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O.C. sheriff warns more cuts likely next year

Sanda Hutchens, who detailed to the Board of Supervisors $21.6 million in this year's cuts to command staff and other areas, said next year could be worse. Those cuts would hurt public safety, she says.

July 29, 2009|Tami Abdollah

As Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens outlined $21.6 million in department budget cuts -- including an unprecedented layoff of 42% of the command staff -- to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, she also warned that next year's budget would probably be worse.

Hutchens will lay off six of 14 captains and two of four assistant sheriffs to avoid laying off 16 investigators and two sergeants. The move will save the department $2.2 million.

"I believe very strongly that [investigator layoffs] would impact our front-line law enforcement services," she said. "So I have chosen to take the cuts at the top."

In addition, 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 demote themselves to a lower job classification -- potentially forcing out a less senior employee. The restructuring will affect 199 positions to offset the department's $28-million budget shortfall.

Nick Berardino, head of the Orange County Employees Assn., said the reductions further "demonstrate that the safety net for Californians has not just been cut -- it's been ripped to shreds."

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.

The Sheriff's Department shortfall is expected to reach $60 million next year; many of the funds used to plug the initial $53-million gap this year were one-time cuts, such as capital projects, facility repairs and equipment replacement. Hutchens warned that although investigators were spared this time, that would probably not be the case next time.

"We have a new list, which is the C-4 list, which is probably aptly named," she said, referring to an explosive. "And we may get to those investigators at the next round if it comes to that."

She said those cuts would "change the whole structure of the Orange County Sheriff's Department and impact public safety. It's not going to look like the same department."

The department already has the lowest administrative overhead costs of any county department, Hutchens said. To cut $60 million, she said, "We're talking about more jails closing" in addition to more layoffs, "and we're not a county that does early release."

Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said cuts to investigators would "cripple part of the criminal justice system."

"Before we cut core public safety jobs, you've got to trim the fat everywhere else," he said. "The sworn deputy, that's got to be the last thing. You get rid of 16 investigators . . . we're not going to be able to do follow-up investigations. We have the best chance of solving cases within the first 48 hours."

Supervisors sat in hushed silence as Hutchens described the deep cuts to senior staff but eventually commended her efforts to protect the front line. Board Chairwoman Patricia Bates encouraged Hutchens to work with the unions and employees to consider furloughs and pay cuts instead of layoffs. Supervisor Bill Campbell said other county departments needed to be more "aggressive" and follow the sheriff's lead in cutting management.

"Sometimes we get ourselves locked into looking at separate departments and saying you've got to take a 5% cut, or this is happening over here," Campbell said. "What we have to do is try to find money across the county that could be utilized and freed up to support public safety."

Hutchens said she had urged employees considering retirement to do so and save others' jobs. She will personally notify senior staff of layoffs in August; those layoffs will take effect in September.

The department has already done some cost-cutting. 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 throughout the department were eliminated. The department will also conduct fewer autopsies, discontinue gunshot residue testing and stop providing hospital security for cities, according to the department.

The department plans to finalize the proposed cuts next week.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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