In October 2019, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to freeze $143.7 million in LA County Sheriff’s Department funding and pause the department’s ability to hire certain non-sworn positions in response to the department’s “staggering” $63.4 million budget deficit.
On Tuesday, April 28, the board will consider a new motion to return $82.7 million — more than half of the withheld funds — to Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s control, so the LASD can better respond to the coronavirus crisis.
Before passing that first October motion, the supes lectured Sheriff Villanueva over the $63.4 million deficit, which they said would eat into the County General Fund, leaving other departments and services underfunded.
Much of the deficit, according to LA County CEO Sachi Hamai, was the result of significant spending on overtime and “under-realized revenue” — contracts and grants the department was expected to win, but either lost, or failed to apply for in the first place.
The problem, Villanueva said at the time, was that the county wasn’t funding “the true cost” of public safety. Rather than the $3.5 billion the budgeted for the department for fiscal year 2019-2020, in the sheriff’s estimation, the LASD should have had $3.9 billion with which to work.
The supervisors said, however, that like all other county departments facing overages, the department leaders had plenty of opportunity to work on the budget deficit mitigation plan that the CEO’s Office repeatedly requested from the LASD over the previous year, without success. The LASD was the only county department to end the year in the budgetary hole.
Thus, the supervisors forced the issue by freezing some of department officials’ spending power and their ability to hire certain administrative, non-sworn personnel.
The motion directed the sheriff to work with the CEO, plus County Counsel and the Auditor-Controller, to draft and follow through with a budget mitigation plan.
The supervisors stressed that their decision was not a personal attack against the sheriff, with whom members of the board have had a rather contentious relationship. At certain points during the October meeting, however, the supes were sharply critical. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, at one point, told the sheriff to put on his “big boy pants” and take the steps necessary to fix his budget problems.
Once the Auditor-Controller and CEO felt the department had made adequate progress toward realigning the massive budget, the two could recommend to the supervisors that the LASD was ready to get its money back.
On Track for an Even Worse Deficit
Yet, the sheriff is expected to end this current fiscal year with an even higher deficit of $89 million, according to the the April budget report the department sent to the CEO’s Office.
This outcome, according to the motion’s authors, Supervisors Kuehl and Hilda Solis, would leave the department with a cumulative deficit of $160 million between 2017 and 2020.
The department is on track to hit the $89 million deficit despite an expected $24.8 million in “budget solutions” that sheriff’s officials have identified to offset the running deficit, during weekly meetings with the CEO’s Office.
Part of the problem is that the department is expected to blast past its overtime budget by $143.4 million to hit a total of $286.8 million. The supes noted that the department reduced overtime for “non-contracted services” by $11.8 million, but that overspending on overtime in general remains a problem.
Sheriff Calls on Supes to Unfreeze the Money
In a press briefing on Monday, April 20, Sheriff Villanueva called on the supervisors to release the $143.7 million, praising his staff for reducing overtime spending by nearly $12 million when compared to fiscal year 2018-2019.
“My staff has been working very diligently with the CEO’s Office on budget mitigation efforts,” the sheriff said. “These efforts have resulted in a significant reduction in spending. Overtime expenditures have also been significantly reduced, even in the state of emergency.”
Several months ago, a portion of our budget was frozen,” Villanueva said. “Now, I’m not here to argue the politics involved in that, at this point.”
What is important, the sheriff said, is that the department now needs the money, which was “already allocated” to the department.
Villanueva said the the department would use some of the funds to equip 300 new patrol cars currently “collecting dust” with necessary electronics and emergency gear, as well as to pay for more cleaning and hygiene supplies for the jail system. The money would also allow the department to replenish depleted supplies necessary to process rape kits.
Supes’ Motion Offers a Compromise
Instead of releasing the whole pot of withheld cash, as requested by the sheriff, the board will vote on returning $75,100,000 for regular operations and $7,600,000 for expenses related to COVID-19.
In their motion Kuehl and Solis say that the sheriff must commit to a “more robust plan” to close gaps in the budget. The motion requests that the sheriff take one specific step toward this goal: reducing training academy classes which the sheriff chose to increase from four per year to 12 per year to address understaffing issues. Tripling the number of classes has forced the department to use sworn staff working overtime to assist the training classes.
The supes’ motion requests that the sheriff return to four classes per year, a number “previously approved” in the department’s budget. This would effectively erase $49 million of the budget gap.
“Budgets are inherently dynamic,” the motion says, “and while $83 million in funding will be transferred pursuant to this motion, we encourage the Sheriff to continue to work with the CEO to develop a more meaningful budget mitigation plan whereby future consideration may be given to allow the Sheriff to have access to the remaining portion of the funds set aside in PFU.”
To this end, the motion calls on the sheriff to submit a revenue analysis to CEO Hamai, who will then “review and make recommendations to the Board to realign the Department’s budgeted revenue” during the June budget adjustment phase, or at another point in the budgetary process.
“The County has been working with the Sheriff’s Department to ensure that we provide funding for COVID-related and other essential expenses,” Kuehl said in a statement, “but we also have a responsibility to the public to rein in the Department’s large budget overruns.”