As Orange County officials prepare to adopt their annual budget next week, they’re grappling with a host of issues like homelessness, big increases in Sheriff’s Department costs, and a backlog in processing sexual assault evidence.
County staff, in their budget presentation last week for fiscal year 2017-18, emphasized the county is trying to live within its financial means in the proposed budget. But they said the county plans to use $2 million in reserve funds to pay part of the Sheriff’s Department's costs.
Supervisors also were strongly criticized during comments from members of the public for giving too much in new spending to the Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office. They said more money needed to be spent on mental health, other social service issues and the county's own plan to end homelessness by September 2020.
The proposed budget, which was supported by supervisors last week and would take effect July 1, has a large increase in discretionary funds for the Sheriff’s Department and comparatively tiny discretionary increases for social and health services.
The Sheriff’s Department’s sharp cost increase is partly 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 this next fiscal year.
While there’s an extra $53 million in discretionary revenues projected next year, it was “challenging” to put together a balanced budget, largely due to a $50 million payment the county has to make to the state, said Michelle Aguirre, the county’s chief financial officer.
That payment, known as “VLFAA,” for “Vehicle License Fee Adjustment Amount,” will be doubling from the $25 million payment in the current fiscal year. The payments stem from a prior Board of Supervisors decision that left unprotected a revenue stream to cover county bankruptcy debt.
With an extra $25 million from the new revenues going to that payment, and another roughly $8 million going toward a one-percent growth in all county departments, Aguirre said, there wasn’t enough money left to ensure county departments could maintain current services and pay for new staff and services.
“So in order to fund the [county budget], we’re using a variety of one-time revenue sources…to fund those requests,” Aguirre said.
In particular, supervisors plan to use reserve funds to cover $2 million for the Sheriff’s Departments’ closed-circuit television camera upgrades at county jails, which would be the third year of a five year, $11-million upgrade.
They also plan to use $3.6 million in one-time funding to buy 130 new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department.
Additionally, the Sheriff’s Department says it’s facing backlogs at the county crime lab in processing three types of evidence: sexual assault kits, property crime DNA, and blood tests for driving under the influence of marijuana.
County CEO Frank Kim recommended adding four forensic scientist jobs, totaling $589,000 in county discretionary costs, which supervisors supported.
Todd Spitzer said there shouldn’t be tolerance for a backlog in the sex assault kits, and asked Sheriff Sandra Hutchens how big the backlog is and what the recommended timeframe is for processing sex assault kits.
Hutchens said she didn’t have that information and didn't know if there is a standard for processing times, but returned with answers later in the meeting after speaking with her staff.
She said the national recommendation is for rape kits to be processed within 30 days, and that the Sheriff's Department crime lab currently takes 30 to 45 days. At Spitzer's request, she said it would take another two forensic scientists, on top of the four recommended by Kim, to get the processing time down to a maximum of 30 days
Supervisors agreed to add the two extra forensic scientists, at a total of $200,000 a year.
Hutchens’ spokesman didn’t have the total number of sex assault kits that are backlogged.
Supervisors also agreed to add four new sheriff’s deputies for new home developments in rural South Orange County – within Rancho Mission Viejo and The Preserve at San Juan – at a cost of $455,000 in county discretionary dollars next fiscal year.
And two supervisors – Spitzer and Shawn Nelson – pushed for more sheriff’s deputies to patrol the homeless encampments at the Santa Ana River.
“Because of ongoing issues with homelessness, there’s been talk about funding two specific sheriff’s deputies to respond exclusively to the flood channels,” Nelson said, asking where those positions are in the budget.
Hutchens said there was no need for additional deputy positions for the homeless encampments, and that it’s a regional issue that requires collaboration with city police.
“We view this as a countywide issue to be dealt with,” Hutchens replied. “As you know, if we go in with public works and do an enforcement in a certain area, and homeless are displaced for whatever purpose, they are [going] into another area of the county.”
Nelson continued to press for more deputies, asking if the county has resources for adding two, four, or 10 deputies to conduct regular foot patrols.
Hutchens instead emphasized the need for "a countywide approach" and said the effort should not necessarily be focused on enforcement.
Spitzer then called for more enforcement at the homeless encampments. Kim, the county CEO, replied he might propose more sheriff resources at some point in the future, but until staff knows what's needed, it's "premature" to recommend expanding the number of deputies.
The sheriff has vacant positions it hasn’t yet filled, Kim noted.
Public commenters, meanwhile, said the board’s priorities were making homelessness issues worse.
“You just keep pouring more money into the DA’s office and the Sheriff’s Department, and cutting funding for services that help our neediest residents,” said Theresa Smith, a Placentia resident and activist.
Over the past decade, supervisors have increased discretionary spending for the Sheriff’s Department by $64 million, while the social services and public health departments saw cuts of $26 million in discretionary spending, according to county finance data.
“Why should the scandal-ridden district attorney and sheriff get any more money?” Smith asked, apparently referring to the ongoing jailhouse informants controversy.
Public comments at the meeting were dominated by about 60 residents who urged the Supervisors to take stronger action to provide sanitation and housing for homeless people, saying the board was failing to fund its own 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Newport Beach resident Jordan Hoiberg called attention to the county’s accumulation of nearly $182 million in unspent Mental Health Services Act funds, in addition to $71 million in reserves for that funding.
“So many homeless people with mental health problems are suffering and dying on the streets, while the county is given millions for their housing yet fails them,” Hoiberg said, calling it “a crime.”
“There’s money there for you to do the right thing with. Do it.”
County staff say most of the $182 million stockpile is needed to keep existing mental health programs going, but are reviewing it to see if any can be used for new programs. Supervisors gave the go-ahead earlier this month to use $5 million of the funding to create new permanent supportive housing for up to 50 homeless people with serious mental illnesses.
The latest official count, conducted in January, found 4,452 homeless people in Orange County, and officials say the actual number is almost certainly higher.
Tim Houchen, an advocate who was formerly homeless in the Santa Ana Civic Center, said the county was about seven years into its 10-year plan – which calls for “a safe, decent, sanitary housing opportunity for everyone” – but that supervisors weren’t treating it with urgency.
“This was a promise to homeless people,” Houchen told supervisors. “It’s a promise to the people that live in Orange County, the taxpayers, the people that live in the communities. It’s a promise to them that they don’t have to deal with homelessness any longer as well. I want the supervisors to please, execute the 10-year plan.”
Supervisors didn’t respond to any of the homelessness comments, including criticism of their handling of the ending-homelessness plan, other than an audible sigh from Chairwoman Michelle Steel.
The county budget adoption is scheduled for the supervisors’ meeting on June 27. Supervisors have the ability to adjust the spending plan throughout the year.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.