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SGV Tribune

LA County puts brakes on Sheriff Department spending, even while releasing millions

Supervisors’ action during a tense meeting rekindled a rift over who has control of the department’s purse strings.

Faced with billions in lost revenue over the next year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, April 28, put the brakes Sheriff’s Department spending, even as it released tens of millions of dollars.

The board slapped an immediate freeze on Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s promotions in the wake of 44 that came during a week in April. The board also withheld $61 million of the $143 million the sheriff to address expenses he described as essential law enforcement functions.

The county will release about $83 million of Villanueva’s requested funding for capital expenses and “unforeseen” costs related to the pandemic. But under the plan approved Tuesday, Villanueva is required to continue to work with the county chief executive to review and reduce department costs.

“It’s alarming, and it was alarming last year when we found that even though we asked the Sheriff’s Department to deal with what was a $63 million deficit last year, instead of actually dealing with, it was continuing to grow and grow,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who authored a motion on Tuesday, reining in the spending.

It’s the latest feud between the board and the sheriff, elected in an upset in November 2018. Supervisors earlier replaced Villanueva as director of the county’s Emergency Operations Center with county CEO Sachi Hamai, handing her control of dozens of agencies dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

Rifts over the sheriff’s budget — which started before the pandemic — prompted Kuehl and Supervisor Hilda Solis in October to seek to “sequester” the $143 million in a holding account.

Villanueva requested that the money be unlocked, saying his department had little control over overtime and other expenses caused by recent emergencies, including:

  • The helicopter crash near Calabasas that killed Kobe Bryant and seven others in January
  • The Nov. 14 shooting at Saugus High School that killed three and wounded three others
  • Unexpected liability judgments, retirement payouts, retiree health expenses and workers compensation costs
  • And the enduring coronavirus outbreak

Villanueva also said he needs funding to purchase supplies and maintain his department’s fleet of aging vehicles, including rescue and patrol helicopters.

On Tuesday, Villanueva continued to push for the full funding while questioning the board’s ability to control it.

“​You’ve defunded the Sheriff’s Department in relation to the overall county budget,” he argued, leaning on data he said showed how the the county’s budget has outpaced the sheriff’s — a point the county’s CEO’s office refuted. “And you’ve exacerbated the issue of us being underfunded. And it’s going to occur every year.”

Villanueva, leaning on state attorney general rulings, said he had more authority over his budget and accused the board of cutting equally across departments instead of thoughtfully assessing the needs of each.

Even though he is an elected department head, supervisors said his authority did not extend to how much county money was spent, and he was even subject to legal consequences if it went too far.

Of all county departments, the sheriff’s is the only one that’s been running year-to-year deficits at a time when — at least prior to the pandemic — the county was in a healthy financial position overall, supervisors said.

As it stands, Villanueva gets the bulk of  the county’s funds — just over $750 million in the current year’s budget.

“Does he thinks it comes out of the blue?” Kuehl asked. “It comes out of the other departments.”

Kuehl urged the elimination of two training academy classes this year, which would save $12 million, and cutting total classes to four next year, which would save another $49 million.

Villanueva pushed back: “Reducing academy classes makes no sense and  is the worst possible decision made in this regard,” he said. Cutting classes and reducing overtime actually increases overtime in the end, he said.

Villanueva also said the department has instituted reforms that have helped cut back on overtime.

As for the prohibition on promotions, the issue came at a sensitive time. Other department’s are looking at cutting as the county faces a $2 billion sales tax revenue shortfall over the next two years.

But Villanueva said the promotions are vital in a department in which people are promoted into positions like sergeant and lieutenant, roles that help supervise deputies in the field and engage the community.

“This means a lot of work is going without  adequate supervision,” he said. “These are core functions of the department in order to provide public safety.”