10:36 PM PST on Sunday, January 30, 2011

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County’s top executive is calling for a hiring freeze and possible patrol cutbacks to help the Sheriff’s Department overcome a $13.5 million budget shortfall.

A report before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday outlines the financial picture for the department and all of county government halfway through the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Overall, the county has an estimated $31.3 million shortfall because of budget gaps in the sheriff’s office and three other departments, including the district attorney.

Although down from an estimated $46.7 million after the first quarter, the deficit poses a significant challenge to county officials as they work to reduce their reliance on reserves. The current budget, approved in August, included $62 million from reserves and $71 million in cuts.

The reduced shortfall reflects more accurate data six months into the fiscal year and steps county officials have taken to control costs.

Still, the outlook is grim.

“Dipping into reserves to cure these overages will carry over the structural deficit into next fiscal year, and make additional cuts deeper and more painful,” County Executive Officer Bill Luna wrote in the report.

The district attorney’s office anticipates a shortfall of $6.3 million, down from $9.1 million after the first quarter but far more than the $2 million surplus that former District Attorney Rod Pacheco projected last year.

The Department of Public Social Services has an estimated $7.2 million shortfall, and the Fire Department has a $4.3 million gap.

“We have very diminished options at this point,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Buster said Friday.

In a report to county executives, Sheriff Stan Sniff said his department took the board’s mandated 3 percent cut this year. But he said his department also did not receive money to overcome drops in sales tax revenue or to cover required employee raises.

That amounted to a de facto 11 percent hit, he said. The reductions were far too deep, the sheriff said.

The department did reduce its deficit from $17 million through “tight controls on unreimbursed overtime throughout our operations,” Sniff reported.

He said the department can reduce the shortfall further, from $13.5 million to $10 million by the end of the fiscal year. County officials used the $10 million figure to calculate the county’s overall $31.3 million shortfall.

Luna is recommending that supervisors freeze hiring in the Sheriff’s Department and evaluate their longstanding policy to have one deputy for every 1,000 residents in unincorporated areas.

A rough analysis shows that changing the ratio to 0.85 deputies per 1,000 residents could produce enough savings to close the department’s current budget gap, Luna wrote.

JAIL ISSUE

The department has more than 3,000 employees, including those assigned to patrol contract cities.

Sniff said by e-mail Friday that the hiring freeze would effectively stop the board-directed expansion of the Larry D. Smith Correction Facility in Banning.

Most of the deputies needed to operate the 582-bed addition have been hired and trained, but the department still is short a significant number of specialized civilian staff, Sniff said.

He said he is recommending that supervisors allow him to hire the remaining employees so the department can fully staff the $80 million jail.

For a Board of Supervisors that has long put public safety on the top of its priority list, changing the patrol ratio could prove difficult. In the past, several supervisors have said deploying fewer deputies is not an option.

Sniff said Friday that lowering the patrol ratio can reduce costs but would not eliminate the budget gap in five months.

He said he would follow the board’s direction on the patrol staffing but needs the authority to hire replacements to maintain whatever staffing levels the board directs.

Two supervisors said Friday that the board should study the option of lowering the ratio.

“Here, on the short term, I think we do have to look at sheriff’s patrol,” Buster said.

In 2009, crime in the unincorporated areas dropped 21 percent, and Buster said the department has better crime-fighting tactics and techniques than in the past.

“They can bring in these special teams to shore up problem areas,” he said. “That’s the kind of approach I think we need to take.”

Supervisor Jeff Stone has favored the higher staffing ratio and said Friday he doesn’t like to reduce funding for public safety.

“I am confident we will close the gap, albeit with some pain,” he said.

Stone said the county has to keep all of its options open. “I think there are ways we can work with the sheriff to reduce the ratio without really compromising public safety,” he said.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY

As for the prosecutor’s office, District Attorney Paul Zellerbach wrote to Luna that the current figures “seem to confirm my fears” about the office’s budget.

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