink-slipped workers will be eligible for inter-agency transfers. The county workforce is just under 17,800, down from 22,000 in 2007 -- a result of early retirements, attrition and personnel cuts.
Corser said the county will face additional hurdles in the next fiscal year if the property tax assessment roll declines another 2 or 3 percent, as expected. Assessor-Clerk-Recorder Larry Ward is slated to report the county's 2012-13 roll in July. Property taxes comprise 80 percent of discretionary income.
The board today tentatively approved total appropriations for the next fiscal year of $4.67 billion, compared to $5.1 billion in 2011-12, about a 9 percent drop. Those expenditures are covered through federal and state "pass- through" funds, county discretionary money and revenue from special districts.
The board is scheduled to approve the final budget blueprint on Sept. 11.