The Riverside County Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office will end the current fiscal year in the black, but the heads of both agencies told the Board of Supervisors today that challenges lay ahead.
"We're under a lot of strain, and what that translates to is my inability to give you savings," Sheriff Stan Sniff told the board. "It's not going to get less expensive in corrections; it's going to get more expensive."
Sniff and District Attorney Paul Zellerbach made presentations during a budget impact hearing held to iron out the county's financial blueprint for the next fiscal year.
The sheriff said his staff had succeeded in closing a $5.5 million gap in the current fiscal year and a proposed 3 percent cut to the agency's budget to reduce countywide operating expenses in 2012-13 would be absorbed without too much difficulty. But about $5 million in red ink will be on the books next year when federal funding for one program runs out.
Sniff told CNS that he expects the board will address that overage in June.
One of his main concerns was the ongoing impact of Assembly Bill 109, part of the governor's "realignment" package approved last April and which took effect Oct. 1.
All of the state's 58 counties are struggling to adjust to the law's requirements, which stipulate that individuals convicted of crimes that fall into the non-violent, non-serious, non-sexually oriented category, and whose principal offense results in a sentence of three years or less, are to be incarcerated in county jails.
Because the legislation didn't consider the ramifications of sentences that include enhancements and lesser offenses, some inmates are serving time well in excess of what proponents argued would be the case. Locally, one offender was sentenced to 14 years in county jail, according to sheriff's officials.
In the first four months the law was operational, 570 "non's" were sentenced to jail time locally, according to a probation department report.
"This county is in a deep hole and needs additional jail beds," the sheriff said, saying AB 109 had effectively turned local detention facilities into "mini prisons," which they weren't designed to be.
"We may never get out of the hole completely, but we need to get close," Sniff said.
He reiterated that the county needs another 4,000 inmate beds -- on top of the 3,900 currently available -- to handle the increased load on correctional resources. Because the sheriff's department is under a federal court order to have a bed for every detainee, anytime full capacity is reached within the jail system, low-level detainees are freed.
Supervisor Jeff Stone suggested that until the county expands the Indio Jail in the next three years, a detention campsite be established on a "20- acre parcel," with bare amenities but sufficient security, to incarcerate misdemeanants.
But Sniff cautioned that such a site could lead to inmate lawsuits -- a warning echoed by County Counsel Pamela Walls.
According to the sheriff, by this summer, the deputy-to-residents patrol ratio in unincorporated communities will fall to .75 per thousand, down from 1.2 per thousand two years ago -- the figure originally desired by the board.
The decrease was one of the sheriff's cost reduction measures. He pointed out, however, that it comes at the same time crime is surging in some places, most notably the Coachella and San Jacinto valleys.
The sheriff's department has 838 vacancies, though most of those are non- sworn positions, according to the agency. Sniff said 100 deputies would have to be hired to bring the unincorporated patrol ratio back up to 1.2 -- at a cost of $11 million over the next two years.
In his presentation, the district attorney told the board that the D.A.'s office was managing to perform efficiently with less, but questioned for how long. According to Zellerbach, the Executive Office's proposed 3 percent cut his budget will result in a $1.76 million loss.
He said 38 positions have been slashed or left vacant since Jan. 3, 2011, helping the agency achieve a balanced budget in the current fiscal year.
The county's top prosecutor said grant funding and internal revenue sources had also contributed to a healthier bottom line, but he worried about the effects of AB 109.
"Realignment is going to increase our workload," he told the board. "It's going to be dramatic."
Zellerbach cited the new requirement that county prosecutors handle parole revocation hearings -- something previously overseen by the state -- as a major hassle. He said a $24 million state allocation to the county to defray expenses stemming from AB 109 had provided some relief. But with California's financial condition still in doubt, the D.A. wondered whether the county could look forward to future funding.
"That concerns me and my office," he said.
According to county Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser, as it stands now, the county will go into 2012-13 with a $13 million structural budget deficit, due mainly to lower property tax receipts, sales and investment income, as well as higher labor costs. The original deficit estimate was $80 million.
Up to 200 county jobs may be on the chopping block.
"We're on the fragile side of having a balanced budget," Corser said Wednesday.
The CFO and Executive Officer Larry Parrish emphasized that plenty of uncertainties are on the horizon, including how the state and federal governments manage their finances and whether an economic recovery takes root.