Riverside County Supervisors Approve $6.88 Billion Budget for 2021-22

City News Service

In a 4-1 vote, the Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a $6.88 billion budget for Riverside County government in fiscal year 2021-22, incorporating many of the funding increases sought by public safety agencies.

Following budget hearings earlier this month, supervisors generally agreed that $16.9 million in additional allocations would be required to shore up multiple departments, largely in the public safety sphere.

Only Supervisor Jeff Hewitt voted in opposition to the budget, reiterating concerns he expressed on June 15 that insufficient attention was being paid to the county’s $3.6 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

“There’s not even a token sign here of one of our largest priorities,” Hewitt said ahead of the vote. “We need to address this pension crisis a lot more than we’re doing now.”

No discretionary funds have been obligated to slash the county’s pension gap in the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Hewitt had advocated for at least $10 million to be spent on reducing the debt load.

“A budget reflects our priorities, and we’re closing our eyes like we don’t care what happens over the next year or two,” he said previously.

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, and said he felt certain the upward spiral of the stock market will turn into a crash.

He said advancing payments on the county’s debt would save money in the future.

Supervisor Chuck Washington and 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, currently at $50 million.

Spiegel requested a hearing to review the matter further this summer.

The largest increase in the revised appropriations list — $5.5 million — is earmarked for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which needs the funds to sustain patrol staffing in unincorporated communities, according to Sheriff Chad Bianco.

The difference between what the sheriff originally requested and what the Executive Office recommended was almost $20 million, but Bianco said he would find ways to remain lean while fulfilling the department’s responsibilities to the public.

“We’re working at an absolute minimum,” he told the board on June 14.

The sheriff is returning a $15 million surplus to the general fund this fiscal year, which ends Wednesday.

An additional $1 million is going to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, which DA Mike Hestrin had requested, getting back the $1 million surplus that he’d intended to return to the county treasury. The funds will instead help address numerous unfunded state mandates.

Hestrin said 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.

The Riverside County Fire Department will receive $2.5 million more for “surge staffing,” or the ability to have extra personnel available for dispatch to locations countywide during wildfire season.

A previously unplanned $360,000 allocation will help 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 2020-21, and shuttering the Blythe facility would have created too many complications, critics argued during budget hearings.

Animal services has struggled with budget deficits for most of the previous decade, and the current fiscal year was particularly rough as license fee and impoundment revenues plummeted during the COVID public health lockdowns.

The newest feature to the county budget is an Unincorporated Communities Initiative Fund, to which the board allocated $5 million. The impetus behind the set-aside was a countywide survey that led to numerous complaints stating unincorporated areas have been badly underserved.

The fiscal blueprint is about $70 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 almost $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.

The county’s discretionary revenue is estimated 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 at the start 2021-22 — $60 million more than what had been predicted last June. However, the Executive Office said funds will need to be siphoned out of various accounts to meet ongoing needs, likely whittling reserves down to $231 million over the next 12 months.

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