10:00 PM PDT on Tuesday, May 4, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors Tuesday appeared unwilling to continue supplementing the sheriff, district attorney, fire and probation departments with more than $15 million to cover declining sales-tax revenues.

“We are beyond good options,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Marion Ashley said.

The sheriff and district attorney, though, warned that without the money they might need to lay off hundreds of deputies and more than two dozen prosecutors.

Sheriff Stan Sniff tells Riverside County supervisors that funding cuts will mean nearly 250 layoffs for his department.

The county is facing a slow recovery, and county government must bring spending in line with lower revenues, economists and county executives told supervisors during an all-day board meeting.

“We are deficit spending, and we are in the most challenging economic times we have seen since the Great Depression,” County Executive Officer Bill Luna said. “We will not see a quick recovery. We cannot continue to spend like we are in the bubble years.”

The county is facing a $131.5 million budget gap between ongoing discretionary revenues and expenses for the fiscal year starting July 1. County officials have proposed closing the shortfall over the next two years with a combination of tapping reserves and budget cuts.

With double-digit unemployment expected in Riverside County through 2012, supervisors warned they had little room to maneuver financially.

But at the same time, more than a half-dozen county officials, including the sheriff and district attorney, sought $42.5 million in additional funding.

Supervisors last month directed the sheriff to take a 3 percent cut and the district attorney, fire and probation departments to take 5 percent reductions.

Those cutbacks did not take into account whether the county would continue making up the difference between Prop. 172 revenue estimates and actual receipts, along with money for mandated cost-of-living raises for employees.

Prop. 172 is a special sales tax for public safety approved by voters statewide in 1993. For the past three years, as revenues came in lower than county officials projected, supervisors have used $91 million to help the departments make up the difference.

On Tuesday, supervisors said that practice has to stop. Instead, they voted to set aside a $15 million from existing reserves as a special disaster fund to aid public-safety agencies with unexpected costs.

Sheriff Stan Sniff said the budget cuts he is facing total more than 3 percent. Without money to make up for losses in Prop. 172 and cover employee raises, the cuts total 11 percent, he said.

That would equal $24.7 million and mean nearly 250 layoffs, Sniff said.

Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco told supervisors he has not supplied details about where cuts would occur if the county did not cover budget shortfalls. “I have been a little coy with that, to be quite candid,” he said.

He said he would be forced to mothball a coroner’s building and drop staffing levels in unincorporated areas. The cuts would force him to close older jail beds, negating any net increase from the 582-bed expansion of the Larry Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.

“You need to make decisions in context of the entire range,” Sniff told supervisors.

The sheriff said there was a glimmer of good budget news from his department.

Due to caps on overtime, vacancies and the longer use of vehicles, Sniff said he is projecting to end the current fiscal year with a $5 million surplus and will return that money to the county general fund.

In a later interview, Sniff said he will build a proposed budget based on an 11 percent cut and then make a continued appeal for the needed funding.

“We’ll do everything we can to keep the service levels up,” he said.

District Attorney Rod Pacheco had told supervisors he could take some cuts. But on Tuesday, he said it would be a challenge to absorb a 5 percent cut and Prop. 172 losses and employee raises.

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