Sheriff: Next Year’s Budget Target ‘A Bridge Too Far’

RIVERSIDE – Riverside County’s sheriff and fire chief, as well as the director of the county’s medical center, will be wrestling with budget deficits that altogether could exceed $100 million in the next fiscal year, but each of the department heads told the Board of Supervisors today they will work to bring costs down to manageable levels.

”We’re doing the best we can to provide public safety day in and day out, staying within our budget restraints,” fire Chief John Hawkins told the board during a 2013-14 fiscal year budget impact hearing. ”We must make the best choice of bad alternatives … and deliver service to the public without compromise or question.”

Hawkins projected a $7.4 million deficit for the fire department by the end of 2013-14 at the current level of appropriations. He pointed to growing personnel costs, the expense of replacing aging fire trucks, rising insurance premiums and increasing demand for services as factors weighing on the agency’s balance sheet.

”Our workload has increased significantly,” Hawkins said. ”I thought it was just seasonal, but that’s not the case.”

In 2012, there was a 7 percent climb in the number of emergency medical calls countywide, he said.

According to the chief, he would be looking at relocating administrative offices to save money, as well as making the department more efficient at collecting on bills owed for emergency services.

Sheriff Stan Sniff began his portion of the impact hearing noting that his department would be ending 2012-13 with a balanced budget. But at the current level of appropriations proposed by the county Executive Office, a sizable amount of red ink would be inevitable in 2013-14.

”The CEO’s target is a bridge too far,” Sniff said.

The Executive Office estimated departmental revenue of roughly $328 million and $219 million in general fund support, against expenses totaling $602 million, leaving a gap of nearly $55 million.

”That’s too wide a span to cover. The gap needs to be closed halfway (using general fund money). The remaining half we’ll do everything we can to make up,” Sniff said. ”We may still come up short, but we’ll do everything we can to be part of the county system.”

The sheriff said that in addition to higher personnel expenses from union-negotiated contracts, state realignment enacted in 2011 was burdening his agency. He cited Assembly Bill 109, which shifted many law enforcement functions previously handled by state authorities onto counties, which now have to house some inmates who would have otherwise gone to prison.

Prisoners who received early parole to relieve overcrowding in California’s 33 penal institutions are returning to local jurisdictions and, in some cases, going back to a life of crime, straining resources, according to public safety officials.

Sniff presented federal statistics showing violent crime in the Coachella Valley’s unincorporated communities had shot up 21 percent in the last year. There were similar patterns playing out in the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley and the county’s ”southwest corridor,” according to Sniff.

”We’re getting a worse class of inmate because of AB 109,” the sheriff said.

He said deputy response times in unincorporated areas had slipped 30 percent in the last two years. The county’s deficit-control strategy included cuts of 3-5 percent imposed on the sheriff’s department, beginning in 2009. To adjust, the sheriff allowed some positions to go unfilled when personnel retired or otherwise left the department.

The board last week reaffirmed public safety as the county’s top priority and has authorized the sheriff to hire the number of recruits needed to return the unincorporated deputy-to-residents patrol ratio to 1.2 per 1,000. The ratio fell to .75 per 1,000 in 2012.

Sniff said he would get back to 1 per 1,000 by mid-2014.

In raw numbers, the Riverside County Regional Medical Center, which relies on the general fund for about 5 percent of its revenue, had the largest anticipated deficit for the next fiscal year — $65 million — some of which carried over from the $55 million deficit with which RCRMC began the current fiscal year.

However, by tapping short-term revenue streams, the hospital would start 2013-14 about $52 million in the red, RCRMC Director Doug Bagley said.

He told the board that unknown variables left question marks about 2013- 14’s finances.

According to Bagley, the hospital was anticipating ”new revenues” from the expansion of Medicaid under the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as ”Obama Care,” but not all the details had been worked out with regard to how the state will be reimbursing counties for costs.

The hospital, located in Moreno Valley, serves a large number of indigent patients whose care is often absorbed by the public. Supervisor Jeff Stone suggested charging for parking at the medical center as a means to generate ”a couple million dollars a year” to offset basic maintenance expenses.

”We need to put everything on the table … given the circumstance we’re in,” Bagley said.

Board members also suggested opening the county health plan up to municipal employees in area cities to increase revenue to the hospital. Department of Human Resources chief Barbara Olivier said the proposal will be the focus of future county business.

According to county Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser, positive signs are surfacing, including a 3.5 percent gain in property tax receipts this year.

”We are still out on the edge of keeping this budget balanced,” Corser cautioned.

He did not rule out layoffs, saying the Department of Code Enforcement may have to slash six to eight positions to stay under budget while contending with higher salary and benefits costs.

The 2013-14 fiscal year begins July 1. The board is expected to approve a tentative budget following another impact hearing in mid-June.

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