Tensions over budget-cutting plans boiled over today during a Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting, leading to harsh words between the chairman and vice chairman regarding treatment of the sheriff.
In its final budget workshop before drafting of the 2011-12 fiscal year blueprint begins, the board scrutinized proposals by fire Chief John Hawkins and Sheriff Stan Sniff on how they intend to roll back spending to reduce red ink and meet budgetary targets set by the Executive Office.
Both department heads said layoffs would be needed, as well as moves toward consolidation. Sniff said the $35 million to $81 million shortfall he's facing in 2011- 12 would make cutting some 300 patrol and correctional deputies highly likely.
According to the sheriff, the "traumatic amputations'' to staffing would also entail downsizing -- if not completely idling -- the sheriff's Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement team and gang task forces.
Closure of the Blythe jail and older units within the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning is on the table, as well as closure of the sheriff's Coachella Valley coroner's office.
Sniff also discussed possibly merging the Lake Elsinore, Hemet and Cabazon stations.
"The thing is, we'll have to lose some weight,'' the sheriff said.
Board Chairman Bob Buster challenged the cost-cutting plans, arguing that Sniff was not "piercing'' the support ranks and identifying managerial positions that could be eliminated, focusing only on front-line personnel.
"We've got to get behind the scenes,'' Buster said. "Yours is the largest department, with the greatest support staff, and we're being told over and over again that nothing can be done. Why can't you reduce the backup? Why are other departments able to meet their service levels here and still meet their budget and you can't?''
Sniff reminded Buster of the board's early 2010 decision to push ahead with opening new jail pods at the Smith jail, requiring the sheriff to increase staffing by 140 positions. That hiring binge, coupled with Proposition 172 public safety sales tax losses and cost-of-living and insurance increases for sheriff's personnel, put his department in a financially unsound position.
Buster said Sniff was making up excuses and not following the same cost-cutting model laid out by Hawkins, at which point Supervisor John Tavaglione chided Buster for "unprofessional'' conduct and "cross-examining'' the sheriff.
"I'm very disappointed in your lack of leadership and trying to grandstand because you have an election coming up,'' the vice chairman said.
Buster replied that Tavaglione had not "been forceful'' in advocating financially prudent reforms and that he felt duty-bound to ask questions that "the public wants to hear.''
"Perhaps you should come out with a counter-proposal on how to balance the budget and prevent services from being cut,'' Buster said. "All we hear (from the sheriff) are plausible excuses, but we never get an answer ... (about) what the real workload is. The sheriff's department has never met its budgetary target.''
Supervisor Jeff Stone expressed dismay that so many "ground troops'' might be eliminated from the sheriff's payroll, but admitted that the board had foisted "impossible expectations'' onto the sheriff in the last two budget cycles.
"We were overzealous in our desire to keep public safety on the front burner, not realizing the economy would continue to slide,'' the supervisor said. He said revenue coming from the new city of Jurupa Valley, which is expected to contract with the sheriff's department for law enforcement services, along with pension savings might help offset costs.
Both Stone and Supervisor Marion Ashley said they felt certain that "creative'' means could be used to get the sheriff closer to a balanced budget without what Stone referred to as a "wholesale destruction'' of the agency.
"This is the safest this county has ever been,'' Ashley said.
The fire chief's $9.9 million deficit will require slashing roughly two dozen positions, though none are expected to be firefighters.
Hawkins outlined a plan to reduce the department's 2011-12 deficit to $2.2 million by closing a station in Blythe, contracting with Corona fire to serve the El Cerrito area, moving personnel out of Moreno Valley and reducing the department's presence in Poppet Flats and Oasis.
The chief also said he will "put a very restrictive limit'' on the amount of vehicle usage devoted to hazardous vegetation inspections in order to cut fuel costs.
Hawkins strongly opposed the idea of dropping engine crews from three to two, though Supervisor John Benoit cited examples of other cities and counties doing it to save money.
Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser said economic projections for the next two years are not encouraging, with predictions for zero growth in county property tax revenue in 2011-12.
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 $125 million, down from $360 million in 2008, according to Corser.
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 Jerry Brown's proposal to keep tax rates elevated as part of the state's attempt to slash a $26 billion deficit. --City News Service