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State budget cuts may weaken Baca's threat to close a jail

The sheriff made similar threats seven years ago when told to trim his budget. This time, supervisors weigh other factors.

July 04, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has been locked in a budget battle with county supervisors in recent weeks, threatening to close a jail and release prisoners early if he is forced to cut $25 million from his $2.5-billion budget.

Sound familiar?

Baca made similar threats seven years ago when county supervisors -- faced with a recession and statewide budget crunch as they are now -- demanded he cut $70 million from his $1.6-billion budget. The same tactic was employed by his predecessor, Sheriff Sherman Block, in 1995.

Whether the pressure will work this time is not yet clear, as county supervisors weigh their finances against looming cuts from Sacramento.

Baca tried in 2002 to use the specter of closing Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood and releasing inmates early to persuade county supervisors to place a half-cent sales tax for law enforcement on the ballot. He called news conferences, packed supervisors' meetings and drew criticism from judges and prosecutors.

In the end, the supervisors gave Baca more time to repay $12.7 million he had borrowed from the county after spending beyond his budget the year before, but they balked at raising taxes or releasing revenues.

Over the next four years, Baca made good on his threats. He shuttered jails and released nearly 200,000 inmates early, the vast majority after they had served no more than 10% of their sentences.

This time, Baca said, it should be different. The county has more than $190 million in utility tax revenues and can afford to help, the sheriff said.

"That's different than what happened in 2002," Baca said. "In 2002, everyone was under the gun: They were, I was, the state and all local government. This recession has creeped up on us a different way and the county has been prudent in creating a substantial reserve, which we didn't have last time."

Although the county has healthy reserves, county leaders have been cutting back in recent weeks as they brace for massive statewide cuts to health and social services. County supervisors passed a budget last month that required 7% to 15% cuts by all departments. Several departments are still trying to fill millions of dollars in budget shortfalls, including public health and health services.

Baca holds elective office, making his position unusual among county department heads. Although supervisors approve his budget, they have little power over how he spends or cuts.

On Tuesday, Baca agreed to hold off on closing a jail or releasing prisoners until September, but only after a testy exchange with the board.

He first threatened to close the downtown Men's Central Jail in February, complaining of a projected $72-million budget gap. He backed off in April after supervisors proposed cutting only $31.6 million from his budget.

Then last month Baca was asked to cut $25 million more as part of continued countywide belt-tightening, and he sent county supervisors a letter saying he would close the 1,600-bed North Facility on Wednesday. The sheriff said he planned to move the jail's 187 staff to other facilities, transfer some inmates and release others early.

Speaking to the board Tuesday, Baca said he did not want to close the jail. He suggested an alternative: Tap utility user tax revenues to make up the cuts they wanted from his budget.

"You've got to fund it if you don't want it closed," Baca said, criticizing supervisors for "attacking the sheriff's budget."

Supervisor Gloria Molina castigated Baca, accusing him of using the jail closure as a ploy to get more money.

As they did in 2002 when Baca came under fire for buying a $2.4-million jet and for legal expenses they called excessive, supervisors said Tuesday that Baca needs to do more to reduce his expenses. They had some suggestions: Eliminate excessive overtime, cut administrative positions or get rid of his boat patrol in Marina del Rey.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky noted that one deputy last year earned more than $235,000 in salary and overtime.

"You're not the only department that's having to go through this," Molina said. "We're going to look through every bit of your budget. We're in tough times right now."

"Go ahead," Baca shot back.

County supervisors stopped short of calling for an audit of the Sheriff's Department. And they gave some ground, granting Baca at least three more months to work with the county's chief executive on alternatives to jail closures and layoffs.

"I thought the sheriff had realized that's not the way to go, that the board is not intimidated by his threats," Molina said. "I don't know why he always feels like he's being singled out. We have padded his budget. During the good years we have been very generous."

After the meeting, Baca said he agreed to keep the jail open with the understanding that county leaders will allow him to use up to $6 million in surplus money from this year's budget to cover jail costs in the short term. Such surplus money usually reverts to the county's general fund to be distributed among departments.

But William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, said the tax revenues could also be claimed by other department heads who have made deep cuts in recent weeks.

"No one has a lock on that money," Fujioka said.

Baca said county supervisors have given other departments more time to deal with much larger budget shortfalls, such as health services, which still has a $277-million budget gap to fill.

Told that the interim director of health services, John Schunhoff, has yet to publicly threaten to close a hospital or clinic, Baca replied: "Well, he ought to."

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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