Riverside County budget revisions coming, approval expected next week

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   PAUL J. YOUNG
   City News Service
RIVERSIDE (CNS) – With concerns that spending priorities may need to be revised, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors today postponed tentative adoption of a 2020-21 fiscal year spending plan that currently calls for tens of million of dollars in cuts to close a $100 million gap, preferring instead to wait a week to make changes.
“I am not ready to adopt a final budget. We need a second look,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said. “We need to dive a little deeper to see where we can restore some areas.”
The board voted 5-0 to return on June 23 and spend the latter half of the morning session debating proposals.
“We’ll have to make some hard decisions,” Supervisor Jeff Hewitt said.
“And we’ll have to find a way to pull all this together,” Jeffries added.
The board’s budget hearings got underway Monday morning, lasting all day, and the supervisors resumed taking testimony from department heads this afternoon.
The final speaker was Public Defender Steve Harmon, who asked that the proposed $4 million in cuts that the county Executive Office was seeking to impose not go forward.
“We have no fluff and frills,” Harmon told the board. “We cannot perform the mandated services to the public with these cuts. We cannot survive. It’s a catastrophe, and you will see us closing down operations.”
The most he said that he could absorb was a $1 million reduction, “but I may still need to come back to you and ask for help.”
Harmon concurred with District Attorney Mike Hestrin’s observation Monday that the justice system was facing a “tsunami of cases” because of a backlog that has mushroomed due to the court closures that were initiated at the height of the coronarvirus pandemic.
“They are going to flood us all,” he told the board. “It will take us months and months to work through them.”
Hestrin characterized the 20,000-case backlog as a “crushing caseload.”
“But we’re not complaining,” the D.A. said. “We understand the challenge we’re facing.”
Hestrin asked the board to put the D.A.’s office back at its present baseline general fund allocation of $77 million, still leaving a roughly $24 million gap that the county’s top prosecutor intends to compress through a series of adjustments, including deferring hiring and increasing use of technology to expedite workloads, which he has done every year since taking office in 2015.
However, Hestrin did request that $9 million of the budgetary hole be filled to cover expenses tied to Senate Bill 1437, the 2018 law which permits convicted murderers to file petitions for sentence reductions, as well as other obligations.
Sheriff Chad Bianco admitted his department would struggle with board-imposed cuts, but he didn’t see the number as “catastrophic.”
“The worst-case scenario is we’ll have to attrite down, but I think we’ll be fine,” he said.
Bianco’s initial request of general fund allocations was $366 million, but the Executive Office countered with a proposed $334 million allocation. It later revised that to just over $350 million, and the sheriff told the board that “we’re going to be OK and manage.”
He went on to say the structural deficit will necessitate idling the newly opened John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, except for bookings, though he held out the possibility of opening one wing of the facility, for which he doesn’t have the money to fully staff.
Bianco said he will also eliminate 160 unfilled but previously funded positions, as well as reduce the number of sworn deputies in the courts, putting them into the field. The city of Menifee’s conversion to a stand-alone police department on July 1, leaving the sheriff’s contract, will also free up deputies for patrols in unincorporated communities, he said.
The possible attrition cited by the sheriff, in which he wouldn’t replace deputies who retire or go to other agencies, would further increase savings.
The Executive Office is seeking across-the-board cuts from all agencies to contend with budget shortfalls stemming from public health shutdowns impacting the economy amid the coronavirus emergency. CEO George Johnson said the county was in a “very critical time,” and all efforts must be made to rein in expenses.
The county lost large sums of commercial tax revenue, sales tax receipts and other streams because of the public health regulations that closed businesses and drove the regional unemployment rate just above 15%.
The proposed 2020-21 budget is about $6.46 billion, compared to $6.26 billion in the current fiscal year, a difference of roughly $200 million, or 3%.
The Executive Office is calling on the board to adopt a two-phased cost-cutting plan that nearly equals the revenue plunge and prevents a widening of the county’s structural budget deficit. The first cut would amount to 5% and be implemented in the first two months of the fiscal year, while a second 5% cut would follow in the fall.
Chief Financial Officer Don Kent said that the reserve pool, which currently totals $291 million, will likely be whittled down to $196 million by the end of 2020-21 to meet ongoing needs.
The Department of Animal Services is facing dire decisions. The agency is seeking $29 million in appropriations, but the cost-containment effort would permit only $22.5 million in commitments. That could mean closures of the Blythe Animal Shelter and the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus, according to the budget report.
If the board tentatively approves the coming fiscal year budget next Tuesday, formal adoption would likely take place in September.