10:01 PM PDT on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County’s top executive has recommended a spending plan for next year that includes $55 million in cuts, resulting in additional layoffs and reductions in core county services.

The spending cuts and the use of $28 million in reserves will help the county overcome an estimated $103 million budget gap for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The recommended budget aims to complete a two-year plan to align ongoing expenses with declining revenues and permanently end the county’s reliance on reserves to pay for operations.

County Executive Officer Bill Luna’s recommendation is at odds with efforts by Sheriff Stan Sniff to prevent additional law enforcement cuts.

In recent weeks, the debate over the sheriff’s budget has heated up and will likely dominate discussion Monday when supervisors take up Luna’s recommendation.

Sniff has said reaching Luna’s budget target for his department would require laying off as many as 500 deputies and other personnel.

The sheriff laid the blame squarely at Luna’s feet Tuesday, accusing him of treating public safety as a “piñata to be smashed to pieces at a party.”

A group of city police chiefs wrote Tuesday that reductions in unincorporated patrols will increase the need for mutual aid at a time when cities also are struggling financially.

In a letter to supervisors introducing his budget, Luna said the spending plan contains difficult choices.

He said public safety departments, including the sheriff, district attorney and fire, face cuts from 3 percent to 5 percent in his recommended budget. Other departments will see, on average, 19 percent reductions.

“Because it remains your highest priority, public safety was cut less than other functions, but all general-fund departments sustained painful reductions,” Luna wrote to supervisors.

revenue drop

The recommended fiscal 2011-2012 budget totals $4.8 billion, but most of that pays for required programs such as health care for the poor and elderly and other public assistance.

Supervisors have control over a far smaller general-fund discretionary budget to pay for core services such as sheriff’s patrols and fire protection.

The recommended general fund discretionary budget for next year totals $630.3 million, down from $685.8 million this year.

Meanwhile, the county’s discretionary income for next year is expected to drop $10.1 million to $582 million.

To bridge the gap between current spending levels and next year’s discretionary income, the recommended budget makes $55 million in cuts, taps reserves for $28 million and uses about $20 million from a host of other smaller county funds.

Those reserves from a property-tax replacement system and other restricted revenue sources, such as booking fees, can be used to cover some general fund expenses.

‘Ample resources’

For the Sheriff’s Department, the recommended budget would provide $225 million in general-fund support to pay for jails and patrols in unincorporated areas, a 3 percent decrease from this year.

Sniff has said he needs $285 million to maintain operations at their current levels.

With a likely contract with the new city of Jurupa Valley and savings from a county-imposed contract on the Riverside Sheriff’s Association, the number goes down to $260 million. That still leaves a $35 million budget gap.

Sniff has already sent out layoff notices. If he has to meet that lower budget target, the first 100 layoffs would take place July 13 followed by another 100 on Aug. 10.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Buster said Tuesday the sheriff has room to make reductions and maintain public safety.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Buster presented a series of slides showing an 82 percent increase in sheriff’s funding — both from the general fund and a special public-safety sales tax — since fiscal 2002-03.

Buster also presented a chart showing that sheriff’s staffing since fiscal year 2006-07 grew faster than the county’s overall population.

Buster said the sheriff’s budget should and could have been “ramped down sooner at a slower rate.”

“This still can be done now,” he said. “Whatever those reductions are, these charts show that the Sheriff still has ample resources to protect the public.”

critical damage

In response, Sniff released a statement Tuesday saying Buster’s presentation was misleading.

The department’s budget has increased in recent years, but that was due largely to the county’s population growth and to fulfill the goals outlined by supervisors, the statement read.

Those goals included increasing patrol staffing in unincorporated areas to 1.2 deputies per 1,000 residents, building and operating a jail expansion and creating specialized teams such as a gang task force, according to the statement.

The sheriff has no control over drops in sales tax revenues or a say on negotiated raises because supervisors decide labor contracts. The executive office also did not provide money for increases in fees that county departments charge each other, according to the statement.

All of that combined for a de facto 20 percent cut over the past three years, the Sheriff’s Department said in the statement. Still, the sheriff said he has done his part to reduce expenses. Sniff pointed to a $12 million surplus the department returned at the end of fiscal 2009-10.

By reducing the budget target each year, inflating labor costs and underfunding other areas, the sheriff’s statement said the department now faces a “huge CEO-engineered” budget gap.

Sniff has offered an alternative that would reduce his department’s shortfall to about $17 million through attrition and avoid the large-scale layoffs. That proposal was not included in Luna’s recommended budget but is expected to be discussed Monday.

Sniff said he will follow board guidance but must warn supervisors of the consequences of the “decisions they will make next week.”

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