10:20 PM PDT on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

The leaders of Riverside County’s public safety agencies — including the sheriff, district attorney and fire chief — appealed to supervisors Tuesday to lessen the pain of budget cuts.

Steep reductions would result in fewer deputy sheriffs patrolling unincorporated areas, a delay in a major jail expansion and the closure of fire stations, they said.

“None of us, certainly, underestimates the problems we are all collectively facing in Riverside County because of the economic downturn,” Sheriff Stan Sniff told supervisors.

Still, he said his department is threadbare and has few areas to trim.

Riverside County faces a budget shortfall of more than $100 million for the fiscal year starting July 1. Supervisors must find a way to bridge that gap over the next two years and reduce reliance on shrinking reserves.

County officials have warned of the possibility of as many as 1,600 layoffs.

To bridge the budget gap, supervisors have discussed proportional 10 percent cuts to public safety and general government along with options weighted to favor the sheriff, district attorney, fire and probation offices.

Those proposals include 3 percent cuts to public safety and 25 percent cuts to other departments, which in budget hearings also warned of severe reductions in service levels.

In the third and final daylong workshop on Tuesday, the sheriff, fire and probation departments presented scenarios for 3 percent and 10 percent reductions and submitted prioritized lists of specific cuts.

Sniff said his department would lose nearly 70 positions if his budget is cut 3 percent. But he said the reductions are achievable through attrition.

Staffing ratios for unincorporated areas would drop, but the department still could maintain funding to open the 582-bed jail expansion at the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.

A 10 percent reduction would be harder, requiring the elimination of 225 positions, including 156 sworn deputies, the sheriff said. The jail expansion would be put on hold, Sniff said.

The district attorney’s office did not submit in advance any budget scenarios detailing potential reductions.

But District Attorney Rod Pacheco told supervisors his office could handle a 3 percent cut.

In a presentation lasting more than an hour, Pacheco detailed the 17 percent reductions his office already has taken since fiscal 2008-2009 and statistics showing the county’s declining violent crime rate.

“There is no question we have shared the pain. We are prepared to do more,” he said. “I believe personally a 3 percent cut would not materially affect the department.”

Pacheco’s presentation did not specifically outline how and where the office would make those cuts, and he did not detail a 10 percent scenario.

The district attorney touted his office’s successes in prosecuting high-profile criminals, including Raymond Lee Oyler, who received a death sentence for starting the deadly Esperanza Fire in 2006.

He also cited the arrest by San Diego County authorities of John Gardner III — a registered sex offender living near Lake Elsinore who was charged in the killing of 17-year-old Chelsea King in San Diego County — to highlight the need to maintain public safety funding.

Pacheco also played clips from television news about high-profile crimes and showed a profanity-laced video made by the West Side Rivas, a Rubidoux-area gang.

Meanwhile, Fire Chief John Hawkins said a 3 percent budget cut would result in the closure of at least three fire stations. A 10 percent reduction would mean shuttering at least five stations.

Hawkins said the fire department has done its best to control costs in prior years by trimming administrative and other expenses.

“We are now at the point of fire stations,” he said.

Supervisors uniformly praised Cal Fire and the services the agency provides the county. But they expressed displeasure with Sacramento for increasing Cal Fire’s administrative fees in recent years.

Riverside County pays about 11 percent in administrative fees, or between $12 million and $13 million a year, Hawkins said. Supervisors plan a strongly worded letter seeking a reduction.

“This is a huge amount,” board Chairman Marion Ashley said. “We just can’t afford to pay this.”

To read entire story, click here.