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Orange County supervisors starkly shifted taxpayer spending priorities over the last decade – cutting millions in unrestricted dollars from public health and social services while more than doubling such spending on the Sheriff’s Department, in a trend that’s continuing this year.

Spending of the public money the Board of Supervisors directly controls – known as discretionary or unrestricted funds – on the county Health Care Agency dropped by $18 million, from $99 million per year in 2010 to $81 million in 2020, while the Sheriff’s Department jumped by over $100 million, from $92 million to $198 million over the same period, according to budget records.

OC sheriff’s deputies now make more than double what the county’s social workers do in median pay and benefits, according to payroll data, a gap that has widened further in recent years. As of last year, deputies made about $221,000 in median total compensation, compared with about $104,000 for social workers. 

The county’s Social Services Agency has seen a similar drop to the Health Care Agency in discretionary funding over the last decade, from $62 million a decade ago to $50 million this year.

Today, Sheriff’s officials are regularly among the highest paid county workers.

One sheriff’s sergeant in 2018 earned a total compensation of $471,615, with more than $333,000 divided about equally between regular pay, overtime pay and specialty pay, according to county data published by Transparent California.

Sheriff Don Barnes earns a total compensation of about $472,970 in 2018 and assistant sheriffs typically earn above $400,000, with one assistant sheriff, Stuart Greenberg, earning $607, 591 in 2018, according to the Transparent California database.

Assistant Sheriff Jeff Hallock earns about the same as county CEO Frank Kim, at about $439,000, according to the Transparent California database.

Most county supervisors didn’t return messages seeking comment for this article.

The sheriff increases in recent years weren’t driven by increased service levels, according to the department, but rather were mainly due to large salary and benefit raises approved by county supervisors that coincided with elections in 2016 and this coming year. 

The deputies’ union says the raises are crucial for keeping compensation competitive and not losing deputies to other law enforcement agencies that offer higher pay and benefits.

“It goes back to what we’re asked to do,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, in an interview Friday with Voice of OC.

“To have a well trained officer, it takes money to get there,” he added, pointing to training and other requirements of peace officers under state law.

The office of Supervisor Don Wagner, who joined the board last year, said he voted for the most recent round of deputy raises because he prioritizes public safety.

“Since Supervisor Wagner has not been on the Board for the past several years, he won’t second guess his colleagues on some of the tough decisions made in the past. For the Sheriff’s contract, he voted for it because public safety is one of highest priorities of government,” said Wagner’s spokeswoman, Rachel Lurya.

“Given the State is not helping much and they are releasing dangerous prisoners, it is imperative the public gets the protection they deserve. The budget decisions this year will be arduous for the Board, as they will need to do more with less.”

In an interview, Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who also joined the board early last year, said he doesn’t know what happened with budgets before he was elected supervisor. But after tens of millions in sheriff cost overruns, driven mainly by the raises, Chaffee said it might be time for the Sheriff’s Department to stay within its budget.

“I think we’re kind of getting to the point where it’s time to say ‘stick to your own budget,’ ” Chaffee said Friday. “We’ll see if we can’t hold the line.”

Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller said the broader shift in local government funding priorities was evident in the 2011 Fullerton police beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia.

“That’s a canary in the coal mine. That boy needed medical help, psychiatric help…he didn’t deserve to die for being mentally ill,” Smoller said.

“If you put the money into health care, which is clearly what we need, you’d get a different response. If there were health care workers surrounding Kelly Thomas…I guarantee you they wouldn’t have beat him to death…he was not a threat to public safety.”

Deputies making more than twice what social workers do is “certainly a disparity,” Chaffee said.

“The sheriffs have a more dangerous job, that’s for sure. And I’ve been through all the different jails that we have, and it’s not a pleasant place to work. Yet some of our health care workers actually work in the jails, to take care of the medical needs there,” he added.

“I didn’t know that was such a great a disparity [in compensation]. But the contracts that we did were four-year contracts. So unless we negotiate a reduction, I think we’re kind of stuck where we are until the next round of [contracts] come up.”

The sheriff’s deputies’ union is the largest campaign spender on OC supervisor and sheriff elections, spending more than $1 million over the last five years through its political action committee.

In his farewell message in March, the outgoing president of the deputies’ union reminded members that political involvement is essential to their success.

“This organization’s foundation for success is in political action,” said Tom Dominguez, who led the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs for nine years.

“I encourage each and every one of you to look at what we’ve accomplished, the great success that we’ve had, and know that it’s because of our political action. And that is going to carry the day. Whatever happens, whatever gets thrown in our way, political action is going to make it work.”

