Riverside County supervisors signaled Tuesday that they’re willing to increase appropriations by $16.9 million to ensure the 2021- 22 fiscal year budget contains greater revenue for sheriff’s patrols, animal control and other operations.
The second hearing on the proposed spending plan was held after the Board of Supervisors conducted its regular Tuesday business and focused on bucket lists submitted by each supervisor, which the Executive Office distilled and returned with final recommendations.
The board is slated to vote on formal adoption of the budget during its June 29 meeting.
County CEO Jeff Van Wagenen said the revised appropriations plan would include an additional $5.5 million for sheriff’s patrol operations in unincorporated areas, partially closing the gap that Sheriff Chad Bianco on Monday told the board would be difficult for him to manage.
“We’re working at an absolute minimum,” he said. “There’s no leeway.”
Van Wagenen said an additional $1 million will also be earmarked for the District Attorney’s Office, which DA Mike Hestrin had requested, noting that he would be returning a $1 million surplus in the current fiscal year but would rather use the funds to cover numerous unfunded state mandates. One is a requirement for prosecutors to review lifetime sex offender registration cases, which now fall under a “tier system,” allowing some convicts to have the designation expunged from their criminal records.
According to the CEO, staff are also recommending a $360,000 allocation to keep the Blythe Animal Shelter running another year, as well as $190,000 for Department of Animal Services Director Julie Bank to hire a new deputy director.
The county closed the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus to save money in the current fiscal year, and shuttering the Blythe facility would create too many complications, opponents argued.
Van Wagenen said the Executive Office is not supportive of a proposal to appropriate more revenue to fully open the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, which Bianco said remains “three-quarters empty” with only one floor occupied by inmates.
The entire jail has been available for a year to house up to 1,200, but funding has been insufficient to pay for the requisite number of correctional deputies and other personnel required to operate the state-of-the- art facility.
Van Wagenen said no additional money should be set aside for improvements to the 300-acre Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center, where the sheriff said many buildings have become “dilapidated.”
The CEO recommended $1 million for improvements to a mobile home park in Oasis that is in a state of decay, or spending the funds for relocation of the residents.
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt pushed for the use of $10 million in discretionary funds to pay down the county’s unfunded pension debt with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which stands at $3.6 billion.
“A budget reflects our priorities, and we’re closing our eyes like we don’t care what happens over the next year or two,” Hewitt said.
The supervisor expressed a belief that inflation, now at an accelerated stage, will escalate to possibly unprecedented levels, prompting the Federal Reserve to steadily hike interest rates to tame the beast, like the late 1970s, and he felt certain the upward spiral of the stock market will turn into a crash.
“That’s will be a big, big whammy,” Hewitt said. “We’re in serious trouble if these things happen. I think $10 million is a nice little start to … show we’re serious.”
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said the county’s main problem is adding people to the payrolls and, therefore, consistently increasing pension liabilities. Supervisor Chuck Washington and board Chair Karen Spiegel deemed using discretionary funds a poor choice, sharing in county Chief Financial Officer Don Kent’s view that a better way to pay down the debt would be using the Pension Liability Trust Fund, which currently contains $50 million.
Kent said the fund is expanding yearly, and the money is available to cover interest and other liability costs, per the board’s direction.
Hewitt remained adamant and voted against moving the final proposed budget to the June 29 meeting.
Van Wagenen acknowledged the proposed overall $6.86 billion spending plan is not perfect but attempts to “align our spending with priorities.”
The fiscal blueprint is about $69 million, or 1%, larger than the 2020- 21 budget.
Officials pointed out that federal infusions provided meaningful offsets to budgetary challenges over the last year.
The county received nearly $500 million under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act of 2020, though some of that money could only be spent on narrow objectives. A total $479 million has been promised under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Half of the sum has already been received, and the other half will be released to the county next spring, Van Wagenen said.
The county’s discretionary revenue is slated to top out at $921 million in 2021-22, compared to about $895 million in the current fiscal year.
The reserve pool is projected to swell to $284 million by the start 2021-22 — $60 million more than what had been predicted last June. However, the Executive Office said some funds will need to be siphoned out of various accounts to meet ongoing needs.