Kern County will wage a pitched battle over next year’s fiscal budget for the next two months.
On Tuesday Kern County supervisors approved a placeholder budget that handles this year’s $49 million budget deficit by slashing general fund spending by 5 percent and borrowing from reserves and future fiscal years to cover the rest.
At the core of the debate is whether public safety agencies like the sheriff’s department, fire department and district attorney’s office should take the same level of cuts as the rest of county departments.
Supervisors are in a painful, though familiar, bind with influential public safety leaders saying the proposed cuts would create a crisis for the citizens of the county.
This year’s cut alone could create dramatic impacts on the county’s ability to catch and prosecute criminals, Sheriff Donny Youngblood and District Attorney Lisa Green said.
Fire Chief Brian Marshall said the reductions could result in the layoff of 30 firefighters and a sharp drop in services to the public.
“I cannot, as the Sheriff, provide public safety as we know it with this budget as proposed,” Youngblood said.
“You can’t put a price tag on justice,” Green said.
“We’re putting everything we can into maintaining our firefighting capabilities,” Marshall said.
Supervisors approved the proposed spending plan with the understanding that it is only a preliminary budget — a guide to departments on how they should operated in July and August as a final budget is developed and approved.
“What we’re approving today is not what will be the final budget,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard. “There will be heavy negotiation and a lot of changes before we approve the final budget.”
Supervisors told County Administrative Officer John Nilon to bring them back detailed information about how public safety operations could be protected and how much other departments would have to suffer to keep deputies on the streets, prosecutors in the courtroom and firefighters in the fire house.
“As we move forward we need to look at a way to make cuts that are more reflective of public safety being our top priority,” Maggard said.
That said, Maggard noted, residents want services from Kern County government other than Human Services, mental health and public safety.
Nilon laid out the size of Kern County’s problem early Tuesday morning, kicking off a discussion that didn’t end until after 2 p.m.
For the sheriff’s department the 5 percent cut would take $6.5 million out of Youngblood’s spending pool.
While layoffs of 10 existing deputies could be avoided by reclassifying existing positions, Youngblood said, he would still have to close one-third of the downtown jail, reduce staffing in the gang and narcotics units, fly the surveillance helicopter only three nights a week.
And 14 deputies that are currently in a training academy could lose their spots.
All this, Youngblood said, as the county is facing an explosion of crime with homicides, robberies and assaults. Such violent crimes have dramatically increased over previous years, he said.
Green said the proposed cuts would take her office back to 2008 funding levels even as the volume, severity and length of trials has expanded.
She would have to layoff nine deputy district attorneys and two investigators, Green said.
“We will be slashing the misdemeanor unit by three. We will stop prosecuting certain misdemeanors,” she said. “People will be cited. People will come to court. There will be no case.”
Marshall, of the fire department, talked about closing a fire station in Golden Hills, reducing staffing at a station in Keene, and, on Nov. 30, layoffs that would require the demotions of fire captains and engineers.
“As we eliminate firefighters and we eliminate services and supplies it becomes difficult to keep fire stations open,” Marshall said. “We realize it is very difficult times. Our commitment is to continue to work with the CAO’s office.”
Nilon laid out the consequences if the Supervisors completely protect public safety departments — among the largest departments in the county — from all cuts.
He said 50 percent of the employees associated with children at DHS would be gone. Half the county parks would have to be closed and fenced, and 11 libraries would close.
Supervisors directed Nilon to bring back some detailed information about how the county might defund vacant jobs to help reduce impacts and what the impacts to other departments would be if public safety cuts were only reduced by a percentage point or two.
Public safety employee unions added their voice to the call for funding that would protect their ability to protect the public from crime and fire.
But one speaker brought the supervisor’s dilemma into clear, personal contrast.
Lori Acton, the vice-mayor of Ridgecrest, made a personal appeal to the board to fund public safety.
She has screws in her arm, legs and hips, she said, because “my ex-boyfriend didn’t take kindly to me breaking up to him and he threw me across my kitchen. I’m still trying to prosecute.”
She called for supervisors to protect the district attorney and sheriff’s office budgets.
“We need the prosecutors to put them away. We need to have a place to put them. We need deputies to arrest them,” Acton said.