The sharply rising sheriff expenses – which have led to more than $100 million in budget overruns in the last few years – have been driven mainly by deputy pay raises supervisors approved in 2016 and 2019.

Both sets of raises were approved with no public debate or comment by the county supervisors, and lock in a series of annual salary increases.

The deputies’ union says such raises are crucial for retaining deputies.

“We don’t want to lose anybody from the Sheriff’s Department” to another agency that offers more benefits, Viramontes said, adding some actuaries say it costs $200,000 when a deputy leaves for another agency. “Our guys are some of the best trained.”

Critics are calling on the supervisors to shift their spending priorities back to public health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic only underscores the folly of the supervisors’ budget priorities. They should reinvest in public health and commit more discretionary funding to affordable housing—not an already bloated police state,” said Eve Garrow, a homelessnss policy analyst and advocate with the ACLU of Southern California.

The September 2016 raises were approved in the midst of a tight November re-election battle for Supervisor Andrew Do, whose largest campaign spender ended up being the deputies’ union.

While contract negotiations were ongoing that June, the deputies’ union opposed Do with $10,000 in negative ads just before the June primary.

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 public disclosure records. Do ended up winning re-election by 0.4 percent of the vote, or 648 votes out of 151,774.

The 2019 deputy raises are projected to ultimately require an additional $48 million per year from county general funds, which could otherwise be used for public health, homeless services and other programs.

A few months later, in the run-up to the March 2020 primary election, the deputies’ union spent a total of $692,000 on ads for the two supervisors running for re-election, Andrew Do and Don Wagner.

Once a county or city agrees to raises for their employees, they’re legally locked in and required under state law to follow through in paying the raises.

The deputy sheriff benefit and raise packages came as other county departments faced shortages.

In recent months, after supervisors pulled millions from health funds to pay for Sheriff’s Department overages, the county saw shortages of critical health and safety supplies for the ongoing pandemic, like personal protective equipment for first responders.

County candidates are limited in how much they can directly raise from donors – currently at $2,100 per donor each election cycle. But there are no limits on how much political action committees can spend directly on ads supporting and opposing candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign.

Such unlimited spending is protected under both state law and court precedents like the Citizens United ruling.

In recent days, activists protesting police violence nationwide, including in Orange County, have called for local governments to shift spending from law enforcement to community services like after-school programs and mental health support.

Justice Crutup, an activist in Anaheim, called for a re-investment into extracurricular activities like Boys and Girls Clubs so young people have a place to go to spend their time.

“I believe the moneys that we do divest from the enormous budgets that these police departments are allocating each year should go to these programs,” Crutup said.

“In general, the police departments have the largest budgets of any other allocation when it comes to budgets. And I believe that’s a big problem, because it causes an militarized police force.”

Local elected officials in the city that hosts the county government have faced stark consequences for opposing police unions.

Last year, the Santa Ana police union put over $200,000 into recall efforts against two Santa Ana City Council members who voted against $25 million in police raises earlier in the year. The union later dropped its effort against Juan Villegas, but continued to fund the recall against the other council member, Cecilia Iglesias, who publicly feuded with the union’s president.

The recall effort, which involved police union-funded mailers saying Iglesias voted to defund the police department, succeeded last month during an all-mail election, with voters ousting Iglesias from the council.

And in the run-up to the 2012 general election, the Costa Mesa police union’s law firm put under surveillance two councilmen who had opposed raises, according to criminal charges filed years later that resulted in a conviction and jail time.

The private investigator hired for the job pleaded guilty in 2017 to a scheme to entrap the councilmen in embarrassing and illegal acts, including calling 9-1-1 to falsely accuse one of the councilman of driving under the influence.

Meanwhile, the trend continues this year.

Faced with another $19 million in Sheriff’s Department cost overruns driven by the raises, county supervisors approved a plan in April to help fill it with at least $6 million in general fund dollars that would otherwise be available for other services like public health.

Supervisors approved the resource shift unanimously in April without a word of public discussion.

“We’re redirecting money from public health, in the middle of a pandemic, towards police, in the middle of mass protests against not just police violence but the factors that contribute [to] police violence,”  said Hairo Cortes, an activist with Chispa OC.

“It’s not even like an issue of [the Board of Supervisors] not listening. It feels like an issue of them not caring. Of them seeing and being confronted with these two crises, and responding in the worst possible way they could have chosen to respond.”

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

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