Riverside County's top public safety officials delivered grim news about their budgets to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday during hearings on cost-containment strategies for fiscal year 2011-12.
Sheriff Stan Sniff, District Attorney Paul Zellerbach and Fire Chief John Hawkins all reported year-end deficits and expectations for gaping holes when the new fiscal year begins July 1, offering few solutions except the prospect of job cuts and reductions in service.
Both Sniff and Zellerbach asked the board to offset planned cuts to their departments' budgets.
The Sheriff's Department, which devours the largest share of county discretionary income, is facing a 3 percent cut to its 2011-12 budget.
Sniff argued that when union-negotiated cost-of-living increases, higher insurance and inmate medical expenses, as well as pension and merit pay obligations, are factored into the total, the real cut exceeds 10 percent.
The difference between the sheriff's budget request and the county Executive Office's target to help contain spending is $81 million. However, Sniff said he believed grant funding and the incorporation of Jurupa Valley -- relieving the county of paying for law enforcement services there -- and possible union concessions would result in a shortfall closer to $35 million.
Even so, according to Sniff, if the county does not backfill that amount, he will have no alternative but to slash several hundred positions, including sworn personnel, largely in the unincorporated communities. He pointed out that emergency response times in some outlying locations are already around eight minutes.
Zellerbach told the board he anticipated ending the current fiscal year $5.5 million in the red and the proposed 5 percent cut to his budget in 2011-12 -- along with the loss of Proposition 172 public safety sales tax revenue and increased insurance premiums -- would bring the total to more than $8 million.
The D.A. laid much of the blame for the ongoing deficit on his predecessor, Rod Pacheco, who he said "never addressed'' cost overruns.
Zellerbach warned that without increased funding, he would have to consider chopping eight deputy district attorney positions -- five of them at the Indio office, and all of them, ironically, filled by Pacheco during his final week in office.
According to Zellerbach, to achieve balance, he would need to completely pull back the District Attorney's Office's participation in the county's Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement team and in the eight regional Gang Task Force units. The D.A. underscored that, thanks to the SAFE team, the county's sex offender parolee compliance rate is 97 percent -- the envy of counties across California.
Zellerbach said he is working on efficiency measures, including e-filing court documents, but that won't be enough to significantly improve his budget prospects.
Supervisors Jeff Stone and Marion Ashley both voiced strong opposition to changing SAFE team and anti-gang operations.
Hawkins said he was trying to make the fire department a "lean, mean, frugal machine'' by keeping executive positions vacant and downsizing overall staff by 23 percent over the last three years. But regardless, the department will still roll into the next fiscal year $9.9 million in the red.
The Executive Office has set a 5 percent targeted budget cut for the agency. Hawkins said with pension liabilities expanding, energy costs rising and no let-up in requests for service, he was finding it difficult to cut back anymore.
During the midyear budget report, the supervisors frowned on proposals to trim firefighter positions and shutter stations in remote locations. But Executive Officer Bill Luna said the only "fertile'' area for paring down expenses was in staffing.
He said the fire department's three-firefighter-per-engine mandate might have to be reduced to two crew members per engine in some places to achieve savings.
"There may be nothing else to do now,'' agreed board Chairman Bob Buster.
The county is approaching the final year of a three-year deficit reduction plan.
Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser said economic projections for the next two years are not encouraging, with predictions for zero growth in property tax revenue -- the county's principal source of discretionary income -- next year.
The county anticipates raking in around $592 million in discretionary funds to cover its bills in the current fiscal year -- compared to $620 million in 2009-10.
Reserves should level out at $127 million, down from $360 million in 2008, according to Corser.
He warned against drawing down reserves further to balance the budget and erase a $30 million sructrual deficit.
According to the CFO, unknown variables that could yet impact the county's balance sheet include the governor's realignment plans -- shifting more state-run services such as adult parole to counties -- and voters' possible rejection in the June election of Brown's proposal to keep tax rates elevated. --City News Service