The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, on a 4-0 vote, Monday approved a revised $34.9 billion budget for the coming fiscal year that envisions deep across-the-board cuts and the elimination of thousands of positions, including sharp reductions in the sheriff’s department.
Supervisor Janice Hahn abstained from the vote because she said the budget should be more strategic in allocating cuts to some departments and investing in others.
“This is a budget that is a status quo budget in an unprecedented time … I don’t think this budget meets the moment,” Hahn said. “We are seeing more people losing their housing, their jobs, their businesses, their health at a scale that I haven’t seen before, and they need our help … We are voting on a budget that holds back our ability to be that helping hand.”
Hahn said she supported a letter Supervisor Hilda Solis sent to CEO Sachi Hamai on Friday, asking for additional changes to “bend this budget towards people of color.”
Budget deliberations were conducted via teleconference due to safety concerns about the coronavirus, leading to a process that stood in sharp contrast to prior years when hundreds of advocates for a multitude of programs turned out to plead their case to the board.
Rather than try to mirror that kind of daylong discussion, the board limited public comment on Monday’s call to one hour. Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who chairs the board, said more than 3,700 written comments had been received and emails received throughout the course of the meeting would be part of the public record.
Virtually all of the residents allowed to speak expressed their support for a “Care First” budget and/or spending on the recommendations set out by the Alternatives to Incarceration report. Both support more spending on community-based programs for housing, health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment.
In March, the board agreed to move forward to implement some of the ATI recommendations, but community members complained that not enough progress had been made. Hamai said the job description for an ATI director had recently been posted, and she hoped that the position would be filled soon.
Many residents specifically called for pulling money from the Sheriff’s Department to fund diversion programs and community needs.
“I work in Superior Court so I see every day how our current system of excessive policing and incarceration destroys lives,” Alex Olsen told the board. “Only a tiny fraction of the people who need these (diversion) programs can get in.”
Several of the speakers noted that they had never before paid attention to how the county spent its money, with least one warning that what the supervisors do now will affect their ability to be reelected.
“A few weeks ago, I did not even know who my county supervisor was,” Annalee Walters told the board. “I think there are many people like me who are now all of a sudden paying attention and hoping that you guys do the right thing and pull some of the billions of dollars you’re spending on a policing system that is targeting … Black people.”
County CEO Sachi Hamai released her revised budget proposal Thursday, calling it one of the most difficult budget years the county has encountered, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The budget includes the elimination of more than 3,200 positions and 655 potential layoffs in an effort to counter a $935.3 million budget shortfall, due largely to severe revenue declines and increased expenses to respond to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, I must report that significant cuts in county programs and personnel will be needed as a result of the serious economic downturn caused by this ongoing public health emergency,” Hamai said. “This is not the outcome any of us wants to see, especially as our county staff continues to serve with great commitment and dedication on the front lines of this crisis, as well as behind the scenes to assist our 10 million residents. I want to personally take this opportunity to thank each and everyone of our 100,000-plus dedicated county employees for their truly heroic public service.”
The $34.9 billion spending proposal includes $453.5 million in department cuts and $59.3 million in management reductions. Most notably, the budget plan calls for the elimination of 3,251 positions — 2,596 of which are already vacant, but 655 of which may result in layoffs.
The CEO said that no layoffs will take place until Oct. 1 and said there is still a chance some of the cuts could be reversed in September, when a supplemental budget will reflect more information about how much money the county will receive from the state and federal governments.
“This budget marks a point in time, not the finish line,” Hamai said, but also told the board that the projections did not reflect a worst-case scenario.
While the cuts are across the board, public safety agencies such as the sheriff’s department are among the hardest hit. Hamai and the board said this is because they are primarily funded with sales tax and other local revenues that have been severely impacted by the pandemic.
The board approved cuts to the sheriff’s department of $162.1 million, including the elimination of more than 1,500 positions. Although most of those positions are already vacant, the cut would result in 457 potential layoffs, according to budget documents.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has long been at loggerheads with the Board of Supervisors over his agency’s budget, accused the county of underfunding his department by about $400 million even before the latest cuts. He has said the changes essentially amount to an effort to defund the agency and accused the board of being swept up in nationwide calls for slashing law enforcement funding.
After an early Monday news conference to make his case to the public, Villanueva joined the board call.
“I don’t disagree that we have people in our care and control in our custody environment that suffer from mental illness, suffer from drug abuse, substance abuse, and we definitely want to do our best to reach out and support them where we can,” the sheriff said. “However, we can’t erase accountability from the equation … the Alternatives to Incarceration (report) and “Care First, Jails Last” model, it just divorces itself from the notion of personal accountability.”
He warned that crime would increase and cuts would have to be made to bureaus central to the department’s mission, including major crimes, special victims, narcotics, cyber crime and parks security.
“Just axing them from the budget for somehow to balance the books of the entire county budget does not seem a very judicial exercise,” the sheriff said. “People are going to get hurt with this budget, plain and simple.”
The CEO said Villanueva had originally submitted a budget proposing 894 layoffs and cuts to all of those bureaus, but that her team made revisions to cut the number of layoffs nearly in half.
All of those potential layoffs would come from custody operations, according to the CEO, given that the jail population has been reduced by nearly 30% in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Barger made a point of underlining her support for the Sheriff’s Department, saying the cuts were driven by projected sales tax losses that have slashed AB109 funding.
“I would also like to take a moment to reiterate my commitment to public safety,” Barger said. “It is my hope that these cuts can be restored in September to further support law enforcement and ensure the public’s safety.”
Also facing cuts and layoffs are the District Attorney’s, Public Defender’s and Board of Supervisors’ offices. Various other agencies also face the elimination of positions, including the Department of Public Health, which is set to receive a roughly $15 million cut and see 59 vacant positions eliminated.
“These proposed cuts are not in any way intended to penalize any department, or to diminish the importance of their work,” Hamai said. “Rather, these curtailments are part of an equitable process of cost reductions that will affect all county departments.”
Solis said she would like to see more spending on innovative reforms, such as restorative health care villages like the one envisioned at County-USC Medical Center, as well as more money for the public defender’s office and inspector general, among other priorities.
“If anything has been made clear in the past few months, it is that maintaining the status quo is not acceptable,” Solis said. “There is a real opportunity for real change right now, so I urge this board to seize upon it.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he was committed to expanding the Office of Diversion and Reentry and other alternatives to incarceration.
“We need to speak truth to power,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We must unapologetically double down on the approaches that prioritize people’s health and community well-being and safety over surveillance, over excessive enforcement and use of force, over criminalization and incarceration.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl emphasized her support for more spending on a “Care First, Jails Last” model, Project Roomkey to house the homeless and programs to address food insecurity.
“Now in the middle of these double emergency situations, it’s government that has to step up and has stepped up. That is why we are trying to preserve what we can,” Kuehl said. “I want to say the harsh reality of what we’re facing — the midst of a pandemic, the righteous social uprising — it is for these very reasons that we must press on with our really important priorities — to tell those who are testifying and the millions who are not, `We hear you, we’ve been with you all along, we will use our power and our abilities to provide these services to our most vulnerable communities.”’