UPDATE: Board to Consider $8.6 Billion Budget for 2023-24

City News Service Pristine Villarreal

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Riverside County public safety officials Monday sought appropriations in the proposed 2023-24 budget that exceed the Executive Office’s recommendations, while underscoring their spending discipline in the current fiscal year, with at least one agency head vowing to end the year with a surplus.

“We started the year with a structural deficit, but we overcame that with major attrition,” Sheriff Chad Bianco told the Board of Supervisors during the first public hearing on the 2023-24 budget. “We’re on track to end 2022-23 with a balanced budget.”

Bianco said the sheriff’s department has netted success on the hiring front, while also saving money, by attracting ever-increasing “lateral hires,” or sworn law enforcement officers from other agencies who require a quarter of the time to prepare for field deployments compared to new recruits. The sheriff said 167 laterals had been added to the ranks in the current fiscal year.

Bianco is seeking $1.022 billion in appropriations, though the Executive Office is recommending that the board limit the sheriff to $1.01 billion in expenditures. The agency’s current fiscal year budget, adopted last June, totaled $942 million.

The sheriff said among the higher costs built into next year’s budget is an “enhanced management” policy that will put lieutenants in station-based supervisory roles, ensuring more sergeants are “out in the field with deputies.”

He also wants to establish a permanent “problem-oriented policing” team to handle noise and party complaints, particularly on the weekends, largely in the unincorporated mountain communities and the Temecula Valley, where the majority of short-term rental properties in the county are located. Four deputies would be dedicated to the POP unit.

The sheriff did not request additional funds to fully open the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, where just under 400 inmate beds are in use, out of a potential 1,600 available at the state-of-the-art facility.

Bianco said that recruiting efforts have led to a bumper crop of applicants, to the point they’re now being turned away.

“The sheriff’s department is in a good place,” he said.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin requested $2.5 million more in the agency’s proposed budget than recommended by the executive office, bringing his total ask to $191.14 million.

Hestrin listed a number of challenges weighing on the D.A.’s office, including an ongoing departure of personnel, largely through retirements. The agency is down to 234 prosecutors — the lowest number in the last decade. The average caseload per deputy district attorney is 100. Hestrin said the goal is to cut that in half.

He said the state Legislature’s mandates in recent years have stacked layers of new responsibilities onto D.A.’s offices statewide, and Riverside County is among those bearing a heavy burden.

Examples include the California Racial Justice Act, as amended under Assembly Bill 256, which provides avenues for a defendant serving time in prison or jail to petition courts for retrial or re-sentencing based on even faint evidence of racial bias exhibited by judges, jurors, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and others involved in the original conviction; and Assembly Bill 2169, which permits individuals to petition for nullification of their convictions if they can prove they were victims of human trafficking at the time they committed their nonviolent offense.

“Prosecutors are having to go back and look at these old cases to comply with these legal mandates,” Hestrin said.

He said that he wants to establish a full-time call center to assist members of the community in need of assistance from the D.A.’s office, as well as make 15 temporary employees permanent.

“The workload is overwhelming for our attorneys, and we’ve got to get them some support,” he said.

The agency is on track to end the fiscal year with a $1 million surplus.

Fire Chief Bill Weiser originally sought $537 million in appropriations, with the executive office recommending $457.3 million. The current year budget is $443.4 million. Weiser told the board that he could make do with $6.1 million in additional funding.

Some of the budgetary requirements include expansion of the hazardous materials unit, the ongoing conversion of three fire stations from wildland outposts to municipal stations and bulking up staff at the Cabazon and French Valley stations to ensure a higher level of “surge staffing” is available for Wildfire Season between July and November.

“It’ll add that extra horsepower we’ll probably need to get through fire season,” he told the board.

All of the requests will be entertained between now and the date for tentative adoption of the 2023-24 budget on June 27.

County CEO Jeff Van Wagenen said the proposed $8.6 billion budget “creates the opportunity to enhance the efforts of our departments providing vital programs for our constituents countywide.”

“While we hold optimism for what lies ahead, it is crucial to acknowledge the ongoing challenges that persist in our path,” he cautioned. “The long-term economic forecast remains unclear, and we are beginning to see local revenue growth slow and flatten.”

The proposed budget is roughly 15% larger than the current year’s budget of $7.45 billion. Close to half of the appropriations are comprised of state and federal “pass-through” funds, over which the board has little to no control.

One of the highlights in the roughly 1,000-page budget report was the projection for reserve funds to reach $555 million by the end of 2023-24, compared to an estimated $537 million reserve pool at the close of the current fiscal year on June 30.

Copyright 2023, City News Service, Inc.

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