County officials are urging today that the district attorney work with them to find budget efficiencies rather than take steps that hurt the community. The call comes two days after the Board of Supervisors adopted a budget that controls county spending, and one day after the district attorney notified police agencies in Riverside County that his office no longer would review search-warrant requests after hours as of Wednesday (Aug. 3). The reason? Budget cuts.
“It is not an unexpected move from a first-term DA who hasn’t managed through financial adversity before and had to look for efficiencies,” Board of Supervisors Chairman John Benoit said. “I hope he will take a breath, and that this challenge helps him become a strong manager.”
The district attorney was authorized $116 million to manage his office this year (FY 16/17), $11 million more than last year. He asked for $12 million more on Tuesday.
Some might question whether a good manager would only spend 24 hours looking for efficiencies, especially considering ongoing budget warnings. For more than a year, the county Executive Office has warned the Board and department heads that current budgets were not sustainable. Seasoned department heads started working on plans to reduce costs carefully, and compromise services as little as possible. Expenses are rising, in part, because of a legal settlement that will increase jail costs $40 million, and the anticipated opening of a new jail in Indio in a few years, which will cost another $40 million a year.
When the budget process began six months ago, county finance officials again said costs would have to remain flat for the next five years so that revenue could catch up with expenses, otherwise the county would have to devastate rainy-day reserves to fund ongoing expenses. In fact, the District Attorney’s Office has been spared the kind of budget cuts that have hit so many other departments. Since the recession began to ease in 2009, the county has reduced the county dollars going to Public Health Department by 59 percent. The agency that protects children and the elderly, Public Social Services, lost 46 percent. Other departments have taken steep cuts in general-fund money, but the District Attorney’s Office has had increases.
Tuesday, the district attorney told Board members he would begin a wave of layoffs if he didn’t receive $12 million more than the budget recommended.
“Layoffs are a drastic step that always should be considered a last resort. So when someone says, "it's $12 million or layoffs," then backtracks after 15 minutes and says he can avoid layoffs with $6 million, it is difficult to distinguish need from negotiation,” Supervisor John Tavaglione said.
The next day, the district attorney sent out the search-warrant email. It was a bit like the U.S. Park Service responding to budget cuts by telling Congress, "Okay then, we are closing the Washington Monument!" Benoit said the action on search warrants is mostly symbolic and likely will have little significant effect.
“He chose to immediately reduce small yet essential services rather than thoughtfully look for efficiencies,” Benoit said. “It appears he prefers political pressure but I hope he will reconsider his announcement and work with the county to find more appropriate, long-term savings that won’t harm his mission or the community.”
Working together was the step county officials proposed immediately after Tuesday’s meeting, at Benoit’s suggestion. The county asked the district attorney to sit down and try to reconcile differences that were discussed Tuesday about staffing numbers and supposed needs.
“I hope he’s willing to do that,” Benoit said.
Tuesday’s Board action might have caught some people off guard because public safety has always been and remains the Board’s top priority. Supervisors historically have used county funding to show that support. Tuesday was a rare instance when dire financial straits forced a Board of Supervisors to emphatically say, "No!," to an elected county law-enforcement official.
“Some people might not have expected that,” Tavaglione said. “But there is no money and unless we control costs now and for the next five years, it will place our county in financial peril.”