11:02 PM PDT on Sunday, May 16, 2010

By JOHN ASBURY
The Press-Enterprise

The winner of the race for Riverside County sheriff will be faced with shepherding the state’s second-largest sheriff’s department through a budget crisis that could lead to staff cuts.

Incumbent Sheriff Stanley Sniff is facing retired Chief Deputy Frank Robles in the June 8 election.

County supervisors are struggling to close a $131.5 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

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Sniff told county supervisors May 4 that a 3 percent cut to the Sheriff’s Department budget, about $6.9 million, would mean the elimination of 69 positions. Those could be achieved without layoffs, he said.

But Sniff said if his department doesn’t receive $8.5 million to cover mandated raises and $9.3 million to overcome a loss in sales tax revenue, he would have to cut an additional 178 positions and layoffs would be likely.

Sniff was appointed to the post by a 3-2 vote of the supervisors in September 2007 following former Sheriff Bob Doyle’s retirement. Sniff had served as assistant sheriff before Doyle fired him in 2006. Sniff contends he was fired without cause.

At least part of the campaign has centered on Sniff’s appointment to office following Doyle’s abrupt retirement.

During his term, Sniff says crime dropped 20 percent in unincorporated regions and the department plans to end the year with a $5 million surplus from his $510 million budget.

In a recent debate and in interviews, Robles has questioned Sniff’s appointment and said voters should have had a chance to pick their sheriff through a special election. Robles said the board should have selected former Undersheriff Neil Lingle, who was backed by Doyle.

“I have a big problem with how he got the job,” Robles said of Sniff. “What happened was wrong. I’m in a position to give something back. The Sheriff’s Department is like a ship at sea without a rudder. The leadership is not there.”

Sniff said he quickly gained the endorsements of the full Board of Supervisors and every police chief in the county.

He said the county needed to fill the position quickly. When Sniff came to office, he stripped the department of a sour political climate under Doyle, he said.

“It’s almost like his campaign to unseat me is a campaign of revenge because they didn’t get their way in 2007,” Sniff said, referring to Doyle’s administration. “There are bigger issues to be addressed. The board did what it was supposed to. It’s not unusual to have a sheriff appointed … there was no back deal at all.”

‘running lean’

Sniff rose from a deputy to assistant sheriff until he was fired by Doyle in 2006.

He has collected about $500,000 in campaign funds. The largest contributions came from the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, which had donated $50,000 as of the last reporting period in March.

As sheriff, Sniff said he has worked with the county to make spending reductions at 5 and 10 percent for the past two years without laying off deputies.

He said early retirements and downsizing the executive staff, and leaving two assistant sheriff positions vacant, averted deeper cuts of possibly 600 layoffs.

Sniff said the department is working to avoid layoffs, but it depends on how much funding is cut by supervisors.

Sniff said the department has become more transparent during his tenure. He said he went against the sheriff’s union and installed a policy to identify deputies in officer-involved shootings when the deputy’s safety is not at risk.

The greatest challenge facing the department, aside from the budget, will be training, Sniff said. He said many of the deputies are very young and they will quickly need to be readied to advance on the force as additional retirements occur. The department is promoting more bilingual studies and will require all station captains to have bachelor’s degrees.

‘Crisis not going away’

Robles has 38 years of law enforcement experience. He served as the Desert Hot Springs police chief before that department merged with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1990. He previously ran for sheriff in 1992.

Robles has collected about $300,000 in campaign funds. He has a large list of endorsements including Doyle and the Inland Empire AFL-CIO. His largest campaign donor is Leo McIntyre, a Los Angeles defense contractor who has homes in Riverside County. McIntrye donated $200,000 to the campaign as of the last reporting period in March.

Robles said the department needs a sheriff who is elected and will serve the people, something he said Sniff has not done. Robles said the county has mismanaged the budget to the point where he expects layoffs in the Sheriff’s Department may be imminent.

Robles has proposed reorganizing the department by eliminating the four assistant sheriff positions. He also has offered to take a 10 percent pay cut if elected.

By possibly merging sheriff’s stations in Cabazon and Hemet, the county would be able to utilize resources and save funding without continuing to tap emergency reserves, Robles said.

“The pie is only so big. There’s only so much we can do until everything’s cut,” Robles said “This crisis is not going away for another three to five years.”

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