09:46 PM PST on Tuesday, February 1, 2011

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors Tuesday rejected a money-saving plan to impose a hiring freeze in the Sheriff’s Department and consider reducing patrols in unincorporated areas.

The recommendations, included in a mid-year budget report, were aimed at helping the department overcome a $10 million budget gap by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. The deficit is part of an overall $31.3 million shortfall facing the county.

“In the end, I don’t intend to change my principles of ensuring we have enough officers on the street. Not just for the communities that they serve but for the safety of the officers,” Supervisor John Tavaglione said. “We’ve got to balance this in a different way.”

Supervisors are now left to find alternatives — and several suggested that across-the-board pay cuts and other reductions could bridge the gap.

County Executive Officer Bill Luna had recommended 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 showed that changing the ratio to 0.85 deputies per 1,000 residents could produce enough savings to close the department’s current budget gap, county officials said.

“I see this morning I have not hit the mark on the board’s expectations,” Luna said.

Sheriff Stan Sniff recommended against the hiring freeze and the reduced staffing. The freeze would put the staffing of an expanded jail in Banning in jeopardy, he said. Lowering the patrol ratio would mean cutting nearly 100 deputies, he added.

“Clearly, if there is not any funding, that’s where you have to go. That’s where I have to go to end up reducing costs,” Sniff said.

But, he added: “Let’s be darn careful about having traumatic amputations.”

County officials have been working under a two-year plan to end the use of one-time money and create a structurally balanced budget. The county’s current budget, approved in August, included $62 million in reserves and $71 million in cuts.

Several supervisors said Tuesday the county must look at salary and benefit reductions, increases in the amount employees pay for their own retirement and concessions from unions.

Board Chairman Bob Buster suggested a 5 percent pay cut for all employees, including management.

“Unless all of us go to the well again here on a permanent basis, we are not going to get the restructuring and we’re not going to be able to get to a balanced budget,” he said. “We have to get outside the political comfort zone.”

Supervisor Jeff Stone said the county must put the Riverside Sheriff’s Association, which represents deputies, on notice that reductions are needed.

“I respect all the officers that work in the Sheriff’s Department,” Stone said. “But if we can’t get concessions, then it is going to cost jobs.”

Pat McNamara, the association’s president, said by e-mail Tuesday that the two sides are in the early stages of contract talks. He said the county rejected the group’s past offers to temporarily forego raises.

But he said the association “will consider any and all proposals the county is inclined to present.”

Luna said he would present options for additional cuts and the possibility of extending the county’s two-year budget fix to a third year at workshops next month.

Ratios And Costs

Sniff said he needs 142 people — 94 sworn deputies and 48 civilians — to fully operate the $80 million, 582-bed expansion of Larry Smith Correction Facility in Banning. The county has hired the deputies but still needs 37 civilian workers, the sheriff said.

On staffing levels, Sniff said the department currently has 445 deputies serving unincorporated areas. The ratio is 1.01 per 1,000 residents.

Reducing the ratio to 0.9 would mean the loss of 49 deputies and save $4.9 million over a full 12 months. Lowering the ratio to 0.8 would mean cutting 44 additional deputies and saving another $4.4 million.

Sniff vowed to follow the board’s direction on staffing levels but recommended against going below the current level.

If a lower ratio is needed, Sniff said the county should reduce the staffing through attrition, which stands at about six deputies a month.

Three other departments have significant projected shortfalls: $7.2 million in the Department of Public Social Services, $6.3 million in the district attorney’s office and $4.3 million in the Fire Department.

The Sheriff’s Department’s gap is the largest and dominated the two hours of Tuesday’s discussion.

At times, the debate became pointed. Sniff suggested that Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser made misleading comments about his budget. Luna later responded that Corser “speaks the truth and calls it like he sees it.”

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