RIVERSIDE – The Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to increase appropriations to Riverside County agencies unable to meet all of their expenses in the current fiscal year, though the sheriff’s department was still left with a $30 million negative balance, sparking a testy exchange about how funds are prioritized.
The supervisors held a nearly three-hour afternoon session to review the allocation requests, which were authorized in a 4-1 vote. Supervisor Kevin Jeffries cast the dissenting vote, expressing doubts that the board was going far enough in supporting Sheriff Stan Sniff, while spending millions more on a contract with a professional services firm to find operational efficiencies in county government.
“There should be no room for errors when it comes to the delivery of public safety,” Jeffries said. “It’s our decision, at the end of the day, to determine what will be an acceptable level of cuts.”
Jeffries was unconvinced that the $18 million infusion to the sheriff’s budget was adequate, as money is being diverted elsewhere to find ways of better managing the agency’s resources.
Sniff reiterated what he related to the board during budget hearings in June, noting that in the last 18 months, the sheriff’s department had shed 400 full-time positions, some of them sworn, due to attrition. With his budget capped at just under $670 million, the sheriff has had no ability to replace many needed personnel, he said, leaving unincorporated communities with “bare-bones” staffing, with only two deputies on hand during some swing and graveyard shifts to handle patrol calls.
“Budget reductions have reduced us down to minimum safety staffing,” the sheriff said. “We’re on a draw-down now, and we’ll hit a block wall in the fall. Nobody can argue that this is satisfactory.”
The sheriff was preceded by a team from KPMG, the Netherlands-based firm hired by the board in March 2016 at a cost of $20.3 million to scrutinize public safety and general government agencies from top to bottom in a bid to identify how they might run better and cheaper. The group offered a mostly sanguine picture of how research and pilot projects are going.
Sniff questioned the optimism, telling the board that “it’s a little bit early to pop out the Champagne corks” and celebrate. He commended the enterprising nature of the KPMG crew, but reminded supervisors that nothing to date had netted major savings.
“I’m stuck with some really difficult choices,” Sniff said.
The comment drew fire from Supervisor John Tavaglione, who condemned the sheriff for “trying to snow me or blow smoke up my colleagues” by insisting that only two line deputies were available to respond to calls in some
unincorporated areas at a given time.
“There are sergeants. There are lieutenants,” Tavaglione said. “You haven’t heard a damn thing of what we’ve been saying. You’re being defensive. Remember, I was the third vote that put you in office.”
Sniff was initially appointed to head the sheriff’s department in the fall of 2007 after former Sheriff Bob Doyle resigned.
“That was 10 years ago. I appreciate it, but it doesn’t address the here and now,” Sniff told Tavaglione.
The supervisor replied that “money is dwindling” and the sheriff should “stop fighting” change.
The discord went unsettled, though Supervisor Marion Ashley attempted to find common ground with men, expressing confidence that the KPMG studies “will help over time” and vowing that the board stands ready to intervene if the sheriff runs out of options because “public safety is our number one priority.”
The sheriff’s cost pressures stem from a consent decree mandating enhanced medical and psychological services for inmates, along with union-negotiated salary and benefits hikes for personnel and internal service charges from other agencies that serve the department.
County CEO George Johnson cautioned in a letter to the board that $28.34 million set aside for the KPMG study was the vetted amount available for additional appropriations at this time, and anything beyond that would “significantly forestall achieving structural balance.”
In addition to the sheriff’s department, the Riverside Office of the Public Defender, the District Attorney’s Office, the Economic Development Agency and the Department of Public Social Services sought increased allocations.
Johnson and his staff warned against fully meeting the sheriff’s and other agencies’ full obligations, explaining that such a move would drive reserves below the board-mandated $150 million minimum and keep the county in deficit spending for the foreseeable future.
Reserves are projected to fall to about $166 million this fiscal year. One year ago, the reserve pool was just over $200 million.
The board approved $6.1 million in additional appropriations for the district attorney’s office, though District Attorney Mike Hestrin will still be left to contend with a $9 million shortfall in 2017-2018. He indicated to the board last month that he could likely manage the red ink by controlling internal expenses and capping hiring.
Public Defender Steve Harmon received an additional $4.36 million, on top of $2 million already approved by the board, essentially closing his budget gap, according to the Executive Office. Additional but lower sums were authorized for the Department of Public Social Services, Economic Development Agency and several other departments seeking to stay in the black.
The board voted separately to amend its contract with KPMG, permitting $20.3 million more to be paid for services over the next two years. Jeffries’ was the lone vote against.
The board directed all departments to make 6.5 percent reductions to their budgets in anticipation of steeper cost burdens imposed by the state in 2017-2018, which have been far less than expected.
The total county budget for the current fiscal year is about 2 percent smaller than the one enacted in 2016-2017 – $5.57 billion. The board will finalize all budget authorizations Sept. 26.