Orange County Sheriff’s Department officials are expecting to overrun their budget this year by $33 million, mostly due to increased salaries and benefits.

The mid-year overruns could end up eating into millions of dollars in county discretionary money that could pay for other services, according to budget documents.

“That is a huge number,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ request for a mid-year budget increase of up to $35 million, during the April 24 Board of Supervisors’ meeting.

About $30 million of the estimated overrun is in salary and benefits, and salary increases were a major factor in the overruns, according to county staff.

“It sounds ludicrous,” Spitzer said of the increase request.

Hutchens and her second-in-command, Undersheriff Don Barnes, didn’t attend the meeting, where an increase of up to $35 million was discussed and unanimously approved by the supervisors, including Spitzer.

At the meeting, Hutchens and Barnes’ staff said a mid-year increase was anticipated before the fiscal year began and is needed to maintain existing service levels.

The overruns are in addition to the significant boost in discretionary funding to the Sheriff’s Department at the start of the budget year, which already called for using $2 million in reserves to fund the department this year.

In the annual county budget approved by supervisors last June, the Sheriff’s Department received an 18 percent increase in discretionary funding, or $31-million.

By comparison, the county health care and social services agencies each received a 1-percent increase, totaling $928,000 and $495,000, respectively. And the county department that oversees homeless housing and shelters, OC Community Resources, received a 2-percent increase, or $117,000.

The county’s annual budget runs from July 1 to June 30.

A breakdown of the Sheriff’s Department mid-year overrun shows a large majority – about $30 million – was due to increased expenses for salaries and benefits beyond the increase approved in the annual budget.

The mid-year overruns include $19.3 million for salaries, overtime and cash benefits, and $10 million in increased retirement and retiree medical costs, according to the county breakdown.

While the Sheriff’s Department’s costs have escalated significantly in recent years, the number of deputies employed decreased from calendar year 2016 to 2017, according to county data, from 1,399 to 1,329 deputies.

Under the plan authorized by county supervisors, county officials will first use non-general fund money to pay for the cost overruns, and then use general fund money to cover the rest. It’s unclear how much general fund money that will end up being.

The county’s general fund money is unrestricted, and can be used for services like child protection investigations, programs that reduce the likelihood of people re-offending, and evidence-based programs to improve mental health and reduce homelessness.

County officials told Voice of OC in March the general fund reserves are below industry-recommended levels, which are important to preserve so existing service levels can continue during the next economic downturn.

A similar explanation was given at a supervisors’ special meeting on homelessness on April 17.

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 in September 2016. The raises tie up much of the growth in county discretionary dollars that could go to other services or expanding sheriff’s services.

The five supervisors approved the pay raises unanimously and without public discussion.

The sheriff’s deputies’ union has been one of the largest campaign donors to the Board of Supervisors, according to campaign finance records.

As the deputies were in negotiations for a new contract in 2016, their union gave $10,000 to a political action committee that, on the same day, spent $14,000 on ads opposing Supervisor Andrew Do before the June primary. Do was running in a tight re-election race that year to hold on to his seat.

After Do voted for the union’s new contract that September, the union spent $100,000 on ads supporting Do ahead of the November general election, according to a public disclosure. Do ended up winning re-election by 0.4 percent of the vote, or 648 votes out of 151,774.

County officials have said the 2016 raises were important to keep the Sheriff’s Department compensation competitive with other police agencies in the region, including attracting strong candidates for deputy positions and to keep existing deputies from transferring to other agencies.

In 2015, before the raises went into effect, the median total compensation for an Orange County sheriff’s deputy was about $194,000, according to county data published online by Transparent California. That included roughly $114,000 in median total pay and $80,000 in median total benefits, according to the data.

The pre-raise compensation was more than in neighboring San Diego County, which has the most similar population size to Orange County of all counties in the state.

In 2015, the median total compensation for San Diego County sheriff’s deputies was $134,000, compared to about $194,000 for Orange County, according to the counties’ data posted by Transparent California.

In 2017, the year after Orange County’s increase, the median total compensation for an OC sheriff’s deputy grew to about $218,000 in median total compensation, including $132,000 in pay and $86,000 in benefits, according to county data.

The escalation in Sheriff’s Department spending comes amid a broader trend among county supervisors to cut discretionary spending from health and social services and substantially increase spending at the Sheriff’s Department, largely for salary and benefits.

Over the five fiscal years ending in June 2016, county supervisors cut about $39 million in annual funding they control from the county Health Care Agency, which includes mental health services, while at the same time adding $59 million to the Sheriff’s Department’s annual budget.

Leading into the most recent budget cycle last spring, the Sheriff’s Department requested a $37 million increase in its expenses beyond the percentage-increase each department automatically receives, county staff said at last week’s supervisors’ meeting.

That increase was larger, both percentage-wise and in dollars, than other large county departments. At the recommendation of county CEO Frank Kim, the supervisors authorized a $22 million increase to the Sheriff’s Department beyond the automatic percentage increase that goes to all departments.

That left a $15 million funding gap for the department going in to the new fiscal year, which started on July 1 of last year.

The gap, however, grew to an estimated $33 million as of last week, county budget officials said at the meeting last week.

Another factor county officials cited for the Sheriff’s Department funding gap is ongoing reductions in state reimbursements of the Sheriff’s Department to cover the department’s staff at Superior Court trial courts.

The reduced state revenues prompted the county to spend an additional $4 million in discretionary money this fiscal year, which was incorporated into the sheriff’s budget from the start of the fiscal year. The drop in state revenues does not appear to be part of the $33 million estimated mid-year overrun.

Neither Hutchens nor Barnes attended the April 24 Board of Supervisors meeting about the cost overruns. Instead, the man in charge of the department’s financial and administrative services, Brian Wayt, answered questions from the supervisors.

“Revenue is kind of holding flat. Expenses are growing pretty dramatically,” Wayt told the supervisors regarding the court security services. The department, he said, has been meeting with court officials to look at ways to “streamline those operations.”

The Sheriff’s Department’s chief spokeswoman, Carrie Braun, didn’t have answers Monday afternoon about why Hutchens and Barnes weren’t there. Hutchens has endorsed Barnes in the June primary election to replace her as sheriff-coroner.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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