LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Alex Villanueva Tuesday wrangled over the sheriff’s $3.5 billion budget, trading threats as each side asserted its authority.
“The Sheriff’s Department is underfunded … (and) saddled with rising costs that are beyond the department’s control,” Villanueva argued.
He cited an obligation to provide security in trial courts at a preset state rate that doesn’t cover costs as one example and rising workers’ compensation payouts as another.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the sheriff’s department needs to better control overtime and other expenses, especially as the county comes under financial pressure in the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every one of our departments is currently operating with a balanced budget except for one, and that is the sheriff’s department,” Kuehl said.
Kuehl noted that the jail population has been reduced by nearly 5,000 inmates out of roughly 17,000 — nearly 30% — with no corresponding decrease in staffing.
The board, county CEO Sachi Hamai and the sheriff traded conflicting statistics and barbed comments.
“I feel a little bit like Dr. (Anthony) Fauci,” Kuehl said, referencing the doctor on the federal government’s coronavirus task force who often contradicts President Donald Trump. “I want to come up behind and say no, no, no.”
County Counsel Mary Wickham suggested Villanueva could be criminally charged with a misdemeanor for not taking steps to balance the budget, and the sheriff countered by seeming to threaten that he had some compromising information.
“I could go on for a long, long time about the long list of felony crimes and the consequences of them and they’re done by public officials,” the sheriff said. “It would be inappropriate to make that inference in any forum, much less in a budgetary debate, and so good luck with that if you’re going to scare me with the thing about a misdemeanor crime.”
His statement prompted Supervisor Kathryn Barger, often one of the sheriff’s staunchest supporters, to say, “I don’t know if that was a veiled threat or what you were referring to … I didn’t appreciate that comment.”
The back-and-forth grew out Villanueva’s request that the board release $143.7 million in funding for his department that had been transferred out — or “confiscated” according to the sheriff — last October.
The board held the funds in hopes of forcing the sheriff to address a budget deficit that reached $63.4 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, and is projected to run to $86.5 million for this fiscal year.
The sheriff has publicly warned that withholding the funds could result in cuts to critical services and pointed to his department’s success in cutting overtime spending — a big driver of the department’s deficit.
Reducing overtime is seen as key by both sides. Though the department is expected to reduce overtime by $11 million this year and has filled many of its vacant deputy jobs, it will still exceed its total overtime budget by $143.4 million.
An auditor has been brought in to help control costs, but the sheriff has still fallen short of the board’s expectations in terms of total cuts and documenting his plans.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis co-authored a motion suggesting that the board release about 60% of the money requested by the department, but asked the sheriff to cut back academy training classes to budgeted levels in exchange. And in a late-breaking revision, they called for a freeze on promotions within the department.
During a board meeting via teleconference that only allows real-time comment by the supervisors and invited staffers, Villanueva made the case that the county has reduced funding for the department over the years in order to expand other areas of county government.
CEO Sachi Hamai said the sheriff’s analysis was flawed because he was considering federal and state funding streams that could never be allocated to law enforcement needs.
In fact, Hamai said, when you consider locally generated revenues, “the sheriff’s department gets pretty much the lion’s share of those discretionary funds.”
In 2019-20, 27% of those county funds were allocated to Villanueva’s department, she said.
One point of disagreement was the move to cut academy classes.
“Reducing academy classes makes no sense and is the worst possible decision that can be made,” Villanueva said. “Every academy class which does not graduate will result in $10 million more in excess overtime.”
Kuehl countered that adding academy classes hadn’t decreased overtime and pulling senior department members off duty to teach classes was actually driving overtime up for other deputies.
Solis, who stayed largely out of the fray, said the goal of the motion was to make sure the department was on solid footing “to protect the interests of our taxpayers,” pointing out that “there are millions of people that rely on us for safety net services.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she also wanted to see the sheriff work harder to bring down overtime costs.
“I’m frustrated, sheriff, that you haven’t been able to figure this out,” Hahn said. “Your budget deficit is not going to be sustainable … especially given the big hit that we’re going to take because of the coronavirus.”
However, Hahn balked at the idea of freezing promotions and abstained from that vote, which all of the other supervisors supported.
On Monday, the sheriff suggested that the county, along with other local, state and federal officials, needs to rethink spending priorities, potentially focusing more dollars on services with life-and-death consequences.
“There are certain county departments that provide life and safety to the community,” the sheriff said. “I guess those are what you’d call tier one.”
On Tuesday, he went a step further, saying, “Our line of work is probably the highest risk activity that any county employee can engage in.”
Kuehl took offense.
“The sheriff has such a sense of exceptionalism about his department that it’s honestly an insult to the fire department, the probation department, the children’s services department, all the health departments, because they all need more money,” she said.
The county Fire Department — another of the departments the sheriff considers “tier one” — was struggling to replace old equipment and increase staffing levels even before the first coronavirus case was identified in the U.S.
Voters turned down a proposal to provide more funding for firefighters and paramedics through a parcel tax.
The debate over how much funding the Sheriff’s Department deserves is likely to continue as the CEO and board work to modify a preliminary $35.5 billion budget to reflect current economic realities.