Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff, left, and CEO Bill Luna, who had been deeply at odds over Luna’s proposed cutbacks in the sheriff’s budget, reach accord on a plan that both admit has risks. It’s built on “bubble gum and bailing wire,” Sniff says.

10:48 PM PDT on Monday, June 13, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors agreed Monday to a budget plan proposed by Sheriff Stan Sniff that officials described as risky but said would avoid any layoffs to his department.

The compromise came after weeks of increasingly heated debate with Sniff accusing County Executive Officer Bill Luna of treating public safety as a “piñata to be smashed to pieces.” Sniff had said he needed $285 million in general fund support, while Luna had recommended $225 million.

The tone was more measured at Monday’s meeting.

“I think we see a patch of blue we can get through,” Sniff said.

The sheriff had faced a budget gap between $35 million and $60 million for next year that he said could result in as many as 500 layoffs.

But the plan approved by supervisors uses a variety of sources to reduce the gap to about $3 million to $4 million.

A major boost will come from an extra $22 million in Prop. 172 sales tax money for the current and next fiscal years. The funds came in above projections. The sheriff’s share of that money — which is divided between public safety departments according to a proportionate share — is $13.5 million.

Board policy has been to set aside any funds above $110 million in Prop. 172 money for one-time projects but supervisors agreed to waive that policy for now.

Sniff is also counting on $13 million from a police contract with the new city of Jurupa Valley. But, based on revenue agreements with newly incorporated cities, Jurupa Valley would have five years to pay the money.

The sheriff also said he hopes to seek a $5 million federal law enforcement grant.

Other elements of the plan include savings from a county-imposed contract on the union representing deputies, attrition, the use of asset-forfeiture funds, reductions in aviation operations and holding jail capacity at current levels.

Luna said Sniff’s plan carries some risks, because it assumes revenue that may not materialize and only solves the problem for one year. “These types of things are not the best possible ways to put a budget together, but they are things you can do,” Luna said.

Sniff admitted it’s a plan built on “bubble gum and bailing wire” but said it’s a risk he’s willing to assume.

He called Luna’s original proposal a “precipitous amputation,” saying his plan would allow him to slowly wind down and rebuild if the economy improves.

Board Chairman Bob Buster said he was concerned that Sniff’s numbers may be too optimistic and he may have to take more severe measures if the revenues don’t materialize as expected.

“You’re going to have to watch it real closely,” Buster told Sniff.

Other public safety departments, including the district attorney, probation and fire, will also benefit from the extra Prop. 172 money. Supervisors agreed to provide them their share as well to soften expected budget hits.

Supervisors agreed not to impose a 4 percent cut on the district attorney’s office after District Attorney Paul Zellerbach noted that he was facing twice the hit because his predecessor, Rod Pacheco, never made last year’s cuts.

Supervisors described Zellerbach as a refreshing change from previous budget discussions with Pacheco.

“Paul Zellerbach has been a team player throughout this process,” Supervisor Jeff Stone said. “He hasn’t come through here demanding that his budget be made whole.”

The county budget, which will come back for a final vote Sept. 13, 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. But supervisors have discretion over a much smaller amount to fund core services such as law enforcement.

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