Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco and District Attorney Mike Hestrin both requested increased appropriations for their respective agencies Monday, telling the Board of Supervisors they’re operating extremely lean and that meeting obligations in the next fiscal year will be challenging without some additional funding.
“We’re working with less than anyone,” Bianco said during the first round of hearings on the proposed 2021-22 budget. “We’re working at an absolute minimum. There’s no leeway.”
Bianco said the difference between what he’s seeking and what the county Executive Office has recommended to the board that the Sheriff’s Department receive in general fund allocations is $18 million.
However, he’s ending the current fiscal year with an estimated surplus of $15 million. It will be up to the board to deposit those funds in reserve or choose to return them to the sheriff.
According to Bianco, the department is operating at just under staffing levels of 2007, and demands for law enforcement services are escalating at an unrelenting rate.
“Violent crime is skyrocketing. Property crimes are skyrocketing. Drugs are skyrocketing. With the people coming across the border, there’s a substantial increase in human trafficking and the sex trades,” he said. “The largest area of concern is in the unincorporated areas. Staffing is inadequate.”
He said the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, which has been available to house inmates for over a year, remains “three-quarters empty” because funding is insufficient for the number of correctional deputies and other personnel required to operate the state-of-the-art facility.
The sheriff said he is assigning deputies to courts who are not “patrol-trained” — and therefore not as expensive — to net savings, and necessary upgrades to the Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center, where he said buildings have fallen into disrepair, are being deferred to keep costs down.
Hestrin told the board that over the last six years, when he first took office, the DA’s budget deficit has been chopped by $18 million and is now virtually zero. He said the agency will be ending 2020-21 with an extra $1.2 million.
“We got here by keeping our belts tight,” he said.
The DA asked for close to $25 million in additional funding for 2021-22, and the Executive Office agreed that $19 million should be provided. Hestrin told the board that $4 million has been whittled down from his original request, leaving only $2 million needed from the general fund to cover costs going into 2021-22.
He asked that his current-year surplus be returned to help him out.
According to Hestrin, the DA’s office is functioning with nearly the same number of prosecutors as were in place in 2008 — 250. Yet cost pressures from unfunded state mandates, reducing case backlogs that mounted during the coronavirus public health lockdowns and contending with streams of new filings — a 46% increase in murder complaints over the last year, for instance — have ballooned, he said.
“It’s going to be painful over the next couple of years as we get through this backlog, but we’ll get through it,” Hestrin said.
He pointed out that San Diego County’s case filings are virtually the same as Riverside County’s — 60,000 per year — but the neighboring county has 100 more prosecutors to handle them.
Department of Animal Services Director Julie Bank joined her public safety colleagues in seeking additional money. The agency has suffered significant financial setbacks over the last year, which added to the 2019-20 woes that led to the closure of the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus.
DAS’ revenue plummeted over $3.5 million, which Bank attributed largely to license fee collections and stray animal “intakes” from cities that contract with the agency dropping to half the usual volume during the lockdowns.
“We’re working harder and smarter, but our team feels like they’re on fumes,” she told the board.
Bank said closure of the Blythe Animal Shelter would save $360,000. However, she asked for almost the same amount to fund two new “deputy director” positions.
“Those positions would allow us to do the job we’re expected to do,” she said.
Supervisor Manuel Perez, whose Fourth District encompasses the Palo Verde Valley and Blythe, said he did not believe there had been enough time to “really think this through,” adding that the city of Blythe might be willing to shoulder costs that the county cannot bear.
“We need to plan out what does the future look like for the shelter,” he said.
County CEO Jeff Van Wagenen acknowledged the proposed $6.86 billion budget is not perfect but attempts to “align our spending with priorities.”
The proposed budget is about $69 million, or 1%, larger than the 2020-21 spending plan, according to the Executive Office.
Officials pointed out that federal infusions provided meaningful offsets to budgetary challenges over the last year.
The county received almost $500 million under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act of 2020, though some of that money could only be spent on narrow objectives. A total of $479 million has been promised under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Half of the sum has already been received, and the other half will be released to the county next spring, Van Wagenen said.
The county’s discretionary revenue is slated to top out at $921 million in 2021-22, compared to about $895 million in the current fiscal year, mostly thanks to the liquidation of more than $25 million in redevelopment agency assets handled by the state under the phase-out of RDA projects that began as part of then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget realignment in 2011.
The reserve pool is projected to swell to $284 million by the start 2021-22 — $60 million more than what had been predicted last June. However, the Executive Office said some funds will need to be siphoned out of various accounts to meet ongoing needs.
Additional budget hearings are planned Tuesday, and tentative approval of the proposed spending plan could happen then, or during the board meeting on June 29.
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