The proposed $6.2 billion Orange County budget for the next fiscal year calls for a large increase in discretionary funds allocated to the Sheriff’s Department and comparatively tiny discretionary increases for social and health services, according to budget documents released Wednesday.
The sheriff’s department, which accounts for 19 percent of county discretionary spending, is in line to get 70 percent of the $41 million in new discretionary spending increases requested by county departments. Total discretionary spending next fiscal year is expected to be about $800 million.
Discretionary spending is the part of county budget the Board of Supervisors can choose how to spend among county departments and programs, and is viewed as a reflection of their priorities.
County officials call discretionary funding “general purpose revenue,” and its spending as “net county cost.” The vast majority of the county budget is federal and state tax money that is designated for specific purposes, such as welfare benefits and road construction.
The proposed budget for fiscal 2017-18 anticipates the current year’s $744 million discretionary funding available to the Board of Supervisors will increase by $53 million.
None of the five county supervisors returned phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Under the proposed budget, which covers the fiscal year starting July 1, each county department will receive a one-percent increase in its discretionary funding allocation, which comes to a total of just under $8 million.
Anything they want beyond that is requested in the form of discretionary increases known as augmentations. And among those increases, the Sheriff’s Department is on top.
Of $41 million in augmentation increases proposed for county departments, the Sheriff would get $29 million in addition to the one-percent increase, giving the department a total of $153 million in discretionary spending next year. The District Attorney’s budget would be augmented by $4.5 million above the one-percent increase, for a total of just under $62 million in discretionary spending.
In comparison, the total discretionary increase proposed for the Social Services Agency and Health Care Agency within the proposed budget is about $680,000 and $500,000, respectively. The total Social Services Agency discretionary budget allocation would be $50 million and the Health Care Agency $69 million.
OC Community Resources, which is responsible for homeless housing programs, among several other key responsibilities, is proposed to get a $117,000 increase in its $5 million discretionary budget allocation.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the budget includes an increase in discretionary spending on homelessness, an issue the supervisors have prominently described as a key priority for them to address.
The dominant growth in Sheriff’s Department spending in comparison to other services is part of a long-term trend in OC supervisors’ budget decisions.
Over the past decade, discretionary spending for the Sheriff’s Department has increased by $64 million, while there’s been a $10-million reduction to the Social Services Agency and $16 million drop to the Health Care Agency, according to county finance data.
The Sheriff’s Department expects to provide essentially the same level of service next fiscal year, said Brian Wayt, who oversees the department’s administrative services division and budget.
“We’re not making any service level reductions or anything, but we’re not wildly expanding anything,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
The Sheriff’s Department’s sharp cost increase is largely due to a $62-million, three year salary and benefits raise for sheriff’s deputies that supervisors approved last September. Of that amount, $37 million was projected to come from county discretionary funding, $11 million of which was expected in the upcoming fiscal year.
Supervisors approved the new labor contract unanimously and without public discussion. A spokeswoman for the deputies’ union said at the time it was the first increase in deputies’ take-home pay since 2008.
Even with the increased funding in the proposed budget, the sheriff still is expected to face a funding shortfall next fiscal year. The department says it needs an additional $15 million in discretionary funding – beyond the $29 million augmentation increase – to maintain its current level of service.
“We know we’re going to go into the year with a shortfall and hope to make that up either with expenditure savings or increased revenues,” Wayt said.
The department has some “volatile” funding sources, he noted, particularly from Proposition 172, California’s half-cent sales tax for local law enforcement.
Officials hope the Prop 172 revenues will come in higher than project and help close the funding gap, he said.
Also looming over the budget is a potential $38 million hit to the county’s discretionary funding from Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to shift cost for home care workers from the state to counties. The In-Home Supportive Services workers help elderly, blind and disabled people with housework, meal preparation and other daily tasks.
The county’s proposed budget released Wednesday doesn’t include the potential impact of the cost shift.
If the state’s current proposal moves forward, county officials expect a huge effect on the budget, growing each year to a massive $128 million in additional discretionary spending obligations in the 2022-23 fiscal year.
It’s unclear whether the governor will reduce the $38-million projected hit to Orange County in the upcoming state budget. Brown’s revised budget is expected to be released Thursday with updated projections.
Meanwhile, the head of the county’s largest employees union, which represents health and social service workers, says it would be smart for the county to invest in additional preventative services that ultimately save taxpayer dollars.
“There is no question that our communities thrive when we give people opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty, by providing access to health care so that they can overcome either physical or mental challenges, and access to training and job placement so that they can get jobs, and access to permanent affordable housing so that that they can get off the streets,” said Jennifer Muir Beuthin, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA).
“[It is] so clear that investment on the front end saves exponentially on the back end, both in dollars and in the type of community we want to live in.”
The county’s public budget hearings are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 13, and Wednesday, June 14. Final adjustments and approval of the budget is expected June 27.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.