Riverside County Sheriff, DA vow to deal with budget woes without workforce reductions

Sheriff Chad Bianco leads a raid on illegal cannabis grows in Anza April 20, 2019, confiscating “tons of illegal marijuana.” Valley News/Courtesy photo

City News Service

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco and District Attorney Mike Hestrin said today their respective agencies will be able to function despite austerity measures intended to contain tens of millions of dollars in red ink, and there are no plans to implement layoffs.

“The worst-case scenario is we’ll have to attrite down, but I think we’ll be fine,” Bianco told the Board of Supervisors during the first hearing on the proposed 2020-21 fiscal year budget. “The current budget recommendation is not catastrophic for our department.”

The Executive Office is seeking across-the-board cuts from all agencies to contend with budget shortfalls stemming from public health shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic. CEO George Johnson said the county was in a “very critical time,” and with revenue losses anticipated to run about $100 million between the current fiscal year and the next one, all efforts must be made to rein in expenses.

“There’s ongoing uncertainty about what happens with state and federal funding sources,” Johnson said. “The state has not even completed its budget yet.”

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 public safety component of the budget consumes the largest share of the county’s discretionary revenue, and all agencies are being asked to do more with less.

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.”

However, he said 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. If that doesn’t happen, detainees booked in the Coachella Valley would be processed at the JJBDC and then housed at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.

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.

Hestrin asked the board to put the D.A.’s office back at its present baseline general fund allocation of $77 million, still leaving him with 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.

The D.A. expressed intense concern about the “tsunami” of cases that have collected during the courts’ partial shutdowns for COVID-19 mitigation. Hestrin estimated a net backlog of 20,104 felony and misdemeanor cases that were postponed over the last three months.

“It’s a crushing caseload,” he said. “But we’re not complaining. We’ll work through these cases. We understand the challenge we’re facing.”

The Department of Probation had one of the few revenue requests that was closely in line with the Executive Office’s wishes, with $146 million in aggregate outlays sought, compared to $141.8 recommended by the EO. Chief Probation Officer Ron Miller told the board his actual deficit will round out to roughly $8 million because of losses in state funding, on which the department relies heavily.

“We will have to de-fund all of our vacant positions, which takes us to the bone,” he said. “I had planned on a balanced budget, so this is a little challenging for us.”

About 100 designated but unfunded positions may be eliminated.

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 whittle down to $196 million by the end of 2020-21 to meet ongoing needs.

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 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.

Budget hearings are slated to resume Tuesday. The board is expected to tentatively approve the next fiscal year budget on June 30. Formal adoption of the budget is slated for early September.