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O.C. sheriff targets top brass with deep cuts

Plan to slash $20.5 million includes captains and assistant sheriffs. Up to 30 people may lose their jobs.

July 28, 2009|Tami Abdollah

After weeks of wrangling, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens will present the Board of Supervisors today with restructuring plans that include $20.5 million in cuts -- the most significant in the department's history.

"These are services that we believe are quite important to maintaining public safety, that we're not just going to be able to continue," sheriff's spokesman John McDonald said. "There's a possibility somebody could get away with murder, but you can only afford what you can afford."

In total, 199 positions would be affected, either by layoffs or demotions.

About 25 to 30 people would lose their jobs. Many employees will be allowed to shift positions to alleviate the department's excessive overtime problem, while others may choose to demote themselves to a lower job classification -- potentially forcing out a less senior employee.

For the first time, the Sheriff's Department has proposed reducing command positions by more than 40%. Those likely to get pink slips are six of 14 captains and two of the four assistant sheriffs, for a saving of $2.2 million.

Because manager positions are not represented by a bargaining unit, and assistant sheriffs are "at-will" employees who fill their jobs at the pleasure of the sheriff, it is unlikely that they will be allowed to demote themselves to remain in the department, said Capt. Jay LeFlore, president of the Assn. of County Law Enforcement Managers.

LeFlore said the association's counsel is looking at whether captains will be allowed to take a demotion. "It could be a situation where those captains' best option is to retire," he said.

Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said he had "never seen cuts this deep in public safety."

The cuts are primarily due to plummeting Proposition 172 sales tax revenue, which funds about 43% of the sheriff's $460-million operating budget in 2009-10. About 30% of the budget is tied to providing contract services to 12 cities.

Hutchens had each division head give her a list of the necessities. "Act like we're beginning this division," she told them. "It's like we're almost deconstructing the department."

The department has already taken some cost-cutting measures. On July 17, the women's jail closed. The north compound of the James A. Musick Jail was closed in March, and 51 vacant positions were eliminated. The department will also conduct fewer autopsies, discontinue gunshot residue testing and stop providing hospital security for cities, according to paperwork delivered to board members late Friday.

Hutchens said she was trying to avoid cutting "someone directly providing public safety services."

Orange County has experienced tight times before. In 1994, the county made history as the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy.

But even then, the budget for law enforcement was never this tight.

"It was just Orange County," Hutchens said recently. "The state was pretty healthy, the feds were pretty healthy. Now you have this cascading effect."

Hutchens said the cuts are likely to be temporary: "It's not something we could sustain more than a couple years."

Two initiatives may help prevent more cuts. One involves bringing in correctional services assistants to help work the jails. Another is working with the federal government to provide beds for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees awaiting deportation.

The Sheriff's Department plans to finalize the proposed cuts by next week.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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