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Orange County supervisors followed in the tradition of their predecessors Tuesday in beefing up law enforcement spending over other services as they prepared to pass a $6.1 billion county budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Under the proposed budget supported by supervisors at their annual budget hearing, the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office – which account for about one-seventh of the county’s overall spending – are on track to get over 75 percent of the extra $37 million in discretionary spending beyond an across-the-board 1-percent increase to each department.
Within that funding, supervisors added spending at the sheriff’s department beyond what the county’s chief executive recommended, adding $340,000 a year and two employees for a cyber crime unit after a plea from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
“The bars are going up” on the county discretionary spending on law enforcement, “and I don’t see that changing,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has made it clear he wants the county to continue dipping further into its unrestricted general fund to pay for more law enforcement.
The county’s plan also includes about $13 million to purchase, upgrade, and operate homeless service centers – the first of which is slated to come online later this year – and about $25 million for a new countywide animal shelter.
The spending plan drew criticism from homeless advocates Tuesday, who urged the county to invest more in permanent supportive housing to get people off the streets and in doing so save taxpayer dollars and lesson the burden on local hospitals.
“All of the research shows that chronic homelessness is very expensive” to the public in the form of emergency room visits, jail stays, and other costs, said Eve Garrow of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California , adding that one study in Los Angeles found that it’s five times more expensive to leave chronically homeless people on streets than to house them.
They said permanent housing for chronically homeless people is a key part of the county’s ending homelessness plan but only has $200,000 of the extra discretionary spending in the coming fiscal year’s proposed budget.
The county has the housing in its plan, “yet for some reason it lacks the budget to carry that out,” said Cynthia Sanchez of the faith-based Orange County Congregation Community Organization.
Benefit eligibility workers and their union reps at AFSCME Local 2076 also argued that many local residents can’t get the benefits they’re entitled to and have often already paid for through taxes because the county has too few eligibility workers.
“The line is out the door every day,” said eligibility worker Janice Buchko, adding that she often sees people arrive at her office 7:30 a.m. and have to wait three hours before seeing an eligibility worker.
In response, Supervisor Shawn Nelson pointed the finger at Sacramento, which hasn’t corrected a property tax distribution formula that gives Orange County’s county government the lowest share of county property taxes among all California’s 58 counties. The shortfall amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in less revenue each year compared to similar counties like San Diego County.
“Our citizens…put the money in, Sacramento sends it somewhere else,” Nelson said. “The reason our general fund revenue isn’t available” for all these things is because someone else is spending it, he said.
The budget now goes to a final approval by supervisors at their June 28 meeting.
A Budget Boom for Cops and Prosecutors
Law enforcement current accounts for less than 20 percent of the county’s overall spending, with the county handling numerous other responsibilities including overseeing the county’s mental health system and protecting children who are abused by caregivers.
But since fiscal year 2000, the county sheriff and DA budgets have more than tripled their share of the county’s unrestricted spending, growing from 7 percent to 23 percent.
County CEO Frank Kim last week recommended delaying a decision to add the cyber crime unit spending until November, given that the state found it was sending too much public safety sales tax money to counties – which is expected to reduce the county’s revenue for law enforcement next year below earlier estimates.
But Hutchens urged supervisors to approve the spending, saying her economic crimes investigators are overwhelmed with 70 to 100 cases per month and need help.
“They have been trying to keep up with the burgeoning cyber crime” and “just can’t do it,” Hutchens said.
As part of its discretionary funding boost, the District Attorney’s Office received about $1.3 million extra per year to add 16 staff to handle extra evidence at the agency, including body-worn police cameras and cell-phone videos.
Supervisors noted that the growth in such evidence will also produce extra workload burdens on the Public Defender’s Office, which has a constitutional duty to represent many of the clients prosecuted by the DA. Though that agency officially didn’t ask for, nor receive, any additional funding to handle that extra work.
“I figure whatever it costs the district attorney…it’s gonna cost you at least half,” Spitzer told interim Public Defender Sharon Petrosino. ”We’re talking about millions [of dollars].”
Supervisors also voted to dedicate $549,000 in first-year funding to the county’s new ethics commission, which was approved by voters in the June 7 primary.
County staff had recommended two and a half positions – an executive director, staff specialist, and half of a County Counsel lawyer’s time – but a decision on the exact staffing was delayed.
Supervisor Michele Steel, who opposes the commission itself, was the sole vote against funding the commission.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.