Orange County supervisors began discussing how to fill a $290 million budget shortfall Tuesday, as they come closer to approving a spending plan for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office asked to restore some proposed cuts from county administrators.

District Attorney Todd Spitzer implored the county to find room in the budget to cover $683,262 for a Conviction Integrity Unit of lawyers tasked mainly with going over past murder convictions to see if the defendants qualify to have the convictions thrown out due to a recent change in the law that required co-conspirators in a murder to be an active participant in the killing and not just with a group of others involved in the crime.

“So we have to review all of these prior murder convictions and the work is tremendous and we’re actually going to have to dismiss quite a few cases,” Spitzer told the supervisors.

The county’s top prosecutor called the change in the state law another “unfunded mandate” and — referring to multiple speakers at Tuesday’s board meeting demanding reduced funding for law enforcement, said funding the unit is a way to help restore faith in the county’s law enforcement.

Spitzer’s chief assistant, former Supervisor Shawn Nelson, told the board that a bump up in sales taxes earmarked for law enforcement could be used to fund hiring attorneys for the unit, but Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the perceived increase was really just a “catch-up of deferred sales taxes” during the worst days of the pandemic.

For now, the District Attorney’s Office will work closely with CEO Frank Kim’s office to find money for the program.

Supervisor Andrew Do and Bartlett said they support finding some funding for the program.

Board Chairwoman Michelle Steel said she “never would have dreamt we would be dealing with a worldwide pandemic… COVID-19 has devastated families, loved ones … medical workers were pushed to the max, small businesses closed.”

Steel said despite that, “We won’t be raising taxes, laying off employees or emptying our reserves.”

Another bone of contention is a “glide path downward” in the state’s funding of sheriff’s workers as security in the state courthouses in the county, Bartlett said.

“It’s another one of those unfunded mandates,” Bartlett said. “So it’s a little frustrating because we don’t have any revenue to backfill this and no funds lying around in the county to fulfill the obligations for court security.”

Every county in the state is “grappling with the same issue,” she said.

Sheriff Don Barnes told the supervisors his department has “been raising this issue for years.” The county is about $19 million short in this year’s budget for court security.

Barnes argued for funding for body-worn cameras to amplify the dashboard cameras he has installed in his deputies’ cars. He said it would cost about $5 million to $7 million annually with 80% funded by the cities his department contracts with to provide law enforcement.

Steel said the body-worn cameras not only “provide a level of support” for law enforcement, but “also levels of transparency for our community, which is essential now more than ever.”

This year, county officials expect to balance the budget with reserves, but it’s not under consideration as a long-term solution.

“The county can’t continue to sustain themselves going budget to budget cycle drawing from reserves. That’s not a good plan” beyond this year, Bartlett told City News Service before the budget meeting.

“One of the reasons we have such a big shortfall is because we had to expend significant funds up front” for COVID-19-related expenses, Bartlett said.

A good deal of the money was earmarked to combat the spread of COVID-19, and much of that money was spent providing social services linked to a collapse of the economy under quarantine conditions.

“We don’t have a backup from the state” for those expenses, Bartlett said. The proposed budget will use reserves mainly to hold the line against mandated furloughs and layoffs.

The $7.5 billion proposed budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year is approximately $706 million more than the 2019-20 budget.

County CEO Frank Kim said when the budget was released last month that the county cannot count on dipping in reserves beyond this year.

“We’re concerned about fiscal year ’21-’22, because we’re using quite a bit of reserves this year,” Kim said. “If the trend doesn’t reverse and the economy doesn’t recover we’ll have a bigger bite out of reserves the following year and that’s not a sustainable path.”

Normally, the budget is adopted in June, but this year the Board of Supervisors approved a placeholder for legal reasons and waited to see the impact of the state budget on revenue locally. The recommended budget was expected to be reviewed and discussed by the board on Tuesday and voted on Sept. 15.

“We started the year with about $700 million in reserves,” Kim said. “We did a pretty good job over time building our reserves. But reserves are supposed to be used in times of a catastrophic events, so we don’t feel terrible about using them, but we want to make sure it’s sustainable.”

The county saved about $43 million with a voluntary retirement or buyout program, cutting 476 employees from the payroll. More staffers may be trimmed from the payroll as the program is extended through Oct. 8.

“There will be an impact on services… There will be less bodies providing county services,” Kim said. “We’re providing enough funding to the filled positions, so no mandatory layoffs or furloughs.”

The budget includes $554 million from the coronavirus relief bill. The county put aside $111 million to cities and small businesses for coronavirus-related expenses. The county also received an additional $73.3 million from the state allocated in the bill.

The county’s forecasters expect to see a 16.4% decrease, or $53.3 million, in Proposition 172 funding, which is devoted to law enforcement. The county expects to see a total loss of $145 million in sales tax revenue.

The Proposition 172 half-cent sales tax is expected to come in about $271.5 million with 80% going to the sheriff’s department and the rest to the District Attorney’s Office. Last fiscal year, the county collected $324.8 million in Proposition 172 revenue.

The county has allocated $890.1 million in general purpose revenue, $16.5 million less than the last fiscal year. The county will spend about $38.7 million in reserves and will see about $24.6 million more in property taxes.

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