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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Sheriff Asked to Cut $6.5 Million From Budget

Finances: Bob Brooks vows to take his case to supervisors if CAO insists on reduction. It's the first time in years local law enforcement agencies have faced spending cuts.

May 18, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

County chief administrator Harry Hufford has asked Sheriff Bob Brooks to cut $6.5 million from his budget next year, setting the stage for a showdown between the powerful sheriff, Hufford and the Board of Supervisors over control of law enforcement's purse strings.

The sheriff said he is willing to continue negotiating with Hufford on final budget details. But Brooks warned he would take his case directly to supervisors if Hufford insists on the proposed cuts.

Hufford has promised additional significant cuts across all county departments, including more than $660,000 in budget reductions for the district attorney's office. His final proposal to balance the county's $1-billion budget is expected June 13.

Hufford's proposed law enforcement budget cuts represent the first true test of his control over county finances since he became interim chief administrative officer in January. It also marks the first time in at least seven years that county law enforcement agencies have faced any budget reductions.

"It's kind of like bucking the tide and bucking the system," said Penny Bohannon, retired deputy chief administrative officer. "But it's at a time when the economy is good and the county is facing such miserable financial problems that I don't think it's a surprise that he would do this."

The supervisors must now decide whether to stand by their pledge to give Hufford complete authority over all budget matters or continue to exempt Brooks and Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury from the belt-tightening faced by most other county departments.

Supervisor John K. Flynn said Hufford is "the key man" on county finances.

"We have to let him do his work," Flynn said. "I don't want to make him upset."

Brooks said last week that he was given an early copy of Hufford's budget proposal calling for the 4.3% cut in his $150-million annual budget. To meet that goal, Brooks said he would have to trim 90 unfilled positions from his work force.

"This year was a hiring freeze . . . so we deliberately kept our staffing low," Brooks said.

Hufford has requested Brooks eliminate $3 million in salary and benefits from his personnel costs, and also cut $3.5 million in services.

It's too soon to predict whether these cuts, if approved, would result in actual layoffs, Brooks said.

A suggested 1.6% cut in Bradbury's $40-million budget would hamper the department's ability to meet its "core responsibilities," Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said.

The budgets of both law enforcement departments have spiked tremendously over the last seven years. And about 80%, or $70 million, of that overall increase comes from the proceeds of the Proposition 172 half-cent sales tax.

The passage of the statewide measure in 1993 guaranteed millions of dollars to law enforcement in California each year. Those funds have always been considered off-limits by supervisors, Bohannon said.

"There's a majority of board members who have not wanted to touch public safety," she said. "They're in a very difficult position this time."

Brooks said county supervisors agreed to reserve Proposition 172 funds for the county's four law enforcement departments--sheriff, district attorney, fire and probation department--as a funding "safety valve" after massive budget cuts of 1993 forced some jail closures and staff cutbacks.

But money from that source already has been committed to specific needs and cannot be used to make up for budget cuts, he said.

"The Prop. 172 increases for this year have been added to the budget with appropriations," he said. "It's basically like an IOU. . . . That money is already accounted for."

Since passage of Proposition 172, the Sheriff's Department budget has increased 73%, a gain of about $57.5 million, while Bradbury's budget grew 56%, with an increase of $14.3 million since 1993.

In comparison, the county's general fund budget incurred less than half that gain, or a 32% increase, during the same period.

Nevertheless, Brooks said, if the proposed cuts are approved for fiscal 2000-01, they would deny the public "a basic level of service."

Both the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office hope federal and state grants can be secured to fill in the gaps if Hufford's cuts are approved.

"There's not a lot of places for the Sheriff's Department to cut," Brooks said.

He has threatened to take his case to the public, which has repeatedly said public safety is its No. 1 concern.

"The request for service level reduction is something that I would need to take up with the Board of Supervisors," Brooks said.

During the last two weeks, Hufford has met with individual department heads to discuss their budgetary needs and to negotiate the proposed cuts. He would not discuss the total amount of budget cuts he has recommended.

"We've developed a two-part strategy to determine the current level of service and then to see what money is needed to [maintain] that," Hufford said. "This strategy would produce a balanced budget."

Brooks said he hopes his office doesn't have to suffer because "the county has obviously made some mistakes."

"Nobody wants taxpayers to feel the brunt of that," he said. "So we're doing everything we can to avoid that. Budgets are ultimately political decisions."

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