OC Poised to Approve $151 Million in Deputy Sheriff Raises

Board of Supervisors at the September 24 meeting.

More than $150 million in raises for Orange County deputy sheriffs are expected to be approved Tuesday by county supervisors, prompting questions about the fiscal impact on the county’s social and health programs as well as the transparency of disclosing such overall financial impacts only days before a vote.

OC supervisors have in recent years tried to redirect resources towards addressing homelessness and fixing systemic gaps in the mental health system. About $110 million of the deputy raises – and $48 million per year ongoing – will come from county funds that could be used for health and homeless services and other programs.

County officials who support the deal, which features raises totaling 15 percent over three years, argue it creates certainty about the next four years of deputy pay.

“It gets us four years of labor peace,” said Supervisor Doug Chaffee, adding “if we have it set for four years, it’s easier to plan for it.”

“We might have to dip slightly into our reserves. We hope not,” he added. “Generally the revenue projections are on the conservative side, and you hope” the county brings in more than projected.

“Much of the raise [cost] is passed on to the cities” that contract with the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement, Chaffee added.

A fiscal conservative who formerly led the California Republican Party is raising alarm bells, saying contract’s size is deeply troubling.

“With all due respect to public safety officials, pensions are out of control,” said Jon Fleischman, an OC-based conservative activist and publisher of Flash Report.

“Right now we need to be figuring out how to reduce total compensation for those in public safety, because it’s squeezing out the rest of the budget. And instead you’ve got this very, very generous package that again was negotiated behind closed doors,” he said.

The proposed contract grants deputy sheriffs a series of 3.5-percent raises between now and July 2022, moving salaries at that point to 14.7 percent above their current levels.

The total cost to the county over the four-year contract is estimated at $151 million, of which $110 million is from the county’s unrestricted funds that can be used for any government services. The annual impact is $48 million per year in unrestricted funds starting in July 2022.

The county’s cost estimates do not factor in the rise in county-paid pension costs due to the raises, which could total tens of millions of dollars. The county’s spokeswoman declined Monday to say what those pension impacts are and why they weren’t included in the agenda documents.

After months of negotiations, the deal points were tentatively agreed to in secret on Sept. 25 and were then ratified by union members.

The county posted the 119-page proposed contract online last Tuesday, Oct. 1 without noting it would be up for approval at today’s supervisor’s meeting or what its financial impacts are. Three days later on Friday – the last day to add items to the agenda – county officials revealed it would be up for approval Tuesday and what it would cost.

The county’s chief spokeswoman declined to say why the agenda item and fiscal impact wasn’t posted sooner.

“We posted this item in accordance with all federal and state applicable laws,” said county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson, citing hurdles for posting the item that were already resolved by last Tuesday.

The deputies union’s leader and another county supervisor said the contract is a fair agreement that ensures the county knows what its costs will be for the next four years.

“What we were hoping to see was a fair deal, and I think we accomplished that,” said Tom Dominguez, a sheriff investigator and president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

“I think the benefit that the deputies and the taxpayers receive is knowing what the future obligations will be for the next four years when it comes to paying benefits,” he said.

“It will help the county in its recruiting and retention arena, when it comes to making sure we have the best people working at the Sheriff’s Department. It doesn’t guarantee that people are gonna stay, and it doesn’t guarantee that people are gonna come to us, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Supervisor Don Wagner also supports the contract, calling the raises are both fair and sustainable.

“We worked with staff to make sure that it is in fact sustainable,” Wagner told Voice of OC. “[I] expect to support it.”

Sheriff Don Barnes also is supportive.

“Attracting the best people is important, but equally important is retaining them over the course of a career,” he said in a statement. “Based on the negotiated agreement, I believe the contract fairly compensates our employees, and continues our tradition of providing the high level of law enforcement services the community expects.”

Others question the last-minute posting of the item and missing estimates of pension cost impacts.

“You have to assume that things are not on the up and up when the public is excluded from the process, all the way to the point of slipping it onto the agenda at the last possible minute,” said Fleischman, a former California Republican Party executive director.

“It’s very disturbing that none of the information made available to the public, and therefore presumably to the supervisors, even talks about the long term pension impacts of these raises,” he added.

“We have a number of supervisors who have run for office as fiscal conservatives. But a vote for this contract shows that simply not to be the case.”

Nichelson, the county spokeswoman, declined to say why the long-term pension costs weren’t included in the official cost estimate.

The pension cost estimate might have to wait until after the contract is approved, said Chaffee, the county supervisor.

“You’ll eventually get an answer. I think they have to wait for actual approval, and then we run some more costs,” he said.

The vote comes on the heels of Sheriff’s Department outspending its revenues by $33 million during the year ending June 30 – prompting the county to pull millions of dollars from other departments like the Health Care Agency to cover the shortfall.

The sheriff’s large spending increases have come as the department’s staffing and service levels have remained about the same, officials say. The ballooning costs are mostly from increasing costs for its existing employees, largely from pay raises for deputies that supervisors approved in 2016.

The escalation in sheriff spending came after years of county supervisors cutting discretionary spending from health and social services and substantially increasing spending at the Sheriff’s Department, largely for salary and benefits for existing employees.

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.

For the latest contract negotiations, county officials put together a chart comparing how OC sheriff deputies’ compensation compares with their counterparts in other counties and city police officers.

County officials did not include the salary comparison in the public agenda documents. Asked why, their spokeswoman said the county “does not include salary comparison information” in agenda documents.

The comparison shows that without the proposed raises, Orange County currently pays deputies more in total compensation than the other five large sheriff’s departments in Southern California – covering the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura.

Among those counties and local OC police departments, Orange County pays about 8 percent more than the average total compensation, and ranked seventh in total compensation among the 27 agencies, according to the county survey.

The total compensation for an Orange County deputy sheriff at the top of the salary range was about $18,600 per month, or $223,000 per year, according to the county data.

Dominguez, the sheriff’s union president, disagreed with comparing OC’s compensation with other county sheriff’s departments.

“We don’t compete against major counties, we compete against the many municipal police departments throughout the region who pay less towards their pensions,” Dominguez said.

Fleischman, the conservative publisher, disputed the union’s claims that agencies need to increase pay because they’re having a hard time recruiting people.

“There are no law enforcement agencies in Orange County that are having trouble filling positions,” Fleischman said.

Dominguez said that’s “at odds with what has been widely reported as fact,” adding that OC deputies “pay more out of their pockets into the pension system than any other cops in Orange County and perhaps the state.”

“This is a fair deal not only for the men and women who pin on the badge, it is a fair deal for Orange County taxpayers.”

The deputy contract comes for a vote as unions representing thousands of other county workers are in the middle of their own negotiations with supervisors for new contracts.

The county Democratic Party’s chairwoman said the county should be making sure its other workers get fair compensation as well, including social workers and eligibility technicians.

“The county should take care and make sure they compensate all of their staff fairly and equitably,” said Ada Briceño Monday.

“They can’t do this for law enforcement only. They’ve got to take care of workers across the board, whatever workers they are. We can’t make the pay gap any larger. You can’t be taking care of [just] one group of workers who are [mostly] male.”

Fred Whitaker, the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, didn’t return a phone message seeking comment on the proposed raises.

Supervisor Chaffee said his goal is to achieve equity between the other union members and the sheriffs deputies.

“That’s my goal, and I think that’s what you’ll eventually see. All of [the other unions] are waiting to see what the sheriff [deputies] will do,” Chaffee said. “Every employee is part of the puzzle and very important.”

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