OC Sheriff and District Attorney Protest $49.5-Million Budget Cuts

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The Orange County Board of Supervisors adopted a budget adjustment Tuesday that would trim $49.5 million from the fiscal 2011-2012 budget despite protests from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who say the budget cuts threaten public safety.

Reacting to the concerns from the county’s top law enforcement officials, supervisors called for the formation of a task force study funding, especially because Gov. Jerry Brown’s most recent state budget radically shifts law enforcement revenues.

Both Hutchens and Rackauckas told supervisors that the budget cuts put them in danger of not being able to meet their constitutionally mandated duties. Officials from both agencies are concerned about the impacts of an Assembly bill that changes how the state pays for incarceration.

Supervisors voted 4-1 on the trim, with Supervisor Shawn Nelson dissenting. He said he preferred a more comprehensive approach toward budget cutting.

“I don’t have a lot left I can cut from,” said Hutchens. Since 2006, her staff had trimmed $53 million from the sheriff’s budget, she said.

Hutchens told supervisors that 600 jail beds would be closed as a result of the cuts. The detective division and patrols of unincorporated territory would alsobe affected.

She gave specifics of effects already being felt in the department, including backlogs in the crime lab, delays in the coroner response to death scenes, and reduced helicopter flight time, facility maintenance and training.

Hutchens told supervisors that contracts for jail beds for federal immigration and marshal’s prisoners were yielding $6 million less that budget expectations.

Rackauckas lectured county supervisors on how the court system works, prompting a terse exchange with Supervisor John Moorlach, who questioned the lengthy lecture on the trial process because of the packed audience and long agenda.

Rackauckas warned supervisors saying, “under all the scenarios I see, that is going to put the public safety at risk. So I think it’s important for me to explain why I oppose that.”

Rackauckas told supervisors that many defense attorneys were effectively gaming the system by demanding trials because they know there are shortages.

“In many courts, that is what our position is: an empty chair,” Rackauckas said.

Frank Ospino, interim public defender, also described such shortages, warning that plans to lay off nearly a dozen of his staff could ultimately cost the county more money. Court officials will appoint private attorneys for indigent clients at a much more expensive rate, Ospino said.

This budget mess is the result of a tax grab by Gov. Jerry Brown after county officials left $48 million unprotected after they refinanced Orange County’s bankruptcy debt in 2005. While county supervisors and senior finance staff knew that the refinancing had detached an important legislative authorization for vehicle license fees, they didn’t renew the authorization despite numerous opportunities.

County budget director Frank Kim told supervisors that the most recent budget adjustment had been accomplished by essentially reversing a series of budget augmentations adopted earlier this year. Kim also achieved budgetary savings by dipping into a series of general fund and public safety tax reserves and revising sales tax estimates.

Supervisor Pat Bates had harsh words for Sacramento.

Bates said she wanted Hutchens and Rackauckas to take their budget presentation to Sacramento. She wants the Legislature’s leaders, which approved the tax raid that prompted the cuts, to see that “these are going to the heart of the services we provide.”

“It doesn’t just strike at a bloated bureaucracy,” Bates said, “it strikes at the heart of the people of this county.”



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