Split Board of Supervisors approve tentative spending plan for coming fiscal year

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Paul Young
City News Service

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – A divided Board of Supervisors Tuesday tentatively approved a $6.46 billion budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, restoring some appropriations to Riverside County public safety agencies that had been in line for reductions.

The 3-2 vote in favor of the spending plan, which must be formally ratified in September, came after a roughly 90-minute debate that appeared to be trending toward a stalemate until Supervisors Jeff Hewitt, Karen Spiegel and Kevin Jeffries got behind an option that had been presented by the Executive Office at the outset of the budget hearing, but which no one initially wanted to embrace.

Supervisors Manuel Perez and Chuck Washington opposed the motion based on their desire for further adjustments.

“We’re basically going to have to reduce our reserves,” county CEO George Johnson told the board, regarding the only means of dealing with a roughly $80 million structural budget deficit anticipated in 2020-21.

Jeffries was unhappy with the idea of eating up the $291 million reserve pool, telling his colleagues, “We need to keep services without going further into debt.”

Washington countered that the county had “always been in a structural budget deficit since I’ve been here,” and the roof hadn’t caved in yet.

Johnson and Executive Office staff called for roughly 10% across-the-board cuts in the more than three dozen agencies that comprise county government to offset an anticipated $100 million in losses stemming from the impacts of the public health shutdowns that hit the regional economy in March.

Each supervisor felt modifications were needed, especially in the public safety sphere.

Perez expressed a desire to keep the Sheriff’s Department flat in its general fund allocations, expressing a penchant for stronger support of social causes, with greater monetary infusions for the Probation and Public Defender Departments.

Hewitt wanted higher funding for the Animal Services and Planning Departments.

Neither could get traction on their individual motions.

There was major concern among all the board members about the likely ramifications of the state budget that the Legislature is expected to debate and approve on Saturday. Johnson said the full effects — including a possible $150 million in cuts for mandated services performed by the county — would not be fully comprehended for three or more weeks.

In the end, the board agreed to allocate $2 million of the $4 million that Public Defender Steve Harmon requested last week. He said without any add-back, he would be forced to close down operations.

Harmon concurred with District Attorney Mike Hestrin’s observation 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 due to the coronarvirus pandemic.

Hestrin characterized the 20,000-case pile-up as a “crushing caseload.” 

The county’s top prosecutor asked the board to put the D.A.’s office back at its present baseline general fund allocation of $77 million, which the supervisors did. The D.A. is still contending with red ink that could exceed $20 million. However, thanks in part to federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security — CARES — Act funding, the D.A. is expected to have another $9 million for operations in 2020-21.

Sheriff Chad Bianco admitted his department would struggle with board-imposed cuts, but he didn’t see the number as “catastrophic.”

Bianco’s initial request of general fund allocations was $366 million, but the Executive Office countered with $351 million, and the sheriff told the board the new figure was acceptable.

 He said the structural deficit will necessitate idling the newly opened John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, except for bookings. There is an outside chance of layoffs, with over 200 deputies’ jobs possibly on the line. But Bianco expressed confidence Tuesday that he will be able to cover his agency’s deficit with CARES money.

The board restored $4.2 million that had been sliced from Chief Probation Officer Ron Miller’s budget, and the Department of Public Social Services had nearly $7 million added back. The agency’s social assistance programs have been under increasing pressure amid the economic downturn that began almost three months ago.

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 countywide unemployment rate to nearly 16%.

The proposed 2020-21 appropriations plan is roughly $200 million, or 3% larger than the current fiscal year budget.

Johnson said the reserve pool will likely be whittled down to $190 million by the end of 2020-21.

The Department of Animal Services was facing extreme decisions, but officials worked with the Executive Office to reach a compromise, and the agency will receive the same allocation of general fund revenue that it got in 2019-20 — $13 million.

The department will still have to absorb a $1.3 million budget cut, which will likely mean partial closure of the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus.

The veterinary clinic would remain open, but other shelter operations would be suspended.

“We still are facing a tough road: 18 positions likely to be cut,” Department of Animal Services spokesman John Welsh said. “That is on top of the roughly 36 vacancies we have that we could not fill due to lack … funding and internal service funds that continue to rise.”

After the county gauges the impact of rollbacks in state allocations for services, the board will formally adopt the new budget, probably in mid-September.