As the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors met to discuss the financial implications the coronavirus pandemic has had on the county’s budget in a special meeting Wednesday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva held a livestreamed briefing to discuss the Sheriff’s Department’s $400 million budget deficit.
This comes after Villanueva announced budget cuts last week, ranging from closing both the Altadena and Marina Del Rey Sheriff’s Stations to eliminating the Parks Bureau, in response to the gap, prompting the Board of Supervisors to respond by directing the sheriff to immediately cease efforts to close stations without any county vetting.
“I know a lot of households are suffering out there because of the COVID-19 pandemic and these unprecedented times (leaving) everyone in these dire financial situations,” Villanueva said. “Local, state (and) federal governments are also going to be making these tough choices, deciding what to fund, what not to fund, and our department is no different.”
During Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the 5th District, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, said that her offices have been inundated with calls and emails regarding the sheriff’s announcement.
“I personally was astounded that this announcement came, truly, out of nowhere during a time when people are already full of anxieties as it relates to COVID-19, and the insensitivity toward bringing this forward with really no explanation, other than, ‘The board is making me do this,’ when, in fact, it’s quite the opposite,” Barger said. “This board has been completely supportive of sitting down and working on ways to plug the financial gap that is currently in place in that department, and rather than do that, the number grows more.
“What I tell my constituents is that they have a voice, and I want them to use their voice. And, I will stand with them in ensuring that public safety, especially the front line, is not compromised as a result of decisions that are made in the debt of dark without full discussion and transparency,” Barger added.
Villanueva says no final decisions have been made in regards to his list of cuts, adding that the closures of two stations were simply “a potential result of the massive budget deficits we’re being placed under.”
Even so, he said consolidating the stations would mean just the overhead, not the deputies.
“The administrative side can be folded into a larger station so we achieve some economies of scale (and) we avoid duplication,” Villanueva said. “The deputies (would) remain at their stations, and we have that scenario that plays out in multiple stations throughout the department.”
The Sheriff’s Department is one of 36 departments in the county vying for funding, all of which have what Villanueva described as “competing priorities,” however it is one of utmost importance, according to the sheriff.
“We’re not increasing the size of the department in any way, we’re just covering the functions that we all need,” he said. “These are not discretionary functions … We have to cover these activities, and we will continue to cover them no matter what. And that is my commitment.”
Overall, the cost to run the Sheriff’s Department is $3.9 billion, though currently the projected budget is $400 million short, as the county is offering to fund $3.5 billion.
“At this point in time, I’m not really sure where the sheriff believes that we have an additional $400 million that we could give to his department,” county CEO Sachi Hamai said during the Board of Supervisors budget meeting. “We look at all of our budgets comprehensively throughout the county, and that would mean that we would have to curtail over a 15% reduction to all of the other county departments in order to provide $400 million to his department.”
With the county’s projected budget deficit at $1.2 billion for the fiscal year, followed by at least another $1 billion next year, Hamai said the county simply isn’t getting the revenues needed to provide the Sheriff’s Department with those extra funds.
“I think it’s very clear in this economic downturn throughout this country that the sales tax revenue that we rely on and the realignment revenues that we rely on from the state is just not there,” Hamai added. “And so, again, I’m not really clear why he believes, or where he believes we would get that money from.”
While the motion approved by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday directs the sheriff to consult with Hamai and the auditor-controller in identifying appropriate budget curtailments that are properly vetted and will have limited impact on public safety, it is yet to be seen what those curtailments will include.
Nevertheless, Villanueva says public safety will not suffer.
“In recognition of the fact we’re facing unprecedented financial uncertainty, this department is prepared to do anything to make sure we keep everyone safe,” he added. “Every single resource we have that we can throw at public safety we will to the very end. We will never abandon you in any way no matter what the circumstances.”