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Prepare for 21% Cuts, Say Officials

San Bernardino County supervisors expect overall department trims will be about 11%.

March 03, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

To prepare for more state funding cuts, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday ordered each department to plan for a 21% budget cut -- reductions that law enforcement officials said would force them to lay off prosecutors and sheriff's deputies and release more than 800 jail inmates.

But county officials were quick to point out that such drastic cuts would probably be unnecessary. The order was made to help the supervisors decide which agencies could absorb deep cuts and which should be spared.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for next year is expected to cut $56.2 million from San Bernardino County's general fund. County budget officials said they hope to use an expected surplus in local revenue next year to absorb nearly half of those cuts, leaving the county to contend with $24.8 million in reductions, or about 11% of the county budget.

Instead of cutting each department 11%, County Chief Administrative Officer Wally Hill asked each department to draft plans to cut 21%, which will allow the Board of Supervisors more leeway to cut some departments heavily while sparing others. The supervisors will begin considering those cuts in May before adopting an annual budget in June.

The magnitude of the state's cuts could change in the next few months, particularly after Schwarzenegger submits his May budget revisions and members of the state Legislature begin to lobby to save their favorite spending programs.

Regardless of the final cuts, Hill said, it would be difficult for the county to avoid layoffs because 83% of the county's general fund is spent on salaries and benefits. Nearly half of the county's general fund budget goes to fund law enforcement and firefighting.

When the Board of Supervisors tackled the state's budget cuts last year, it mostly spared law enforcement agencies, instead laying off 218 workers primarily within the departments of transitional assistance, public health, child support services and human services. But the board may have a difficult time protecting law enforcement agencies from cuts this year.

Sheriff Gary Penrod and Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos were the only department heads who appealed to the board Tuesday, both arguing that a 21% budget cut would jeopardize public safety and force them to fire hundreds of law enforcement employees.

Penrod said a 21% cut is the equivalent of slashing nearly $19 million from his budget. To do that, he said, he would have to lay off 255 employees, including 117 law enforcement workers. Penrod said the cuts would also force him to release 576 inmates from the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga and 276 prisoners from the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center.

To absorb the cuts, Penrod said, sheriff's deputies would be able to respond only to life-threatening and high-priority calls, ignoring investigation of burglaries and auto thefts. The sheriff also predicted that he would be forced to close or reduce staff at substations in such communities as Phelan, Lucerne Valley and Twin Peaks.

Ramos said a 21% cut in his budget would force him to lay off 30 attorneys.

"It's going to be tough to prosecute," he said.

After the meeting, Penrod said the budget crisis looked dire but that he was optimistic the Board of Supervisors would spare his department from cuts that would force him to lay off deputies and release prisoners.

"I hope the board does the right thing," he said.

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