Wednesday, June 15, 2010 | Orange County supervisors spent much of Tuesday afternoon in a budget session so uncomfortable it featured worried local law enforcement leaders, angry hospital leaders and a supervisor reduced to tears.
Yet it was increasingly clear that in balancing the 2010-11 budget, the most important decisions will be made in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento.
Today, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is meeting with officials from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to hammer out final details of a program called “Beds for Feds” that will dictate whether Hutchens’ department is able to last out the year without significant layoffs and service cuts.
“We have a very critical meeting tomorrow with ICE, and we hope to have some definite answers,” Hutchens told a visibly nervous county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday at their annual budget straw vote session. The budget will be formally adopted June 29.
Supervisors on Tuesday helped Hutchens approach a balanced budget for next year by dipping into reserves, redevelopment funds and sales tax revenue to restore more than $23 million in planned cuts.
But a significant portion of that plan rests on negotiations — which Hutchens has spent the last year conducting with ICE — to house undocumented felons at county jails.
The bed rate Orange County will receive from the federal government is unclear, and budget planners are hesitant to mention what the rate is that achieves an estimated $12.5 million in revenue from the contract.
Even Supervisor John Moorlach — Hutchens’ staunchest supporter on the board — wondered, and warned, out loud about what happens if the feds can’t work out a deal, already a year in the works.
Supervisor Pat Bates asked Hutchens whether she’s ready to implement backup plans if “Beds for Feds” doesn’t work out. Hutchens replied: “While we are optimistic, we know it’s a competitive environment.”
And, she added, “we have a backup plan.”
Hutchens warned that the backup isn’t pretty because it includes layoffs and service cuts.
Another wrinkle recently tossed into the sheriff’s budget plans are designs from Sacramento budget planners to use county facilities throughout the state for housing state prisoners.
That could complicate bed space that Orange County has planned for undocumented felons. And judging how bad Sacramento has been about paying its bills, Hutchens and the supervisors called such plans “disastrous” for county hopes for a balanced budget.
“If we had to implement this, we would be looking at overcrowding or early release,” Hutchens said of the state plans, which she and law enforcement leaders across California oppose.
At this point, the Sheriff’s Department has cut more than $53 million in recent years. Hutchens said any more cuts mean fewer deputies patrolling unincorporated areas; fewer investigators, bomb squads and helicopter patrols; and backlogs at crime labs.
“We would become a reactive instead of proactive department,” Hutchens said. “To deconstruct this department anymore will have devastating impacts, in terms of who we service.”
That was the same message delivered by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who has spent the last few years doling out furloughs, reducing prosecutors and even using volunteer law students and civil lawyers to deal with caseloads.
“We are struggling to cover all these courtrooms,” Rackauckas said, noting he is down 40 frontline prosecutors.
“A price is paid,” he warned. He added, “We are stretched as far as we can go.”
Any further cuts are “not sustainable.”
Supervisors dipped into the same mix of reserves, redevelopment funds and sales tax projections to steer nearly $12 million to the district attorney to achieve a balanced budget.
After that, the afternoon got ugly.
At one point, County Supervisor Bill Campbell openly wept as he described the critical work of the county’s human relations commission — which is in jeopardy of losing a $300,000 county subsidy.
Also potentially on the chopping block is the recently formed Office of Independent Review — also on the hook for $300,000 — because some supervisors are looking for ways to keep other agencies afloat and are unimpressed with public results from the watchdog agency.
County hospital administrators also walked out of the budget workshop enraged that supervisors are unwilling to steer more money to reimburse medical care for indigents. They warned that a health crisis is on the way.
The most terrifying fact facing supervisors Tuesday was the warning from budget staffers that every estimate by budget planners for the $5.4 billion budget hashed out for fiscal 2010-11 hangs on what Sacramento does. And with the state facing a $20 billion deficit as well as a gubernatorial election, no one is expecting a budget on time.
“If these risk factors don’t materialize, then layoffs and furloughs in the public safety arena are next up,” county CEO Tom Mauk said, warning about the impact of decisions from Washington on “Beds for Feds” and Sacramento’s budget plans.
That’s when it gets really ugly, Mauk warned.
“It will affect front-line services.”
Please contact Norberto Santana, Jr., directly at [email protected].
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the amount estimated by the Sheriff’s Department in terms of revenues for fiscal year 2010-11 from the “Beds for Feds” program (which houses undocumented criminals in local jails) was incorrect in an earlier version of this report. The county budget estimates that $12.5 million will be earned from the federal contract if it’s approved.